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Israel warns soldiers of fake friends on social media

Israel is stronger than Hamas on the ground. But in the digital sphere, the Gaza militant organisation is fast developing cyber capabilities that if the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is not vigilant, could seriously compromise its troops.





Israeli soldiers were again this week warned to be careful when using social networking sites. This came after Hamas operatives were found to be posing as Israeli soldiers on the WhatsApp messaging service. They texted messages to soldiers stationed along the Gaza border, asking them confidential questions about troop movements, and brigade exercises.

The IDF says it’s “aware of the enemy’s activity, and is following its efforts on social media”. It has launched an investigation.

According to experts, the good news is that Hamas’ current cyber capabilities don’t constitute a major threat to Israeli security. The bad news is that this can change overnight.

In the past, Hamas has used online dating platforms to pose as attractive women in an attempt to “honeypot” male soldiers. The photos and personal details they use are stolen from real Facebook profiles. In some they are scantily clad, and in others, there are women kissing each other. Accompanied by a convincing fake Facebook profile and written in fluent Hebrew, they initiate flirtatious exchanges with Israeli soldiers, mostly stationed along the Gaza border, before encouraging them to download online messaging applications.

Already as far back as two years ago, the IDF uncovered dozens of accounts on Facebook and other social networks that were being operated with false identities. Once a connection was made with a soldier or officer, he was asked to download a specific application to take part in a video chat. It seemed innocent enough, but the application in question would, without the solider knowing, infect his phone. Hamas operatives then had access to the soldier’s photos, location, text messages, and contacts. Unbelievably, they could also use the phone’s camera and microphone, and secretly record the soldier’s conversations.

Though some targets’ phones were infected with the virus before it was uncovered, the official word from the IDF is that the attack was foiled, and its impact was minimal.

In a separate case, the IDF uncovered a cell behind suspicious online actions in which soldiers were contacted from an Israeli number, and instead of being encouraged to download a virus through an illegitimate source, they were asked to download an application from Google’s official store. It then worked much the same as previous efforts, compromising the soldier’s phone. Google has since deleted the apps from its store.

Sometimes soldiers became suspicious because of poor Hebrew spelling and grammatical errors. But Hamas operatives covered their mistakes by writing in their online profiles that they were new immigrants.

Attempts by Hamas to infiltrate cyberspace to gather intelligence on the Israeli army is nothing new. Over the past decade, it has been investing significant resources to create and upgrade its online capabilities.

During Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2012, the group took responsibility for an attack on Israeli sites, including the Homefront Command site and the IDF spokesperson’s site. Hamas declared at the time that the cyber-attacks were an integral part of its war against Israel.

Israeli civilians have also been targeted.

In the most recent round of fighting, Hamas sent fake WhatsApp messages to ordinary Israelis warning them not to answer calls from specific numbers, and claiming that doing so would allow Hamas to track them and fire a missile directly at their location. The fake messages were designed to spread panic among Israelis.

Previously the group used an app that mimicked the much-accessed and relied upon “red alert” app that provides real-time alerts every time a rocket is fired at Israel. Israelis rely on this app to give them accurate information about when to rush to a bomb shelter. In this instance, Hamas apparently timed its cyber-attack with the launch of hundreds of rockets against Israel. The compromised app then took control of the target’s phone.

Alongside the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Hamas went so far as to open a Facebook group inviting soccer fans to join and receive updates, watch live broadcasts, and bet on games. Those who did so and clicked on the accompanying links exposed themselves to cyber penetration, and the takeover of their computers.

Foreign journalists working in Israel have also been on the receiving end of threatening SMS messages. I was one such journalist, and was immediately advised by the Foreign Press Association in the country to ignore the texts.

Israel has responded to the movement’s increased hacking proficiency with force. In May this year, it struck a building in Gaza that the army claimed was the workplace of Hamas cyber operatives. The assault is the first known attack on a physical target in response to a cyber-attack. Israeli army spokesperson, Brigadier General Ronen Manlis, claimed at the time that “after dealing with the cyber dimension, the [Israeli] Air Force dealt with it [Hamas] in the physical dimension”, saying that “at this point in time, Hamas has no cyber operational capabilities”.

The official word today is that the group’s technological capabilities have not developed to a level that can cause serious damage to Israel, and it’s doubtful that they will constitute a genuine threat to the country’s security in coming years. Hamas’ cyber activity – at least at the moment – is primarily focused on gathering information and intelligence for the purposes of spying. Experts insist that Hamas’ cyber ability does not exceed that of unsophisticated hackers, and is a long way off from Israel’s cyber offensive and defensive capabilities, and those of other players in the global cyber domain.

The IDF has now once again warned all its soldiers – including reservists – to be aware that if they are approached by a stranger online, it might be an attempt to “honeypot” them, especially if the suspicious individual is unable to meet in person.

It’s advice that all of us can heed.

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Commonwealth Jewish Council calls for release of ‘Nigeria three’



All Rudy Rochman wanted to do was to shine a light on unknown, disconnected, and re-emerging Jewish communities around the world, but something went horribly wrong.

The charismatic 27-year-old Israeli activist, who has more than 97 000 followers on Instagram, was working on a new documentary series titled, We Were Never Lost, which focused on these “lost tribes”. At the beginning of July, he and his team travelled to Nigeria to film their first episode.

However, Rochman, filmmaker Andrew Noam Leibman, and French-Israeli journalist Edouard David Benaym were arrested by Nigerian security services when the three presented a Torah scroll to a local community. They remain in custody, haven’t been charged, and haven’t been given legal representation. Organisations and individuals around the world are working desperately to get them released.

“Our first season is set in Africa, and we are filming our first episode on the Jews of Nigeria,” Rochman’s team wrote on Facebook on 8 July. “There are many Jews in Nigeria, Igbos included, and we are here only to help local practising and observing Jewish communities, to provide them with resources, and to document their lives, experiences, and aspirations. We don’t take any position on political movements as we aren’t here as politicians nor as a part of any government delegation.”

But the next day, they were arrested, supposedly for supporting “separatist activists”. Commonwealth Jewish Council (CJC) Chief Executive Clive Lawton is one of the many people working behind the scenes. Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from his home in the United Kingdom, he says he is alarmed that the men have been held in detention for more than a week without being charged. “That would indicate it’s only an investigation, but they still have no legal representation, and how can such an investigation take more than a week?”

He says the CJC has written to the Nigerian high commissioner to the Commonwealth, His Excellency Sarafa Tunji Isola, urging him to pressure his government to release them soon. “They are being detained on the flimsiest of pretexts. I’m sure the Nigerian government wouldn’t want to cultivate an image that foreign visitors can be snatched up on spurious accusations,” says Lawton.

He has also written to the secretary general of the Commonwealth of Nations, Baroness Patricia Scotland. “In this family of nations, the quality of relationships and expectations of decency carry a lot of weight. It’s shocking that Nigeria might continue to hobnob with other heads of governments while treating foreigners like this. It should be seen as shameful. Yes, they might need to investigate something, but that doesn’t take 10 days. This isn’t just an investigation. It’s intimidation. Acting without due process is against Commonwealth principles,” he says.

He hopes that the less formal relationships between Commonwealth countries will make an impact. “At the very least, they should be released to go home. But more desirable would be that they be allowed to return to their cultural activity of making a documentary.”

Lawton says his organisation seeks to build relationships between Jews from around the world. More than 40 countries, including South Africa, are members.

Although the media reported that “three Israelis” were arrested, it’s unclear if all three have Israeli citizenship.

Lawton says Rochman and Leibman entered Nigeria on their American passports, and Benaym on his French passport. “We knew that they planned to make this documentary and were in the first stages of filming. They went to south-east Nigeria to visit a community. Like anyone making such a visit, they wanted to bring artefacts or objects to present to them. In this instance, they very generously brought a Sefer Torah.”

Two weeks ago, Rochman wrote on Instagram about how his team had “just acquired a beautiful Torah that survived the Holocaust and is believed to have come from an old community in Ukraine about 200 years ago”.

“The scribal experts our team spoke to stated that the ktav [writing] had since gone extinct, and they couldn’t believe their eyes when we sent them pictures of the scroll.

“We will be bringing the Torah and gifting it to the youth movement of Igbo Jewish communities of Nigeria for them to have access to our nation’s holy text.”

“It would seem that some separatist activists wrote Facebook messages along the lines of ‘welcoming this act of solidarity’”, Lawton says. “But in fact the filmmakers categorically stated that they had no interest in political issues and were there for a cultural reason – to make a film.

“They arrived on a Thursday, and visited a synagogue,” he says. “That was when Nigerian security services entered the synagogue and arrested them, taking them to the capital, Abuja. On the Friday, the men’s embassies were alerted, and sought to get involved. Chabad in Abuja has managed to organise provision of kosher food for them, which the security services agreed to allow. They also agreed for Benaym to be transported to the French embassy for medical attention, as long as he was returned to detention, and that is what was done. Israel has no ‘formal locus’ to help as they didn’t enter on Israeli passports, but it has sought to engage government and services.”

He believes that they are being held in some kind of “detention circumstances”, but cannot say what these conditions are like, if they are separated, or if they are being held with others. But he says that the fact that the French embassy was willing to return Benaym suggests it was “probably not extreme”.

A member of the Igbo community, speaking to the SA Jewish Report on condition of anonymity, says, “Our information is that Rudy and co. came here to do a documentary on the connection of the Igbo people to Biblical Israelites. Many Igbos are reviving the practices of their ancestors and returning to Judaism. This is what Rudy and his team wanted to do – to hear our story as told by our people. But sadly, some local people hijacked the original intention of Rudy and began to make political capital out of it. The team was bringing a Sefer Torah to be donated to our community. We were very happy that many Israelis would get to know about our Israelite heritage and know that we are brethren.

“Our people are very saddened by the arrest, but we don’t want to heighten tension by making utterances as the matter is being handled. We keep praying for their safety. We believe they will be released because their visit was for religious reasons. We don’t believe they came here to undermine the security of Nigeria. In our synagogues, we don’t entertain separatist activities. We are very sad about their plight. We see it as someone getting into unforeseen trouble while in search of a long lost brother.”

The most recent update on the We Were Never Lost Instagram page is that, “Rudy, Noam, and David are still in custody, but are ok. Their spirits remain high. Three embassies are working diligently towards a resolution. No other action is necessary from the community at this stage, but thank you all for the care and support.”

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Diaspora minister expresses concern and support after riots



The newly elected Israeli minister of diaspora affairs this week sent a heartfelt message of support to the South African Jewish community following last week’s devastating protests and riots.

Dr Nachman Shai this week expressed his “warmest regards and personal blessing” in a letter to the community.

“All of us in Israel have watched the recent events in the KwaZulu-Natal region and around South Africa with deep concern. We stand with you in solidarity, and are particularly thinking about the Durban and Johannesburg Jewish communities during this challenging time.”

He said it was also a difficult moment for Jewish communities around the world. “In South Africa, we witnessed the rise of antisemitism following Operation Guardian of the Walls, which challenged your safety and sense of security.”

His ministry is a partner in ensuring the resilience of the community, and engaging actors within Israel to understand how its military actions had a direct impact on the Jewish world, Shai said.

“Our ability as a Jewish people to take on our shared challenges depends on our ability to engage effectively with one another.”

Shai said he was sure that his upcoming meeting with the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) and leadership would be the first of many “as we develop an ongoing conversation between us”.

“The secret of Jewish resilience rests in our sense of shared responsibility towards each other. With this frame, I look forward to working hand in hand with all of you to live up to our potential as both a diverse and unified Jewish people.”

He said the South African Jewish community had long been “a thriving epicentre of Jewish life and a true friend of Israel”, and as Israel’s new diaspora affairs minister, he looked forward to finding opportunities to further strengthen the relationship between South African Jewry and the state and people of Israel in the coming months.

Rowan Polovin, the national chairperson of the SAZF, said he appreciated Shai’s heartfelt message.

“The past few months have been an extremely challenging and difficult time for South African Jewry. Our connection as Jews living in the diaspora remains vitally important as a continued source of comfort and strength at all times, but particularly in times of hardship.”

He said the SAZF looked forward to further engagement with the minister on “developing and building upon the crucial relationship and bond between the state of Israel and the South African Jewish community”.

Shai was in South Africa in August 2017, when he led a delegation of five members of the Israeli Knesset to “promote dialogue, understanding, and co-operation”.

The delegation met leaders across the South African political spectrum, including Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, former President Kgalema Motlanthe, former Johannesburg Executive Mayor Herman Mashaba, and former Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Mmusi Maimane. It held meetings in parliament, and met members of the DA, Congress of the People, African Christian Democratic Party, Inkatha Freedom Party, and Freedom Front Plus. The delegation, a product of co-operation between the Israeli Knesset, the Israeli foreign affairs ministry, and the Jewish Agency, also met leaders of the Jewish community and engaged with the key figures in the Christian and business communities, where it reiterated Israel’s commitment to sharing expertise and experience in agriculture, water, and hi-tech.

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Transforming a rubbish dump into an oasis



After greening the desert with fruit and vegetables, Israelis looked elsewhere to make improvements. The country’s latest environmental achievement is to turn the Hiriya rubbish dump between Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion Airport into a park.

This former dump has been transformed into the largest green area in the Middle East, with more than 8 000 dunams (8km2) of parkland.

The Hiriya dump (Hiriya in Arabic means good in the sense of goodness and blessing in the past) was an eyesore and a rather smelly one at that, accumulating the majority of garbage from the greater Tel Aviv area.

The vision to convert this dumping ground into a green space came from the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He was also the general who, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, led his soldiers and tanks behind the Egyptian Third Army and surrounded them, cutting them off from mainland Egypt in the heat of the Sinai.

Today, the luscious green park has little lakes, dams, and revitalised rivers, with a huge variety of plants, bushes, and trees. Aptly, it has been named the Ariel Sharon Park. Venture to the edge of it, and you see a spectacular view of Tel Aviv.

The gas released by the landfill is being collected and rerouted underground, past the Shapirim Stream and Route #1 (the main Tel Aviv – Jerusalem highway) to a textile plant in Azur, where the gas is converted into green energy.

According to Shlomit Doten Gissin from the department of environment and sustainability at the park, the number of bird species has risen from only 80 to more than 200 species, with bird hides everywhere for visitors to watch birds in silence.

Gissin says the vegetation in the park was specifically planted to encourage low-flying birds so as not to interfere with the flight path to Ben Gurion Airport. Hundreds of indigenous plants, trees, and shrubs have been planted among fresh water ponds.

Some plants have been planted diagonally on the slopes to allow easy movements of butterflies so they don’t hit a “wall” of plants. There are also tiny animals to be found, even jackals and smaller cats.

This park is one of the wonders of unusable space being converted into flourishing public spaces in Israel. Completion should take about another year, but it’s already being enjoyed by many.

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