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An IDF soldier. Israel is preparing to defend networks against assault from hostile countries and terrorist organizations. Photo by AP (Archive)
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A team of experts convened by the prime minister to develop a strategy to defend Israel's computer networks against assault from hostile countries and terrorist organizations is expected to submit its recommendations after the Passover holiday. The group, headed by Maj. Gen. (res. ) Isaac Ben-Israel, was formed in November, a few months after foreign media reported on the Stuxnet computer worm - which struck nuclear facilities in Iran, as well as a number of networks around the world.

According to those reports, computer experts and intelligence sources in the West attributed the development and deployment of Stuxnet to Israel, as part of the country's effort to halt Iran's nuclear program.

Ben-Israel, a former head of the Defense Ministry's Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure, is considered an expert in the field of cyber warfare. Although the convening of the committee was not disclosed at the time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted at its existence last week, when he said on YouTube that he was developing a national response to the problem of cyber warfare.

The primary threat to Israel relates to computer networks operated by government ministries and the defense establishment, both on an average day and during a state of emergency, and efforts to disrupt the security establishment and the civilian economic sector. This includes threats to major banks and other businesses as well.

At the last Herzliya Conference, sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Center, Ben-Israel sat as a panelist at a session on cyber warfare, during which he presented a historical survey of the field. His fellow panelist, Brig. Gen. Nitzan Nuriel of the National Security Council's Counter-Terrorism Bureau, told the audience that over the course of Operation Cast Lead (in late 2008 and early 2009 ) and in connection with the Gaza flotilla incident last May, Israel faced repeated cyber attacks.

Nuriel warned of the potential vulnerability of the country's computer systems to cyber attack from hostile countries and organizations. "Israel must complete the strategy by which it will defend its critical systems," he said. "What we know how to do, the enemy knows how to do, too."

Various entities in Israel, he revealed, such as banks and major corporations, had not consented to accepting government protection until the Counter-Terrorism Bureau broke into their networks to demonstrate the potential harm they faced.

"If we have strong defense systems, the attackers will get discouraged. I'm prepared to invest a lot of money so that every computer of every hacker who targets the State of Israel burns up," Nuriel declared.

Several agencies in Israel are currently engaged in the field of cyber warfare and protecting the country's networks, including a government agency that operates all ministry servers and coordinates computer network security, while also monitoring developments abroad.

Most of the agencies that deal with these concerns are part of the defense establishment. The Counter-Terrorism Bureau advises the prime minister on the issue and the Shin Bet security service has an entire branch devoted to advanced technology on the subject, including the defense of computer networks from cyber attack by hostile outside countries and terrorist organizations. There is also a similar unit within the Mossad espionage agency. And in recent months, the Israel Defense Forces intelligence corps established a new entity to address both offensive and defensive aspects of cyber warfare.