Palestinian rights campaigners are under cyber-attack, with the key website for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement slammed by at least six sophisticated and complex offensives since the beginning of February, a Canadian open source digital security organization revealed Thursday.
The organization, eQualit.ie, explained in a technical report that attempts “to bring down the bdsmovement.net website were made using several (at least two distinct and relatively large) botnets and varied in their technical approach. This shows a level of sophistication and commitment not generally seen on the Deflect network.”
The attacks highlighted in the report are known as “distributed denial of service” (DDoS), in which a website is hit with high levels traffic at the same time, overwhelming and temporarily debilitating it. DDoS attacks can be orchestrated by “botnets,” or linked computers that flood the targets. Staffers at eQualit.ie have been attempting to protect the bdsmovement.net since late 2014, as part of their “Deflect” initiative, which they describe as “a website security project working with independent media, human rights organizations and activists.” The organization is a non-profit with a variety of funding sources, including nearly half a million dollars from the Canadian government.
While eQualit.ie did not definitively identify the attacker, the organization did uncover a pattern of targeting Palestinian rights organizations, as revealed in the following excerpt from their report:
During our broader analysis of the time period covered by this report, we have found that botnet #7, which targeted the bdsmovement.net website on March 3rd, also hit the website of an Israeli Human Rights organization under our protection on April 5th and April 11th. In each incident, over 50% of the botnet IPs hitting this website were also part of botnet #7 analyzed in this report. Furthermore, a peer website security organization reviewed our findings and concluded that a substantial amount of IPs belonging to this botnet were targeting another Israeli media website under its protection, on April 7th and April 12th. Organizations targeted by this botnet do not share a common editorial or are in any way associated with each other. Their primary similarities can be found in their emphasis on issues relevant to the protection of human rights in the Occupied Territories and exposing violations in the ongoing conflict. Our analysis shows that these websites may have a common adversary — the controller or renter of botnet #7 — that their individual work has aggrieved.
Dmitri Vitaliev, the co-founder and director of the organization, told AlterNet that the other groups that were attacked did not want their identities disclosed. “These other organizations are very well-known, established Israeli organizations,” he said. “They are not Palestinian, not international, but specifically Israeli organizations. In one case, an organization was in our network and another was in a peer network.”
Vitaliev said it is not possible, at this point, to know whether a nation-state was involved, emphasizing the need for future research and collaboration with peer organizations. “Before elections we often see these attacks,” he noted. “Sometimes they are used to muzzle online voices, sometimes they are used to punish.”
But Mahmoud Nawajaa, general coordinator of the Palestinian BDS National Committee, said in a press statement, “These latest cyber-attacks against BDS seem to be part of a full-fledged Israeli war on the movement that includes McCarthyite legal repression, use of intelligence services and yet more funding for ‘brand Israel’ propaganda. These attacks smack of Israel’s despair at its growing isolation around the world, after failing for years to stem the growing support for the nonviolent BDS movement as a strategic and effective means to achieve Palestinian rights under international law.”
Nawajaa’s hunch is understandable. The Israeli government announced earlier this year that it is funneling $26 million into a covert cyber operation to sabotage the global human rights movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). Little information was revealed to the public about what exactly this initiative would entail, with Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Elad Ratson cryptically telling the Associated Press that the offensive would target Muslim activists and critics of government policies in the United States and Europe. Sima Vaknin-Gil, the director general of Israel’s Ministry for Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy, informed Israeli tech developers in January, “I want to create a community of fighters.”
The findings from eQualit.ie arrive amidst an escalated campaign against the global BDS movement, including legislative crackdowns across the United States and an anti-BDS conference recently hosted by the United Nations at the behest of Israel. The BDS movement was founded by Palestinian civil society organizations’ call in 2005 for global tactics similar to those levied to topple apartheid in South Africa. In the more than 10 years since, BDS has attracted international support from artists, scholars, students, and human rights campaigners.
Whatever the source of the attacks, Vitaliev said one thing is certain: “It is fair to say that someone is trying to bring down groups that are not in accord with the Israeli government’s current politics.”