Homegrown hackers downing Palestinians’ Internet access
Internecine Internet trouble

Homegrown hackers downing Palestinians’ Internet access

PA has been having server trouble for months, but the culprits are not the usual suspects

A man in Hebron watches the news on his computer. (photo credit: Najeh Hashlamoun /Flash 90)
A man in Hebron watches the news on his computer. (photo credit: Najeh Hashlamoun /Flash 90)

A cyber-war is raging, with hackers stealing credit card information, Facebook credentials, and whatever else they can get their hands on. Israel, Iran, and the US are among the primary players in this online drama. But surprisingly, the Palestinian Authority says, someone is gunning for its servers, too.

And even more surprisingly, the culprits, according to PA officials themselves, are not necessarily from Israel. In fact, some experts say, the PA’s hacking problems are all home-grown — as groups tired of what they consider Mahmoud Abbas’s continued heavy-handed rule make their discontent known.

The attacks have been going on for months, according to PA officials. Hackers have tried numerous methods to disrupt PA communications since last November, when the attacks began in earnest. Hackers have tried DOS (denial of service) attacks, in which they attacked servers with massive amounts of data to strangle them, as well as actual takeovers of servers, when they replaced web pages and erased data. In addition, the PA has complained that unknown parties have vandalized its long-distance phone lines and the cables that enable Internet access to the outside world.

Palestinian students use new laptops at a UN school in Gaza (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90)
Palestinian students use new laptops at a UN school in Gaza (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90)

The PA has not officially accused Israel of carrying out these attacks, instead simply reporting the incidents. However, official PA statements stress that Israel has a stranglehold on the PA’s Internet communications — which is actually an inaccurate portrayal of the situation, because some of the PA’s Internet connection is supplied by Jordan.

But PA officials have dropped broad hints about an Israel connection. Last November, for example, PA officials noted that the attacks coincided with the Authority’s joining of UNESCO — a move that distressed Israel and presumably gave Israeli hackers incentive to damage the PA in some way. In an interview with Reuters, Mashour Abu Daqqa, the PA telecommunications minister, said that he had “no idea” who was attacking the PA’s servers, but that “all Palestinian IP addresses have been exposed to a focused, organized attack from abroad. I think this is organized by a state.”

However, the latest round of attacks, which began several weeks ago, has been even more intense — and shows all the signs of being home-grown, according to reports in the PA media. According to Abu Daqaa, hackers have been using servers from around the world to invade the PA’s servers. “These attacks are not designed to steal private information from individuals or companies, but to paralyze the servers of Palestine and to disrupt the lives of Palestinians,” he said.

Official PA news agency Ma’an quoted Abu Daqqa on Saturday as saying that the PA had traced attacks last week to servers in Italy — and that the attacks were being coordinated by “cyber-activists” from within the PA itself. Ma’an also quoted PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’s communications adviser Sabri Saidam as saying that the hackers had “changed their tactics” in recent days — and were seeking to overwhelm PA servers by sending “millions of email messages,” Ma’an quoted him as saying. And while Saidam did not refer to the nature of the spam, it could be assumed that at least some of it is in Arabic — not the kind of spam Israelis are likely to send.

So who are these “Palestinian hackers” who have managed to take down the PA’s computer systems? Actually, there are numerous candidates — for example, some bloggers have pointed the finger at Iran and Hamas, who are interested in causing trouble for the Fatah-controlled Authority. But it appears that there is a full-fledged youth hacktivist movement among Palestinian youths — and it’s the PA they are angry at.

According to several Israeli bloggers who keep a close watch on PA doings, a battle has been brewing between groups critical of Abbas, who say he is heavy-handedness and undemocratic (his term expired three years ago, and he is currently “President by acclamation,” or default, much to the chagrin of many Palestinians, who really would like to give democracy a shot). The PA has attacked — and hacked — sites that are critical of Abbas, and apparently the hack victims are giving Abbas a taste of his own medicine, according to the bloggers, quoting PA sources. Israel, it appears, is sitting this cyber-battle out.

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