IDF chief hints at Israel’s role in cyberattack on Iranian port
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'Enemy will find it's turned home front into fighting front'

IDF chief hints at Israel’s role in cyberattack on Iranian port

Amid reports of Israeli hacking, Kohavi says military will use ‘various military tools’ against its enemies, also appears to confirm Jerusalem behind recent airstrikes in Syria

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at a Home Front Command ceremony on May 19, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at a Home Front Command ceremony on May 19, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

Army chief Aviv Kohavi on Tuesday hinted at Israel’s role in a cyberattack on an Iranian port facility earlier this month, saying the Israel Defense Forces would continue to use “various military tools” against the country’s enemies.

In a speech at a ceremony marking a changing of commander in the IDF Home Front Command, Kohavi did not directly refer to Monday’s Washington Post report that Israel brought down the Shahid Rajaee port’s computer systems, causing a total shutdown of the facility, on May 9, but seemed to allude to it.

“We will continue to use various military tools and specialized fighting techniques to harm the enemy,” Kohavi said.

While it is not irregular for politicians to insinuate Israeli involvement in attacks on Iran and terror groups, it is less common for senior IDF officers to do the same, maintaining a policy of ambiguity regarding the military’s activities abroad.

The army chief also appeared to confirm that Israel was behind a series of recent airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria.

“Dozens of attacks that were carried out, including recently, have already proven the superiority of the IDF’s intelligence and firepower,” Kohavi said, without identifying where those attacks took place.

Illustrative. An IDF soldier from the C4I Corps types on a computer. (Israel Defense Forces)

The army chief made his remarks at a ceremony marking the end of the tenure of outgoing IDF Home Front Command chief Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai and the entrance of his successor Maj. Gen. Uri Gordin to the position.

Israel has refused to officially comment on the Washington Post report, which cited US and foreign officials as saying Israel was likely behind a computer attack that forced the port to shut down suddenly on May 9.

The attack was apparently in response to an alleged Iranian attempt to hack into Israel’s water infrastructure system.

Israel’s high-level security cabinet held a secret meeting to discuss a response to the hack attack on May 7, according to Channel 13 news, regarding the attempt to damage its water system, a non-military target, as crossing a red line.

In his speech, Kohavi defended targeting civilian infrastructure in airstrikes, saying that this was permitted given the fact that Israel’s enemies often operated within civilian areas.

“An urban environment where the enemy has set up will not be a barricade for attack for us. The enemy chose to distribute missiles and rockets within villages, and turned them into military targets. And so, on the day the order [to go to war is given], the enemy will find that he has turned the home front into a fighting front, and we will attack him forcefully,” he said.

The IDF commander said that while the military was prepared to act aggressively toward its enemies, it was also bound by its ethics.

“The IDF has the moral obligation to defend the citizens of the nation from the terrorist militaries surrounding us, and when the Israeli home front is threatened by thousands of missiles and rockets, we will not hesitate to attack forcefully in order to thwart those threats,” he said.

“While we do everything we can to prevent harm to civilians, the enemy does everything he can in order to harm civilians. Unlike the enemy, we will act both aggressively and morally, and we will base our operation on intelligence and operational necessity.”

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

On Tuesday, the former head of IDF Military Intelligence, Amos Yadlin, said the Iranian cyberattack on water facilities, which failed to cause significant damage, appeared to be in response to recent Israeli airstrikes against Iran’s forces and proxies in Syria.

The Shahid Rajaee port, said to be Iran’s largest, is a newly constructed shipping terminal near the coastal city of Bandar Abbas, on the Strait of Hormuz.

Satellite images of the port on May 11 and May 12 taken by Planet Labs and seen by The Times of Israel showed scads of ships idling off the port and a buildup of containers on dry land, days after the alleged Israeli cyberattack.

A security official, who spoke on the condition that his identity and national affiliation not be revealed, told The Washington Post that the attack caused “total disarray” at the port.

“Computers that regulate the flow of vessels, trucks and goods all crashed at once, ­creating massive backups on waterways and roads leading to the facility,” the Post reported, adding that it had seen satellite photos showing miles-long traffic jams leading to the port and ships still waiting to offload several days later.

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

Iran later acknowledged that an unknown foreign hacker had briefly knocked the port’s computers offline.

“A recent cyber attack failed to penetrate the PMO’s systems and was only able to infiltrate and damage a number of private operating systems at the ports,”  Mohammad Rastad, managing director of the Ports and Maritime Organization, said in a statement carried by Iran’s ILNA news agency.

The response appeared to indicate that Israel has adopted a “tit-for-tat” strategy in responding to Iranian cyber warfare, a tactic already used by the Israeli military with physical, or kinetic, attacks, the official said.

“The cyberattack on the [Shahid Rajaee port] in Iran was an Israeli response to the cyber attack that [the Iranians] carried out against Israel two weeks before against Mekorot [national water company] components — an attack that failed,” the official told Channel 12 news, on condition of anonymity.

View of the Eshkol Water Filtration Plant in northern Israel, on April 17, 2007. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

“Israel hopes that [the Iranians] stop there. They attacked water infrastructure components. They didn’t really cause damage — but they crossed a line and [Israel] needed to retaliate,” the official said.

Iran — whose regime avowedly seeks the Jewish state’s destruction — and Israel have engaged in covert cyber-warfare for over a decade, including reported efforts by the Jewish state and US to remotely sabotage the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program in 2010 using an advanced cyber weapon known as Stuxnet.

Times of Israel staff and Agencies contributed to this report.

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