You are currently viewing Cyberattacks in the Middle East: a first step towards a “cyber-physical” conflict?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a long-standing dispute between Israel and Palestinians, mainly over land and political status. The origins of the conflict date back to the early 20th century. In recent months, this conflict has taken on a new twist, as it is no longer being fought solely on the physical terrain, but also in the cyberspace. 

Historical background 

Since the 20th century, the conflict has gone through several phases, notably the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. A war followed the establishment of Israel, resulting in the flight and movement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Since then, the conflict has spawned several wars, cycles of violence, peace negotiations and attempts at mediation by the international community. 

Some agreements (such as the Oslo Accords) have been signed to regulate the violence and ease tensions. However, all these efforts have been hampered by persistent differences and acts of violence. Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, considered illegal by most of the international community, have been a constant source of tension. 

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has long been a global concern, due to its impact on regional stability and human rights. Recently, this conflict has taken a new turn, once again entering a wave of violence between the two sides. As a result, some fifteen cybercriminal groups have announced their involvement in cyberattacks against Israel or Palestine, countries that have been in a conflict once again since October 7, 2023. However, most of them claim to have directed their attacks against Israeli institutions. 

Massive attacks on Israel

The Middle East is the scene of rising tensions linked to cybersecurity. Indeed, since the start of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, cyberattacks have been raging. Since the beginning of the conflict, activists have targeted institutional and media sites. Many Russian-backed groups are targeting Israeli government systems.

On October 8, Killnet (proclaiming itself to be pro-Russian) used the dreaded Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) technique to overwhelm the websites of the Israeli government and the Shin Bet domestic intelligence service. The Shin Bet is the country’s domestic intelligence agency responsible for Israel’s internal security, counter-terrorism and intelligence gathering related to potential threats to national security. It works in close collaboration with security agencies such as the Mossad (foreign intelligence service) and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Given the institution’s secret missions (aimed at countering terrorist threats and protecting Israel’s internal security), attacks against it could have disastrous consequences for the country. The group justifies its attacks by holding Israel responsible for the conflict and accusing it of supporting Ukraine and NATO. 

It is not, however, the only group wreaking havoc in Israel. Anonymous Sudan (a group of religiously and politically motivated activists from Sudan who organize denial-of-service attacks) is also positioning itself as a supporter of Russia, and has claimed responsibility for attacks on The Jerusalem Post news site, claiming to support the “Palestinian resistance.”

The arrival of this new battleground in cyberspace comes against a backdrop of wider conflicts. Israel recently claimed to have thwarted a Hamas computer attack in Gaza. For the first time, the response to a cyberattack was “traditional”. The state is the first to have used conventional military force in response to a cyberattack. The Israeli army targeted a building in Gaza which, according to the Israeli government, housed Hamas members specialized in computer attacks. Aerial images of the attack show a building in Gaza partially engulfed in flames. This response raises many questions as to its legitimacy. 

A new dynamic in the conflict opens up a whole new field of legal questions 

The response in the physical world suggests a new dynamic in the way nations react to attacks in cyberspace.

Experts in international law point out that this situation raises unprecedented legal questions. Can a computer attack justify a physical counter-attack as part of self-defence? 

According to some, the criteria of immediacy, necessity and proportionality, if respected, can make such a response legitimate. In this case, it is important to know whether Israel’s military response was disproportionate or not.

Hostilities such as they present themselves raise a number of legal and ethical questions. 

Are attacks in cyberspace comparable to attacks in the physical world? When lives are at stake, does the protection of state/private information legitimize physical retaliation?  

The physical response to attacks carried out in cyberspace opens up new and unglamorous prospects for present and future conflicts. It’s important to be concerned about this situation, which risks being reproduced on a much wider scale.

M2 Cyberjustice – Promotion 2023-2024. 


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A propos de Dunice DAIGRIER

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