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Israel says it bombed Hamas compound that committed cyberattacks

Key Points
  • Israel conducted an airstrike on a Hamas facility it said was used to launch cyberattacks against the country from Gaza. 
  • The incident is an unprecedented immediate, kinetic response to a cyberattack and is likely to be closely watched by cyberwarfare experts. 
  • NATO has been closely tracking the evolution of "hybrid" warfare involving both cyberattacks and live fighting, ever since a devastating series of cyberattacks against Estonia in 2007. 
Smoke rises after an Israeli air strike in Gaza City, on May 05, 2019.
Sameh Rahmi| NurPhoto | Getty Images

The Israel Defense Forces said Sunday it responded to a cyberattack from a Hamas-controlled compound in Gaza with an airstrike, a rare mix of physical and cyber conflict on the world stage.

The cyberattacks emanating from the Gaza facility were aimed at harming Israeli civilians and was thwarted online before the strike, the IDF said, though they did not immediately release further details about the cyberattack.

In Gaza, Hamas militants have launched 600 rockets into Israel, while the country has retaliated with hundreds of strikes on military targets there.

International organizations and militaries have long debated how or when countries should use military force to respond to cyberattacks that could harm citizens.

The incident is certain to spark further debate on how cyberattacks and live conflict should mix. It's an important distinction as countries including the United States grow increasingly concerned at the possibility a cyberattack on the electric grid, water supply or other infrastructure could lead to loss of human life, and create norms for how they will respond to those threats, either immediately or preemptively.

NATO, cyberwarfare experts will weigh in

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been the preeminent world group involved in creating rules and norms for how cyber conflict and "kinetic," or live physical conflict, should intersect.

NATO's role at the forefront of this debate has roots in 2007, when a dispute between Russia and Estonia over military statues led to a cyberattack by Russia against the smaller country. The attack devastated communications infrastructure, knocked out access to banks and news broadcasts in Estonia, and was the first example of how a cyberattack could be use to hobble a country's citizens.

As a result of the attacks, NATO headquartered its international Cyber Defense Center in Tallinn, Estonia's capital. The organization has closely tracked what it refers to as "hybrid warfare." In 2016, the organization expanded its list of warfare domains – air, land and sea – to include "cyber" for the first time, meaning a cyberattack on any NATO organization could invite retaliation from all of them.

Further attacks, including the ransomware attacks of 2017 and attacks on Ukraine's infrastructure from Russia, among others, have all contributed to a young but growing body of knowledge of how to handle major cyber conflicts in realtime.

But few countries have been involved in such a hybrid conflict that spilled over to the physical realm. Israel's actions will likely shift the debate of how to handle cyberattacks in times of conflict or war forward. This is especially true because Israel is already a world leader in cybersecurity and cyberwarfare, making its actions and techniques in this case likely to be emulated by other countries in the future.

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