All’s fair in cyberwar: 6 things to know for May 20
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All’s fair in cyberwar: 6 things to know for May 20

As an Israeli-Iranian hacking fight emerges from the shadows, pundits predict it’s a sign of things to come and link shutdown of Iranian port to Pompeo’s surprise Jerusalem visit

The Shahid Rajaee port facility near the Iranian coastal city of Bandar Abbas. (Iran Ports and Maritime Organization)
The Shahid Rajaee port facility near the Iranian coastal city of Bandar Abbas. (Iran Ports and Maritime Organization)

1. Seeing red: Israel is hardly being coy on its purported involvement in the cyber attack on an Iranian port in response to a similar attempted hack by the Islamic Republic on Israel’s water infrastructure, with the IDF chief of staff, in remarks Tuesday, hinting strongly at Jerusalem’s role. Pundits in the Hebrew-language dailies are linking US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s whirlwind visit this month to the attack, and warning of a new-old cyber war between Jerusalem and Tehran.

  • Writes Alex Fishman in Yedioth Ahronoth: “One need only put the pieces of the puzzle in place. On May 7, a rare security cabinet meeting discussed cyberwarfare, and a day later the US State Department announced Pompeo’s surprise visit to Israel. On May 9, Israel attacks — according to the Iranians themselves — the Shahid Rajaee port. We can also add the 10th of the month, when [an Iranian] naval missile strayed off course and sank an Iranian ship during a naval drill.”
  • Fishman cites Israeli officials who say the Iranian attack on Israel’s water infrastructure last month, though it caused no real damage, set off “red alarms” in Jerusalem, which has long touted its cyber prowess yet seemingly left its civilian infrastructure exposed. Similar attacks by Iranian hackers have been ongoing since February, he writes, prompting Israel to flex its cyber muscles. The Iranian attack, he posits, comes in response to losses in Syria, where Israeli strikes have beaten back its allied forces and undermined its arming capabilities.
  • “For the Americans, it seems, the timing was not suitable. Israel has responded, as of now, based on reports in Iran and the US, with a partial shutdown of the Iranian port. This is what the next chapters of the war will look like: Ports will be paralyzed, missiles will be knocked off course, electricity and telecommunications infrastructure will collapse,” he writes, adding that the Israeli-Iranian cyber war has been ongoing for two decades.
  • In Israel Hayom, analyst Yoav Limor describes the tit-for-tat cyber attacks as the first volley in a new cyber war.
  • He writes that the Iranian attack on Israel’s water system, though unsuccessful, “may have been an attempt to insert chemicals into the water supply, which is akin to a biological attack.”
  • “It seems the sides have now taken it up a notch. If until now, the attacks attributed to Israel and Iran focused on military-security installations, the public shift to civilian infrastructure places us in a far more explosive situation. Therefore, one can relate to the report yesterday as the moment the first cyber war officially began.”
  • Haaretz’s Amos Harel, in a front-page analysis, writes: “The leak to the Washington Post does not seem to be a coincidence. Someone in the US or in Israel wanted to make this public in order to strengthen the message to Iran, that attacking civilian installations is a red line and that the damage they can expect in a cyberattack could be greater than what they can inflict on their adversaries.
  • “The exchange of cyber blows is happening along with a reported increase in the number of Israeli airstrikes against Iranian forces and Shi’ite militias in Syria. It’s possible that Iran found itself at a disadvantage in the face of these attacks, particularly after the American assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani last January, choosing to expand the front and engage in cyberwarfare.”
  • Separately, he adds that the United States, and specifically Pompeo during his visit, is seeking to insert a wedge between Jerusalem and Beijing, saying Israel’s careful balancing act of maintaining good ties with both countries “will no longer suffice.”
  • “The Trump administration is now expected to demand a wider commitment, particularly ahead of the presidential election… In choosing between China and the US, there is really no contest. Dependence on the Americans is almost absolute. And Israel has a further, immediate reason, not to anger Trump. If American companies are the first to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus, a huge global demand is expected. It’s likely that the administration will wield great influence on prioritizing the supply of the vaccine to other countries.”

2. Master of bark: If the Palestinian Authority president says his agreements with Israel and the United States are now void in the face of talk of annexation, and no one reacts, did it really happen? Mahmoud Abbas’s latest speech is met with little more than a shrug in Israel.

  • In a speech to Palestinian leaders in Ramallah, Abbas also said Israel would have to assume responsibility for the civilian Palestinian population.
  • Eitan Dangot, a former general who once headed the Defense Ministry body for coordinating with the Palestinians, tells Army Radio: “He’s just ratcheting up the threat level. Abbas won’t take a practical step, and is trying to put pressure on Israel.”
  • An analyst for the station notes that the timing of the announcement — during Ramadan — and Abbas’s relatively jolly tone also do not line up with the seriousness of such a move.
  • The Kan public broadcaster’s Gal Berger reports that Abbas instructed Palestinian security to stop its coordination with Israel, but notes on Twitter that it remains unclear if ties will really be severed.
  • Abbas has made dozens of similar threats in the past.

3. Back to business: With virus stats still low, Israel is continuing to ease its lockdown restrictions.

  • On Wednesday, beaches officially opened, though the shores have been full for some time now.
  • Synagogues, mosques and churches were also allowed to resume services.
  • Restaurants, bars, nightclubs, swimming pools and hotels are set to reopen next Wednesday.
  • All of the openings are conditioned on hygiene and social distancing restrictions.

4. Of the people, not for the people: Meanwhile, lawmakers were scheduled to waste millions more in taxpayer funds with the advancement of amendments to the so-called Norwegian Law, which will see another dozen MKs enter the Knesset as the members of the bloated cabinet resign from their lawmaking duties (and continue as ministers).

  • But the much-criticized bill is pulled from the agenda at the last minute, reportedly amid disagreements between coalition parties.
  • The bill was supposed to be the first act of business for the new unity government, even as the country suffers economically due to the coronavirus.

5. The premier’s plea: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to go on trial next week on corruption charges, but his lawyers are asking that he be exempted from attending the opening hearing. The prosecution has objected to the request, and the final decision rests with the court.

  • “Netanyahu, show up in court,” Haaretz’s editorial headline reads.
  • “Nothing could have been more predictable than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request not to go to court for the first day of his trial on Sunday. From the moment suspicions were raised against him, all along the road to court, he has never missed an opportunity to demand special treatment from the law, as befitting someone who is outstandingly unique in his own eyes,” the paper writes.
  • The pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom, meanwhile, continues to play up recordings from the so-called Harpaz Affair between now-Attorney General Avichai Mandleblit and current Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. Channel 13 news presenter Ayala Hasson earlier this month claimed to have knowledge of concerns that Mandelblit may have helped former IDF Chief Ashkenazi obfuscate his role in the sordid case. Tapes of their conversations exist, but are under gag order.
  • Former justice minister Moshe Nissim, who was on the panel that appointed Mandelblit as attorney general, tells the paper that had he known of the alleged tapes, Mandelblit may not have been chosen.

6. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the classroom: In a comforting sign of normalcy, the press also focuses on an issue that crops up every summer: Dress codes in schools that prevent girls from wearing short shorts.

  • The latest protest comes at a school in Ra’anana, as Israel suffers through an unseasonable week-long heatwave, with temperatures rising above 100°F in much of the country.
  • Media outlets also spotlight the story of a second-grade girl in Petah Tikva who came to school wearing a sleeveless dress, which was apparently against the dress code. According to the reports, the teacher was angered by her outfit and forced her to change into a school T-shirt, but no bottom — leaving the humiliated 7-year-old in her underwear for the entire school day.
  • “She spent the whole day in class in her underwear… and the children laughed at her,” the girl’s mother tells Channel 12. “It’s unclear what the teacher’s intention was. Just yesterday, it was reported that girls were taken out of class for wearing shorts, and my daughter was left in her underwear. It’s unbelievable.”
  • An attorney for the family says a police complaint has been filed.
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