Israel Defence Forces have acknowledged launching an air strike last Saturday against a building that it says housed Hamas cyber-forces that had recently attempted a failed offensive operation against Israeli targets.
Observers are calling the bombing response unprecedented, as there is no other known case of a country executing a physical attack against an enemy in direct, immediate retaliation for an offensive cyber-operation.
"We thwarted an attempted Hamas cyber-offensive against Israeli targets. Following our successful cyber defensive operation, we targeted a building where the Hamas cyber operatives work," Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said in a 5 May tweet that featured an aerial shot of the targeted building. "HamasCyberHQ.exe has been removed."
IDF officials did not specify the nature of the attack that they said provoked the military response.
In 2015, the U.S. launched a drone strike that killed British-born ISIS hacker Junaid Hussain several weeks after he had posted personal data belonging to American service members. However, that was more of a planned strategic operation to take down a targeted individual, as opposed to an immediate counterstrike following a cyberattack. And Siful Haque Sujan, one of the Islamic State's (ISIS) leading hackers, was killed in a 10 December drone strike, according to a release from US Central Command.
Cyber and defence experts have long debated how best to respond to cyber-attacks launched by nation-states or terrorist groups, including whether or not to "hack back" or treat such assaults as an act of warfare. Some like Microsoft President Brad Smith have called for world governments to create a "Digital Geneva Convention" that lays out ground rules for defending civilians from cyber-attacks.
In this instance at least, Israel’s military leadership saw fit to act with force, as part of a larger overall military response to deadly clashes with Gaza militants that began Saturday morning.
Prior to reaching a cease-fire on Monday, Israel reportedly struck hundreds of targets in Gaza amidst claims that militants launched more than 600 rockets toward Israel. At least four Israelis and 23 Palestinians were reportedly killed in the fighting.
"This is certainly a significant evolution in how states deal with hackers. With that said, it should not be that surprising," said Tim Maurer, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and co-director of its Cyber Policy Initiative. "For years, governments including the US government have explicitly stated that they will treat the effects of cyber-attacks the same way as conventional attacks. So if the effect of a cyber-attack is similar to that of a physical attack, the response will also be similar."
"In other words, there is a lot of confusion when people talk about ‘cyber-deterrence,’ ?often implying it will be limited to cyberspace," continued Maurer. "The actions of the IDF demonstrate that states actually look at the full tools at their disposal."
This article was originally published on SC Media US.