Security

Hacktivism erupts in response to Hamas-Israel war

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An member of the Israeli security forces stands close to a car hit by a rocket fired from Gaza, in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, on October 9, 2023. Stunned by the unprecedented assault on its territory, a grieving Israel has counted over 700 dead and launched a withering barrage of strikes on Gaza that have raised the death toll there to 493 according to Palestinian officials. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Image Credits: ACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images / Getty Images

Several groups of hacktivists have targeted Israeli websites with floods of malicious traffic following a surprise land, sea and air attack launched against Israel by militant group Hamas on Saturday, which prompted Israel to declare war and retaliate.

Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post reported Monday that since Saturday morning its website was down “due to a series of cyberattacks initiated against us.”

At the time of writing, the paper’s website still appeared down.

Rob Joyce, director of cybersecurity at the National Security Agency, reportedly said at a conference on Monday that there have been denial of service (DDoS) attacks and defacements of websites, without attributing the cyberattacks to particular groups.

“But we’re not yet seeing real [nation] state malicious actors,” Joyce reportedly said.

It is common for hacktivist groups to launch cyberattacks during armed conflict, similar to what happened in Ukraine. These hackers are often not affiliated with any governments but rather a decentralized group of politically motivated hackers. Their activities can disrupt websites and services, but are far more limited compared to the activities of nation-state hacking groups. Researchers and government agencies like the NSA say they have only seen activity by hacktivists so far in this Hamas-Israel conflict.

The NSA and the Israel’s Consulate General in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Joyce’s remarks appear to confirm findings of security researcher Will Thomas, who told TechCrunch that he has seen more than 60 websites taken down with DDoS attacks, and more than five websites that were defaced as of Monday.

“The thing that has surprised me about the hacktivism surrounding this conflict is the amount of international groups involved, such as those allegedly from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Morocco all also targeting Israel in support of Palestine. We also seen long-time threat actors returning who have participated in attacks and spread them using the hashtag #OpIsrael for years,” Thomas said in an online chat.

Thomas, who is a cyber threat intelligence researcher at the Equinix Threat Analysis Center, wrote on X, previously Twitter, that pro-Palestinian hacktivists have targeted government websites, civil services, news sites, financial institutions and telecommunications and energy companies.

According to Thomas, hacktivist groups are not the only ones active in the conflict.

“I have seen several posts of cybercriminal service operators such as DDoS-for-Hire or Initial Access Brokers offering their services to those wanting to target Israel or Palestine,” he said.

Initial access brokers are groups that have breached websites and networks, and offer access to other hackers in exchange for payment.

These kinds of cyberattacks can have a narrow impact on the armed conflict, according to Lukasz Olejnik, an independent researcher and consultant.

“Such hacktivist groups have limited practical ability to conduct any measurable cyber-activities. The effects would be quite low, and considering all that’s happening — the impact would be limited, or none even. In other words, a distraction (or an information influence),” Olejnik told TechCrunch.

The cyberattacks in the Israel-Hamas war come less than a week after the International Committee of the Red Cross published a list of rules that it said should govern the activities of hacktivists in military conflicts. One of them is that these groups should not hit civilian targets.

Following the ICRC’s announcement, hacktivists defaced the website of Russia’s Red Cross.

On Saturday, Palestinian militants associated with Hamas launched a surprise attack from Gaza, a small Palestinian enclave inside Israel. Hamas militants bulldozed barricades, infiltrating bordering Israeli towns, and killing more than 700 people. In response to the attacks, which are considered the worst in 50 years, the Israeli government formally declared war and retaliated by bombarding Gaza, leaving more than 400 people dead, according to The Associated Press.

Since 2007, Gaza has been blockaded by Egypt and Israel, preventing imports of some goods and isolating the territory. Gaza sits on the Mediterranean Sea and borders Egypt. Around two million people live in the territory, which is slightly bigger than Washington, D.C., according to the CIA World Factbook.

Since 2007, Hamas and Israel have been involved in several conflicts.

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