Israel’s hi-tech weaponry doesn’t protect civilians

My recent interview with US outlet, Defence One, by journalist Patrick Tucker:

If Israeli defense forces launch a ground offensive into Gaza, they could use a mix of drone-enabled hacking tactics to find Hamas targets, coordinating cyber operations and tactical drones in a way that no other country has achieved.

But the conflict has already revealed unexpectedly sophisticated drone tactics—by Hamas, experts say. Since launching its cross-border assault on Oct. 7, the group has used small commercial drones to drop grenades on tanks, ambulances, border posts, and—importantly—communication towers, according to a report from drone analysis group Dronesec. Hamas also displayed an understanding of how to configure the settings on DJI Phantom drones to avoid electronic countermeasures.

“DJI drone icons appear on the left-hand-side of the screen, showing a ‘Land’ and ‘Home point’ icon, with the ‘Return to Home’ icon greyed out. This could signal the operator has disabled RTH-mode, a common counter-counter operational security measure,” the Dronesec report said.

Ukrainian and Russian forces have used similar tactics, but observers were struck by Hamas’ ability to evade close scrutiny and to target their drones so precisely and effectively. The intelligence was so good that it indicated an unexpected cyber-intelligence capability, said Dmitri Alperovitch, founder of the Silverado Policy Accelerator.

“When you look at the current atrocities that have been committed by Hamas, there’s still a lot we obviously don’t know, but the things that have come out, indicate that they have absolutely exquisite intelligence on the location of Israeli secret bases on their communications capabilities,” Alperovitch said Tuesday at a Washington, D.C., event.

“They knew exactly where to go, including things that weren’t marked in terms of side gates of bases and what have you. They knew where the critical communications nodes were that they were able to destroy with drones and other kinetic strikes to try to impede the response. So we don’t know how much cyber may have impacted that. But we know that Hamas and other terrorist organizations like Hezbollah have had significant capabilities,” he said. “It’s quite likely, I think, that cyber has played at least some role in that preparation work for them for an operation that probably took years to plan.”

If Israel launches ground operations in Gaza, the world would likely witness the next chapter of drone warfare in urban environments.

Defense One caught a sneak peak in September 2022, when the Israel Defense Forces showed off combined drone and cyber operations during a live-fire exercise put on during the IDF’s International Military Innovation Conference. Defense officials from the United States, Poland, Morocco, and other countries gathered at Tze’elim, a remote base in the Negev desert where the IDF has built what looks like an entire town for drilling urban warfare tactics.

As attack helicopters pounded targets in the distance, the IDF’s Brig. Gen. Dan Goldfus directed the audience’s attention to the real stars of the show: a formation of small quadcopters hovering over a building. Goldfus said the drones were rigged to capture personal data from nearby cell phones, allowing Israeli intelligence officers to quickly determine whether wanted fugitives were hiding inside. Then they could dispatch ground-combat robots and additional reconnaissance drones before sending in a live team.

Of course, one must always approach any rehearsed demonstration with a certain skepticism, especially one meant to showcase the wares of a nation’s defense contractors. But while the merger of drone swarmsand cyber effects made for a novel feature during a staged event, each has already been demonstrated separately. Israel first sent armed drone swarms into Gaza in 2021, while the country and its contractors are well-known for their abilities to extract data from specific targets, from text messages to locations.

The NSO Group, founded by soldiers from Israel’s elite 8200 cyber intelligence unit, has for years sold a spyware product called Pegasus to a variety of regimes. Amnesty International claims that Israeli spyware allowed Saudi Arabian leaders to target Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi; other human rights groups have said that autocratic regimes have used the software to steal personal information from criminals, activists, and reporters. The Mexican government says it used NSO software to capture drug lord El Chapo in 2014 and 2016, wrote journalist Antony Loewenstein in his 2023 book The Palestine Laboratory—which adds that the software has fallen into the hands of other drug lordsIn 2021 The Guardian reported that as many as 15,000 Mexicans are potential targets of the software.

Today, the IDF’s soldiers and the 8200 can likely draw on a menagerie of tools from NSO and its newer competitors—and so can other regimes, Loewenstein said (Loewenstein was based in East Jerusalem between 2016 and 2020.)

“NSO Group is just the tip of the iceberg of the Israeli spyware-for-hire industry. In the last years, after Pegasus received so much negative international attention, many Israeli rivals rose to challenge the market dominance of NSO Group. These alternatives are no different, still being sold to some of the most repressive nations on the planet. The Israeli government has encouraged for years the sale of this repressive tech as a way to gain new diplomatic friends, from Saudi Arabia to Bangladesh, and the Israeli state rarely if ever blocks the sale of this kind of equipment, regardless of the human rights abuses taking place,” he told Defense One via email.

That matters much more in an environment like Gaza, where IDF will be under intense pressure to limit civilian casualties while looking to kill Hamas operatives who are indistinguishable from the surrounding population. This is a harder problem than Ukrainian forces generally encountered on battlefields or even in cities such as Mariupol where the location of adversary forces was far more important than their individual identities.

So how to get such spyware on the phones of the people of Gaza? The 2022 demonstration used a method that has been around for years: equip drones to mimic cell towers, tricking phones into connecting and downloading the software payload.

But too much reliance on digital signals intelligence could also lead to lapses. Loewenstein argues that such over-reliance may have contributed to the massive intelligence failure that allowed the Hamas attack.

“Israel’s vaunted surveillance capabilities in and around Gaza are a combination of human intelligence, often by blackmailing Palestinians who want to exit Gaza for medical or educational reasons, drones and tailored [operations],” he wrote “Before the recent Hamas attack on Israel, it was widely viewed that Israel has successfully controlled the land, sea and air borders of Gaza. What I’m hearing is that Israel, like the US after 9/11, overly relied on digital surveillance and far less on the human intelligence side in the last 5-10 years, leaving open the possibility of a major security breach.”

Will Israel be able to use its new capabilities to limit the effects on innocent Gazans in a ground offensive? Loewenstein expressed skepticism.

“Israel’s modus operandi is causing collateral damage. It’s a tactic that’s they’ve used for decades in Palestine, Lebanon and beyond. Senior Israeli government ministers are speaking about causing excessive damage in Gaza so restraint is not on the agenda.”

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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