Digital jihad: Palestinian resistance in the information age

Digital jihad: Palestinian resistance in the information age
Comment: How do Palestinian hacktivists operate, and how does hacktivism form part of the Palestinian resistance? Erik Skare, author of the book Digital Jihad explains.
6 min read
03 Feb, 2017
The '#Op_Israel' campaign launched by the activist group Anonymous in Gaza City, 2013 [AFP]
On 16 October 2012 a group of Palestinian activists sit down and block route 443, the route between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

For 30 minutes the group manages to block the route until Israeli police officers remove them, and during the attempt to do so, one of the organizers of the protest states that as long as the Palestinians are suffering under occupation, Israeli daily life will not continue as usual.

The same year, a series of Israeli websites are hacked by the Palestinian hacktivist group Gaza Hacker Team, as they protest the treatment of the Palestinian prisoners who are conducting a campaign of hunger strike. Conducting a "defacement" - changing the visual content of the hacked Israeli websites - Gaza Hacker Team presents the message:

"Our prisoners are our honesty, we will not forget their sacrifice for us and for Palestine". Moreover, every Palestinian prisoner has to be released in order to "save your security".

Why have I introduced this article with these two snapshots of Palestinian action against the Israeli occupation – one in the physical realm, and the other in the digital?

Initially, it would seem that these are different means of dissent: Activists conducting demonstrations in the street and facing Israeli soldiers, versus Palestinian computer brainiacs sitting in front of their computers isolated from the rest of the world.

We have witnessed the emergence of several Palestinian and Arab hacktivist groups such as Gaza Hacker Team, KDMS Team and Anonymous Arab

Or, perhaps, it could instead be perceived as the legitimate act of protesting in the streets versus the illegal theft of access to someone's digital property, as some would perceive it. Instead I would argue that the essence of these acts is surprisingly similar.

"We want to deliver a message to the world"

One of the first instances of an Israeli-Arab flare-up in cyberspace can be traced back to around the year 2000 when Israeli hackers crippled the website of Hizballah by means of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks. Since then we have witnessed the emergence of several Palestinian and Arab hacktivist groups such as Gaza Hacker Team, KDMS Team and Anonymous Arab, to mention a few.

While most of them have focused their attention on the Israeli websites and cyber-infrastructure, others (for example, KDMS Team) have hacked solely western ones (such as the websites of the instant-messaging application WhatsApp, AVG anti-virus and the web-analysis company Alexa) to spread awareness about the Palestinian cause.

  Read more: Rejecting Hamas and the PA: Palestinians need mass-mobilisation

Whereas KDMS Team in an interview simply stated that "We hack foreign sites to deliver a message to the world", Gaza Hacker Team operates with much more militarised symbolism and rhetoric - stating that their goal is to disrupt the normality of Israeli daily lives, spread awareness of the Palestinian cause and to inflict economic damage.

For both of these groups, which are the most discussed of the Palestinian hacktivist teams in the book Digital Jihad, DDoS-attacks and defacements are the most common means employed.

Defacements usually involve hijacking the homepage of a site and overlaying it with a message demanding the end of the Israeli occupation with pictures from Gaza.

DDoS-attacks, on the other hand, could be compared to that of pouring water down a funnel. If you have several glasses of water and pour them down one by one, everything will be fine. But if you pour down all the water at once, it will inevitably overflow, because the funnel cannot handle the volume. The same applies for DDoS when thousands of computers are sending so many requests simultaneously that the server cannot handle them all.

Instead of landing on the usual homepage, visitors are likely to be met with the message "The page you are looking for is currently unavailable".

Whereas the goal of sit-in demonstrations is to limit the access to public space, the goal of a DDoS attacks is to limit access to a digital space

So, to return to the introduction, how are Palestinian hacktivism and activism on the ground related? Or rather, how are Palestinian sit-in demonstrations related to Palestinian hacktivist campaigns such as DDoS-attacks?

Firstly, by sitting down in the middle of the road, the Palestinian activists effectively managed to block the access of drivers and passengers to a public, physical realm; mainly Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and any other stop on the way.

This draws a striking parallel with DDoS attacks in the digital sphere, which also hinder access to a particular physical or digital site.

Whether it is your online bank account which you cannot access because the website of the bank has been brought down by hackers, or you are unable to access the bank in its physical manifestation because you simply cannot reach it when the road has been blocked, these are in their essence, qualitatively similar actions.

Whereas the goal of sit-in demonstrations is to limit the access to public space, the goal of a DDoS attacks is to limit access to a digital space.

(Cyber) terrorist or activist?

So why is the emphasis on similarity instead of distinctiveness so important when we analyse Palestinian hacktivism?

First of all, if we choose to assess Palestinian resistance as being various means employed against the Israeli occupation, determined by specific historical conditions, then we see that hacktivism a priori fits within its narrative, history and semantics.

That is to say, Palestinian hacktivism is a means to challenge the occupation and occupier in the digital sphere, either by raising the awareness of the international community or by breaching the normality of Israeli daily lives.

The Palestinian hacktivist teams consider their actions to be a part of a resistance. There is no reason that we should not

In other words, Palestinian hacktivism attempts to disrupt and interfere with the occupation, with the goal of ending the situation on the ground in occupied Palestine.

Secondly, to understand hacktivism as something separate from daily life - we are in danger of mystifying the concept of hacktivism to such an extent that it does not carry any meaning beyond sabotage.

As Sandor Vegh points out in his doctoral thesis on the internet's impact on democracy, dismissing hacktivism as cyber-vandalism or cyberterrorism will on the contrary, lead to a state where progressives are being pushed, socially and politically, further into the periphery where the internet is essentially their only opportunity to be heard.

For example, it should be emphasised that "cyberterrorism" is purely hypothetical, as it has never been done in the history of hacking.

Just as there is an academic and popular struggle for the hegemony of defining "terrorism", there are necessarily disputing and conflicting narratives where Israel will see any attacks as "cyberterrorism", while the Palestinians in most cases will consider it their natural right to resist the occupation.

The Palestinian hacktivist teams consider their actions to be a part of a resistance. There is no reason that we should not.

Erik Skare is a PhD Fellow at the Institute for Cultural Studies and Oriental Languages at the University of Oslo. He is the author of the book Digital Jihad: Palestinian Resistance in the Digital Era (2016) published by Zed Books.

Follow him on Twitter: @ErikSkare 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.