Israel vs Iran: the new war front is cyberspace


Imagine your surprise when, by turning on the tap, the water no longer came out. Or if the amount of chlorine made it unusable for washing or cooking. But this was precisely the goal of the Iranian hackers who targeted the rural water system of the state of Israel on 24 and 25 April. Causing Jerusalem’s response, which would have resulted in the attack on an Iranian port on the Strait of Hormuz confirmed by the port authority itself. The news of the counterattack, circulated in the international intelligence community, has been confirmed by American government sources, cited by the Washington Post.


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The blockade of the last few days of the port of Shahid Rajaee on the Strait of the Persian Gulf near Bandar Abbas, traffic in tilt and containers on the ground, would have been caused precisely by the computer retaliation originated in Israel following the intrusion into the computers that manage the water distribution and wastewater treatment.

According to Israeli authorities, the attack, or rather, the series of attacks conducted through American and European servers would have been of little success, but the damage could have been serious. For this reason, at the beginning of the month, the Israeli security council met to talk about it and the attack on the port could only be a first warning.


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Such an attack offers the advantage of being able to start from a neutral nation, making it easier to cover tracks to avoid reprisals. A traditional attack with planes and cannons is almost impossible to hide or deny, but in electronic warfare the distance is not important and the attackers can hide by doing incalculable damage.

So imagine what would happen if a computer attack turned off the traffic lights of the railway network by colliding two commuter trains or if the attack on a chemical plant caused an ecological disaster. Similar events have already happened, in Estonia, for example, when in 2007 the Russians blackouted the country.

In this case, Israel did not claim the attack, but as the former Israeli military intelligence chief observed Amos Yadlin, “cyberspace has been added to land, sea and air as a battleground and if Israel has counterattacked it has been to clarify that civilians must stay out of it and that Iran can be hit in turn.”

But the Iranians know it well. The Iranian minister for communication and information technology Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi He said that in 2019 the electronic wall of the Islamic Republic, called the digital fortress or Dezhfa, foiled 33 million cyber attacks against the country. Iran is also considered the financier of several groups of government hackers, codenamed Helix Kitten and OilRig, known for espionage and cyber sabotage actions against energy companies and financial organizations.

For years there has been discussion of what would happen if a computer raid affected the physical infrastructures of our societies rather than the immaterial ones, communications, causing panic in the population or putting their safety at risk. Now, considering the actors at stake, Israel and its arch-enemy, Iran, this single event materializes the specter of a new type of war.

The rules of cyberwar

A hybrid war, where a cyber attack can correspond to a physical, kinetic attack, it is said in jargon, and vice versa, when a cyber attack can trigger an aerial bombardment in retaliation. The reason is clear: there is no convention that establishes the appropriate response to a cyber attack that produces civilian casualties.

We had tried it at the G7 in Lucca in 2017 to avoid the proliferation of cyberweapons, military escalations and retaliation in cyberspace, including attacks on critical infrastructure – health, energy, transport. The big seven had given birth to a non-binding declaration to respect the integrity of the Internet and its infrastructure. But always on that occasion they had reiterated that each State “can respond, in certain circumstances, with proportionate countermeasures” to an attack, even with IT tools to exercise the right to individual or collective defense “as recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of United Nations and in accordance with international law. “Israel was not in the game at the time.

The event, according to the professor Luigi Martino of the Center for Cybersecurity and the Study of International Relations of the University of Florence, poses two questions: “The first is that cyber attacks on critical civilian infrastructures are no longer theoretical subjects for academics, the second is the precedent set by the government Israel to use military retaliation against another state in response to a cyber attack if confirmed. ” – and continues – “It would also be the demonstration of a qualitative leap compared to the limit of the attribution of responsibilities hitherto considered insurmountable. If the reconstruction is correct, the international community is faced with the problem of the lack of rules capable of governing cases similar in the near future. “

Israel already responds blow by blow to every missile, to every physical attack on its territory, what would happen if it decided to counterattack at every cyber raid? The country of Gantz and Nethanyahu is among the most powerful in the world in cyber warfare. World leader in electronic armaments, it has elite computer forces such as the famous Unit 8200 and cultivates hundreds of cybersecurity companies in its territory.

But Lior Tabansky, director of the Blavatnik Cybersecurity Research Center at Tel Aviv University, believes that while identifying the attack on a secondary water system is an indication of Israeli cyber maturity even on the periphery of the system is lapidary: “Using cyber skills it does not introduce us to a new type of war. The conflict between Iran and Israel is already an open and largely traditional clash. Everyone knows that Iran should not attack Israel, even in cyberspace. “

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Mario Calabresi
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