'Like there's nuclear deterrence, there's cyber deterrence'

‘Mess with Israel, you’ll pay a price,’ PM warns Iran, after steel plant cyberattack

At Cyber Week event, Bennett says ‘wreaking havoc in Tehran’ not a policy, but Israel will respond to assaults; ‘smart folks’ at keyboard can do what commandos do without the risks

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at the annual Cyber Week conference in Tel Aviv, June 28, 2022. (Cyber Week, Tel Aviv University)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at the annual Cyber Week conference in Tel Aviv, June 28, 2022. (Cyber Week, Tel Aviv University)

Outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned Tuesday, a day after Iran’s major steel companies were hit by a cyberattack, that anyone who attempts a cyberattack against Israel will “pay a price.”

“[The] approach with our enemies, especially Iran… we don’t go around wreaking havoc in Tehran — that’s never been our policy. Our policy is, if you mess with Israel, you’ll pay a price,” Bennett said at the Cyber Week conference in Tel Aviv.

He also highlighted the benefits of using cyber warfare over more traditional military offensive methods, noting, “You can get a bunch of smart folks sitting on a keyboard to achieve the same effect… without risking your soldiers’ lives.”

Monday’s large cyberattack forced the state-owned Khuzestan Steel Co. to halt production, and two other major steel producers also reported being targeted.

An anonymous hacking group claimed responsibility on social media for the attack, saying it had targeted Iran’s three biggest steel companies in response to the “aggression of the Islamic Republic.”

The group, calling itself “Gonjeshke Darande,” shared what purported to be closed-circuit footage from the Khuzestan Steel Co. factory floor that showed the malfunction of a piece of heavy machinery on a steel bar production line, causing a massive fire.

Israeli military correspondents, who are regularly briefed off-the-record by senior Israeli officials, hinted that Israel was directly responsible for the assault in retaliation to a suspected cyberattack that caused rocket sirens to be heard in Jerusalem and Eilat last week.

Bennett was asked at the conference about his approach as prime minister to cyber offense and defense, and gave a lengthy, considered response.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks with Michal Braverman-Blumenstyk, Microsoft corporate VP and CEO of the Israel R&D Center at the annual cybersecurity conference Cyber Week at Tel Aviv University, June 28, 2022. (Cyber Week, Tel Aviv University)

“Today you can get stuff done hitting your enemy through cyber which in the past would require to covertly send 50 or 100 commando soldiers behind enemy lines with huge risk,” he said. “And now you can get a bunch of smart folks sitting on a keyboard to achieve the same effect. So it’s a no-brainer. And this is why inevitably cyber is going to become one of, if not the most prominent dimensions of future warfare. It just makes sense… If you can get the same effect through cyber without risking your soldiers’ lives, obviously it’s going to happen.”

“On the geopolitical level,” Bennett added, “we’re going to see a lot of investment across the world in cyber offense… It’s only going to get worse, the threat… With critical infrastructure, we’re doing pretty well on the defensive side and of course on the military dimensions of defending ourselves.”

He said he was “a bit surprised” by the relative “lack of use of cyber tools in the war in Ukraine.”

Bennett then specified his policies on cyberwarfare, particularly as related to Iran:

“Just like there’s nuclear deterrence, there’s going to be cyber deterrence,” he said. “And my approach generally with our enemies, especially Iran, is, we don’t go around just wreaking havoc in Tehran. That’s never been our policy. Our policy is, though, that if you mess with Israel, you’ll pay a price. And you can no longer hit Israel indirectly through proxies, through Hezbollah, through Hamas, and think you’ll get away with it.

“If you’re the bully who’s sending folks to hit us,” he elaborated, “we’re going to try and not fight with those folks; we’re going to hit the bully.” This approach, he said, applies in all dimensions including cyber: “If anyone attacks us on cyber, we’re going to attack back. We’re not going to be feeble,” Bennett said.

A screenshot from what is believed to be closed-circuit footage obtained from Iran’s Khuzestan Steel Co. factory floor where a piece of heavy machinery on a steel billet production line malfunctions and causes a massive fire, June 27, 2022. (Screenshot: Twitter)

Also speaking at Monday’s conference, Israel’s National Cyber Directorate chief Gaby Portnoy said Iran had become a “dominant rival” in cyberspace, amid relentless attempts to attack civilian infrastructure in the past year.

“There is no longer only one type of an ideological official enemy. On the one hand, Iran has become our dominant rival in cyber, together with Hezbollah and Hamas,” Portnoy said. “We see them, we know how they work, and we are there.

“On the other hand, the spectrum also was stretched to attackers, attack groups, proxies, independent crime organizations, and private people,” Portnoy added.

According to data presented by the directorate at the conference, 1,500 cyberattacks on the Israeli home front were foiled over the past year alone.

Brig. Gen. (ret.) Gaby Portnoy, director-general of the Israel National Cyber Directorate. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Israel and Iran have for years been involved in a largely clandestine cyberwar that occasionally bubbles to the surface. Israeli officials have accused Iran of attempting to hack Israel’s water system in 2020.

In turn, Iran has accused the United States and Israel of cyberattacks that have impaired the country’s infrastructure.

Iran disconnected much of its government infrastructure from the internet after the Stuxnet computer virus — widely believed to be a joint US-Israeli creation — disrupted thousands of Iranian centrifuges in the country’s nuclear sites in the late 2000s.

In a major incident last year, a cyberattack on Iran’s fuel distribution system paralyzed gas stations across the country, leading to long lines of angry motorists. The same anonymous hacking group, Gonjeshke Darande, claimed responsibility for the attack on fuel pumps.

AP contributed to this report.

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