Hacking and social banditry in Gaza

Backlit keyboard

© User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

By Erik Skare, PhD candidate at the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages (University of Oslo).

The Palestinian hackers in Gaza are often portrayed as either political activists or cyber criminals. But is it necessarily fruitful to operate with such a Manichean framework? I would suggest that there is a high probability that they are not either hacktivists or cyber criminals. Rather, they embody both of these contradictions – becoming what Eric Hobsbawm termed “social bandits”.

Already in the early 2000s we saw a flare-up in cyberspace between Israel and the Arab world when Israeli hackers crippled the website of Hizbollah by Means of Distribution Attacks (DDoS). Gaza has since then epitomized itself as the main hub for Palestinian hacker activity. Or rather, in the absence of any known hacker teams in the West Bank, thus far it seems the Gaza Strip is the only Palestinian area with significant activity. There are many factors that can explain this particular development: from Hamas’ governance in the strip, Gaza as a hub for the Palestinian resistance movement, or the employment of hackers in Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Another, and perhaps even more important factor, is the blockade of Gaza and a judiciary system not capable of dealing with such a modern phenomenon as cybercrime – in addition to the lack of cooperation between Hamas and Interpol. As a hacker interviewed by al-Monitor stated: “We are not prosecuted in the Gaza Strip. No complaints are filed against us since international relations have been severed with the Gaza government. However, we as hackers do not hide what we do. Everybody knows it”.

For example, with the blockade of Gaza and the isolation it caused, a Palestinian programmer broke into the phone network to call his family outside Palestine for free. Therefore, he did what phreaks (combining freaks and the prefix ph-, as in phone) were already doing in the US in the late 1950s as they managed to recreate the tones of the telephone system used to route long-distance calls and thus make free calls. One of them, I should mention, was Steve Jobs.

The situation in Gaza is so absurd, for lack of a better word, that a Palestinian student in Algeria who became involved in professional hacking was prosecuted by the Algerian authorities. Returning to his home in Rafah, he was finally safe since Palestinian law enforcement, with Palestinian law dating back to 1936, had not caught up with the technology.

It is in this exact situation that we may draw upon Hobsbawm’s theory of the “social bandit” in order to understand (some of) the dynamics influencing the hacking scene in Gaza. Originally, the thesis described outlaws engaging in plundering and robbing on the fringes of rural society. The bandits were regarded as dangerous criminals by the state, yet by the rest of society as heroes, champions and avengers. Pancho Villa, Billy the Kid and Sándor Rózsa are men who are categorized as such. The social bandit has in certain parts of the community been so popular and admired that legends and myths have been created around him. Still to this day – although we have no verification of his actual existence – parents are telling their children about the adventures of Robin Hood who stole from the rich, and gave to the poor.

So what does the social bandit and the hackers of Gaza have in common?

First of all, with the exception of hippies isolating themselves from the rest of society by engaging in drum circles in the forest, everyone is interconnected to the economic, social and political system which they live in.  Neither social bandits nor Palestinian hackers are exceptions to this rule. Robbers must necessarily eat, and supply themselves with provisions, arms, material, and other means of survival: “They must spend the money they rob, or sell the booty”.1 Thus, the social bandit constituted an important role in the local economy of their time as they had greater economic means than the rest of the population being distributed through local shopkeepers, innkeepers and others, to the commercial middle strata of rural society – all the more effective since bandits had to spend their cash locally.2

As a modern equivalent, the most important features of Palestinian cybercrime are hacking phone calls, which is a response to the Israeli blockade and isolation of the Gaza Strip, and money transferring. Regarding the latter:

To facilitate the money-wiring process resulting from hacking, many exchange offices opened in Rafah and are part of the black market. They receive money from countries such as China and Libya via the accounts of Palestinian traders connected with the exchange offices, and then they give the received amounts to hackers in Rafah.

Yet, many of the hackers avoid the troubles of having money directly transferred from other countries, and instead they choose to use the stolen money to buy goods on the internet which subsequently is exported to Egypt and smuggled into Gaza through the tunnels. The tunnel smuggling, the Palestinian/Egyptian black market and hacking is thus connected. It is impossible to say what impact Palestinian (cyber-) social banditry has on the local economy as a substantial amount of goods would have to be imported through the tunnels to make a difference, yet: “Money changer Khaled Ali (a pseudonym) estimates hackers in the Gaza Strip make a total of around $5 million per month”. Quite obviously, as a result of the blockade, it would be safe to assume that the majority of the Palestinian hackers are forced to spend their money locally in the Gaza Strip, just as the social bandits did.

Furthermore, (cyber-) social banditry in Gaza (as its rural predecessor) is most likely the product of poverty and lack of near-future job prospects. Hobsbawm assessed: “Theirs [of the social bandits] is an individual rebellion, which is socially and politically undetermined, and which under normal – i.e. non-revolutionary – conditions is not a vanguard of mass revolt, but rather the product and counterpart of the general passivity of the poor”.3

This might explain why so many Palestinian hacktivists teams emerged in Gaza – although, admittedly, there are no clear answers. Most likely it can be attributed to high levels of education and high unemployment rates combined with a technological development enabling the Palestinians to follow the trajectory of politically or economically motivated hacking. For example, the unemployment rate in Gaza was in 2007 29,7 percent,4 and only 29,5 percent of the entire Palestinian population could be considered as being in full employment (working 35 hours or above per week).5 These unemployment rates are combined with a high level of education. For example, the enrollment of young people aged between eighteen and twenty-four in tertiary education was 33 percent in the same period – higher than the average for middle-income countries.6 This would simultaneously be a point where the Gaza hacker distinguishes himself from the rural social bandit – as it, for obvious reasons, is easier for someone illiterate to operate a rifle instead of a computer.

Also, age is a factor when engaging in social banditry as one would not expect the common pensioner limping down the aisle of a train he just hijacked. As Hobsbawm writes about the social bandit, the bandit groups were often made up of young men who moved from job to job, fought and roved as youth is a phase of independence and potential rebellion – even in peasant societies.7 The same applies to the hackers of Gaza who we might assume are trapped unmarried youngsters, without children and familial responsibilities in the Gaza Strip, not necessarily employed and, thus, having the time and the capabilities to engage in these activities.

Moreover, as already written, what makes the social bandit a social bandit is not the mere fact that he is an insurgent, a robber or an outlaw, but that he has the support of the local community. And it is perhaps here that the similarities are the most striking, and where we might compare the Palestinian cyber-social bandit with the Eastern/Southeastern European hajduks – bandits who protected Christians against perceived Ottoman oppression. Hobsbawm describes the hajduks as “[…] robbers by trade, enemies of the Turks [or in the case of the hackers, the Israelis] and popular avengers by social role, primitive movements of guerilla resistance and liberation”.8 Furthermore, the definition of the hajduk was essentially political: the hajduk was a national bandit, a defender or avenger of Christians against Turks: “Unlike the ‘avenger’ his cruelty is not his essential characteristic, but tolerated because of his services to the people”.

If we take the case of social banditry in Gaza then, it is highly interesting what Islam Shahwan, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior of Gaza, stated when confronted about the cybercrime in Gaza:  the Palestinian hackers who conduct credit card fraud and other illegal schemes have a good reputation in the Gaza Strip, as they not only use their knowledge to enrich themselves, but also work against the Israeli occupation, and therefore form part of the resistance.

The Palestinian hacker is then – like the hajduk – considered a (Palestinian) national bandit, a part of the resistance, a defender of Palestinians against Israelis, and his cybercrimes are not his essential characteristics, but tolerated because of his [national] services to the people as [one of the] liberator(s).

This is not to say that Hobsbawm’s bandits and the Gaza hackers are the same despite time and space. Yet, social banditry seems to be a nuancing term in order to capture the contradictory nature of these hackers where they are not solely political or solely criminal. In a continuous position of resistance, poverty and steadfastness – that is, between the explicitly and implicitly political – they seem to embody both.

 

  1. Hobsbawm, E. (2001) Bandits. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, p. 91
  2. 2. Ibid. p. 93
    3. Ibid. p. 41
    4. Palestine National Authority/Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (2008) Palestine in Figures 2007. Ramallah, Palestine: Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, p. 8
    5. Ibid. p. 17
    6. International Business Publication, USA (2015) Palestine (West Bank and Gaza) Education System and Policy Handbook, volume I Strategic Information and Developments. Washington, DC: Global Investment Center, USA, p. 55
    7. Hobsbawm, E. (2001) Bandits. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, p. 36
    8. Ibid. p.78
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