Israel sets precedent by launching air strike against Hamas hackers

Israel Defense Forces yesterday acknowledged launching an air strike last Saturday against a building that it says housed Hamas cyber forces that had recently attempted a failed offensive operation against Israeli targets.

Observers are calling the bombing response unprecedented, as there is no other known case of a country executing a physical attack against an enemy in direct, immediate retaliation for an offensive cyber operation.

"We thwarted an attempted Hamas cyber offensive against Israeli targets. Following our successful cyber defensive operation, we targeted a building where the Hamas cyber operatives work," Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said in a May 5 tweet that featured an aerial shot of the targeted building. "HamasCyberHQ.exe has been removed."

IDF officials did not specify the nature of the attack that they said provoked the military response.

In 2015, the U.S. launched a drone strike that killed British-born ISIS hacker Junaid Hussain several weeks after he had posted personal data belonging to American service members. However, that was more of a planned strategic operation to take down a targeted individual, as opposed to an immediate counterstrike following a cyberattack.

Cyber and defense experts have long debated how best to respond to cyberattacks launched by nation-states or terrorist groups, including whether or not to "hack back" or treat such assaults as an act of warfare. Some like Microsoft President Brad Smith have called for world governments to create a “Digital Geneva Convention” that lays out ground rules for defending civilians from cyberattacks.

In this instance at least, Israel's military leadership saw fit to act with force, as part of a larger overall military response to deadly clashes with Gaza militants that began Saturday morning.

Prior to reaching a cease-fire on Monday, Israel reportedly struck hundreds of targets in Gaza amidst claims that militants launched more than 600 rockets toward Israel. At least four Israelis and 23 Palestinians were reportedly killed in the fighting.

"This is certainly a significant evolution in how states deal with hackers. With that said, it should not be that surprising," said Tim Maurer, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and co-director of its Cyber Policy Initiative. "For years, governments including the U.S. government have explicitly stated that they will treat the effects of cyberattacks the same way as conventional attacks. So if the effect of a cyberattack is similar to that of a physical attack, the response will also be similar."

"In other words, there is a lot of confusion when people talk about 'cyber deterrence,' ​often implying it will be limited to cyberspace," continued Maurer. "The actions of the IDF demonstrate that states actually look at the full tools at their disposal."

Bradley Barth

As director of multimedia content strategy at CyberRisk Alliance, Bradley Barth develops content for online conferences, webcasts, podcasts video/multimedia projects — often serving as moderator or host. For nearly six years, he wrote and reported for SC Media as deputy editor and, before that, senior reporter. He was previously a program executive with the tech-focused PR firm Voxus. Past journalistic experience includes stints as business editor at Executive Technology, a staff writer at New York Sportscene and a freelance journalist covering travel and entertainment. In his spare time, Bradley also writes screenplays.

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