Next Tuesday, join GZERO Media and Microsoft for a live event, Beyond SolarWinds: Securing Cyberspace, exploring cyber challenges facing governments, companies, and citizens. Watch this Munich Security Conference "Road to Munich" event on May 18, 1pm EDT / 10am PDT. Juliette Kayyem, Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and former Assistant Secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security, will moderate the conversation featuring Microsoft President Brad Smith and other global experts.
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After a year of relative calm, clashes between Israel and Hamas erupted Monday, putting the two sides on the brink of full-blown war.
Flare-ups between the Israeli military and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip seem to be cyclical. But there are a few developments that make this latest round of tit-for-tat strikes somewhat atypical.
What's different this time?
Targeting Israel's hubs. In the past, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) militants in Gaza have restricted rocket fire mostly to southern Israel. On Monday, however, they upped the ante, firing dozens of rockets into the heart of Jerusalem. In response, Israel's army launched a broad military campaign in the Gaza Strip, killing several Hamas and PIJ commanders.
Then on Tuesday night, in an unprecedented move, Hamas and PIJ fired hundreds of rockets into Tel Aviv and central Israel, sending millions running for cover in bomb shelters, and prompting Israel to shutter its international airport. So far, 43 Palestinians, including 13 children, have been killed in Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip, while at least six Israelis have been killed and dozens more injured.
Gulf states. This is the biggest Israeli-Palestinian escalation since 2014, when conflict lasted for 50 days. But this time, clashes come just months after Israel has signed normalization agreements with Arab states, including the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. While the UAE — which has welcomed thousands of Israeli tourists in recent months as a result of normalization — has called on Israel to stop the violence and respect "the Holy al-Aqsa Mosque," for now its government has shown no willingness to play an active role in brokering negotiations.
A test for Biden. Recent events also pose a conundrum for US President Joe Biden, a longtime "friend" of Israel who is also focused on placating the progressive wing of his party, which is more supportive than other US lawmakers of Palestinian rights.
Progressive Democrats like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Elizabeth Warren have called on Biden to intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, which Biden has made clear isn't a top foreign-policy priority. Moreover, Biden likely doesn't want to do — or say —anything that will provoke the Israelis as his administration tries to revive the Iran nuclear deal, which the Israeli government opposes. But now that the situation is escalating so quickly, Washington may be compelled to get more involved.
Elections matter. Hamas warned last month that it would wreak havoc if the Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs in the West Bank, cancelled this month's parliamentary vote, the first Palestinian elections since 2006. Nonetheless, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, fearing a massive electoral loss to Hamas, proceeded to postpone the vote indefinitely. Hamas is fuming.
This follows mass unrest in Jerusalem in recent weeks. A high-profile court case over the potential eviction of several Palestinian families from East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood fueled riots and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police. Jerusalem-based police courted more trouble when they blocked access to a plaza in Jerusalem's Old City that serves as a town-square for Arab residents during Ramadan. Tensions peaked when Israeli police used heavy-handed tactics to crack down on Palestinians protesting at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
Hamas, casting itself as the real "protector" of Jerusalem to garner political support, used the violence in Jerusalem as a pretext to launch a barrage of rockets into Israel. Hamas does have a solid base of support given that 37 percent of Palestinians said recently that "armed struggle" is the best way to end the occupation, compared to 36 percent who favored negotiations. In striking Jerusalem, "Hamas is trying to embarrass and punish Abbas for cancelling parliamentary polls that it was slated to benefit from," says Moran Stern, an academic at Georgetown University.
Arab-Israeli communities are fired up. For Israel, however, the longer-term danger comes from within its own Arab-Israeli sector, which constitutes approximately 20 percent of the total Israeli population. In recent weeks, Arab communities inside Israel have taken a more active role in protests, which have turned unprecedentedly violent. (A state of emergency has now been declared in the integrated Arab-Jewish city of Lod.) This development startled many politicians who tout co-existence between Israeli Arabs and Jews as a model for broader Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Asked about this development, Moran Stern said: "As tensions rose in Sheikh Jarrah, Hamas has been trying to mobilize Arab communities, especially in East Jerusalem. It also hoped to mobilize supporters in the West Bank, President Abbas's stronghold. It seems the initial plan was to fuel events in those areas while keeping a safe distance so as not to give Israel an excuse to attack its assets in Gaza directly." But Stern notes that as things escalated, this has obviously changed. "The willingness of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to escalate by launching massive rocket attacks all the way to Tel Aviv surprised intelligence analysts." Still, Hamas' approach seems to have worked: Arab-Israelis are now angry and activated.
Next steps. Still mired in political chaos, Israel does not have a functioning government to lead the way, while President Abbas has also been missing in action in recent days. Meanwhile, both Israel and Hamas are now upping their rhetoric. The risk of an escalation of deadly violence continues to rise.
Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director at Stanford's Cyber Policy Center, Eurasia Group senior advisor and former MEP, discusses trends in big tech, privacy protection and cyberspace:
What did the DarkSide incident targeting Colonial Pipeline reveal about ransomware and the vulnerability of critical infrastructure?
Well, basically everything you need to know. The type of impact debilitating infrastructure through a ransomware or other method of cyberattack has been warned about for years. The risk of exploitation of vulnerabilities in software with enormous ripple effects became very tangible with the attack on Colonial Pipelines. But remember that energy infrastructure in the US already enjoys the highest protections, and still the attackers managed to perpetrate.
How can companies and governments catch up on cyber defense?
Now, it's critical that there is a mapping of an entire ecosystem, whether that is a company network or an entire country's architecture. Is it clear who is responsible for protecting which parts and how does information flow in case of emergency? I worry about the overreliance on software companies, which, as illustrated by the SolarWinds exchange server and now Colonial hacks are not strong enough. Connectivity brings new and often invisible vulnerabilities that must be addressed with more resilient protections and with more insights to public and Democratic leaders.
"It feels like citizens have been left to fend for themselves. It's almost sort of Darwinian. You have a sense of starring in your own worst science fiction survivor movie, where it's up to you if you survive," says Barkha Dutt, an Indian journalist who just lost her father to COVID and has tested positive for the virus herself. A year into the pandemic, India's government has not properly prepared its hospitals and health care workers, forcing desperate families to run from hospital to hospital looking for help, she tells Ian Bremmer in an interview on GZERO World.
Watch the episode: India's COVID calamity
China is no stranger to using social media networks to influence public opinion. But as Chinese foreign policy becomes increasingly assertive, they are doing a lot more to win foreign hearts and minds on Facebook and Twitter. A joint investigation by the AP and the Oxford Internet Institute has revealed how Chinese diplomats and state media outlets are coordinating on social media to strategically amplify messages from Beijing — which are then further amplified by an army of fake accounts that Facebook and Twitter keep playing whack-a-mole with. We take a look at China's public diplomacy activity, reach, and engagement on Facebook and Twitter over the span of a few months since mid-2020.
Ian Bremmer shares his perspective on global politics this week:
Why has there been a recent escalation of violence in Jerusalem?
Well, it started with demonstrations of the Palestinians expecting a verdict on these cases of Palestinians that have been pushed out of their homes in East Jerusalem by settlers, contested territory that has belonged to the Palestinians. You've had lots of violence against them by Israeli police, then you had Gaza missiles from Hamas, and then Israeli missiles into Gaza, and now we've got a couple dozen Palestinians dead and the potential for this to get a lot worse is real. The shekel has even moved a little bit because there's concerns that this could lead to a war. It's not a broader war. This is not as much of a priority for the Arabs in the region, so it doesn't kill the Abraham Accords, Iran is still moving ahead with a deal, but in terms of potential for real bloodshed between Israel and the Palestinians, absolutely. That's something to worry about.
What's happening in Colombia?
There was an effort by President Duque in his last year, he can't run for another term, to increase taxes to deal with their fiscal balance. And it's still in the middle of a pandemic, the timing was really difficult, especially because it hits the poor too, it's not just wealthy taxes, even things like funerals. Massive outcry, now anger about all sorts of things, a lot of violence, police brutality in the response. His popularity has hit the toilet as a consequence and a lot of instability on the ground of Colombia. This is not just a Colombia problem. You have this kind of outcry against established political figures across South America, right now, as they're dealing with some of the worst outbreaks of coronavirus. This is a region that's been hit both economically and healthcare-wise really bad.
Finally, what's the concern with China's population growth decline?
Well, every 10 years they have a census and the population is flat. There was some belief it might even have decreased a little bit, but it's certainly not growing. India's population is growing. When you look at India versus China, there is a lot of sense of, "Well, how can China become a superpower if their population is going to get old before it gets rich, and if they're running out of workers and if not as many people are consuming, especially when they focus on dual circulation, which means more domestic demand?" But this is a longer-term issue. Near-term, the more proximate point is that the Chinese are at parity with the Americans on key technologies, and that makes them, by far, the most important competitor and national security threat to the United States. Ain't going to change.
A few days ago, cyber criminals hacked into one of the largest oil pipelines in the US, which halted operations after its corporate IT network was knocked offline. If the engineers don't fix the system on their own or the owners cough up the ransom that the hackers are demanding, millions of Americans will soon feel the heat of cybercrime in their daily lives, through higher prices at the gas pump.
Who pulled off this attack, and what does it tell us about the vulnerability of critical infrastructure and the rules (or lack thereof) in cyber conflict today?
The culprit. The US government has blamed the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack on DarkSide, a relatively new group of veteran hackers from Eastern Europe famous for bragging about its exploits online, and leaking data dumps from victims who don't pay up. The DarkSiders style themselves as Robin Hoods of the hacker world, donating (a minuscule) part of their profits to global NGOs such as Children International and The Water Project. But this time they may have bitten off a bit more than they can chew.
DarkSide issued on Monday a rare apology for creating "problems" to society, insisting they only want money and are not at all interested in politics, although they do seem to avoid former Soviet bloc nations. That's common for cyber criminals based in these countries, whose governments will look the other way as long as hackers target victims outside their borders.
One of those governments is that of Russia, with a long history of outsourcing its dirty cyber work to unscrupulous hackers. Joe Biden says there's no evidence that the Kremlin was involved this time, but does have "some responsibility."
The problem. The fact that a bunch of geeks armed with laptops shut down a pipeline that serves 45 percent of America's oil refineries shows that US critical infrastructure is a lot more vulnerable to cyber-extortion than we'd like to think. And the Biden administration's $2 trillion plan to upgrade US infrastructure across the board turns cybersecurity into an even more urgent concern.
As always, the pandemic has made everything worse. Ransomware attacks — and cybercrime in general — have boomed in COVID times, largely as a result of IT systems that became more vulnerable when companies rushed to adapt them for remote access. Moreover, hackers are now targeting bigger firms for a lot more money thanks to the rise of cryptocurrencies, which make it easier for them to get paid and harder to trace.
Ransomware attacks are particularly problematic for companies and countries because they are forced to make a tough choice: pay off hackers and risk encouraging further such attacks, or hold out and take the economic or social disruption on the chin.
The response. The Colonial Pipeline hack shows how cyberattacks can do severe damage to a country by disrupting critical infrastructure. But as we've written before, these types of operations are hard to prevent, and even harder to attribute and respond to.
So far, the US government has declared a state of emergency to keep the oil flowing to the Eastern Seaboard. But at this point it can't do much more to stop the hackers, or hold them responsible for a brazen attack that would otherwise be considered an act of war against America. It can't even prevent the corporation from paying the cryptocurrency ransom.What it can do mostly depends on whether a foreign government was involved, or aware of what DarkSide was cooking. If that's confirmed later on, the US may want to hit that country harder than with the usual economic sanctions. There could even be political pressure to respond proportionately in cyberspace — perhaps with a similarly damaging attack. And when the cyber gloves are off, things could get very bad, very fast.
What We’re Watching: Putin to tighten Russian gun laws, Iran-Saudi thaw, new forests vs climate change
Putin orders review of gun laws after school shooting: Details remain sketchy following a shooting at a school in the Russian city of Kazan. At least seven children and one teacher were killed, and a 19-year-old has been arrested, according to local officials. In response to the attack, President Vladimir Putin "gave an order to urgently work out a new provision concerning the types of weapons that can be in civilian hands, taking into account the weapon" used in this shooting, according to a Kremlin spokesman. There's an irony here that extends to the United States, where school shootings are all too common. In 2018, a Russian woman named Maria Butina pleaded guilty to using the National Rifle Association, the gun rights lobbying group, to "establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over American politics." At the time, Putin described Butina's 18-year sentence as an "outrage." The NRA, of course, works hard to prevent Congress and the president from taking precisely the kinds of actions that Putin swiftly ordered following the shooting in Kazan.
Forests growing back: Finally some good news about the environment. According to a new WWF study, an area of forest equivalent to the size of France has regrown across the world in the past 20 years. These "new" forests in places like Brazil, Mongolia, Canada or parts of Africa could possibly trap up to 5.9 gigatons of carbon dioxide annually — more than the US, the world's second largest emitter, puts into the atmosphere annually. The forest regrowth is the result of planting new trees, keeping livestock away, eliminating invasive plants, and, interestingly, not doing anything at all. While this is a welcome development in the global struggle against climate change, unfortunately it's still being offset by alarming rates of deforestation, especially in the Amazon. The experts tell us that for forests to become a true climate solution, we would need to grow new forests at least twice as fast as we're destroying them around the world. So time to plant a lot of trees, or to just leave forests alone.Iran-Saudi talks: Could longtime bitter Middle East rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia be on the cusp of an understanding? Tehran has just confirmed that both sides actually sat down recently for the first time in years to ease tensions — perhaps in part as a consequence of the Biden administration's move to cut support for the Saudis in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and Iran have been fighting a proxy war since 2014. Washington, which aims to draw back from the region more broadly, also wants the Saudis to go along with any US-Iran deal to resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman recently said he wants to get along with the Iranians, a major change of tone for him. Let's not get carried away of course: there's still a lot of bad blood between both sides, but the mere fact that Iran and Saudi Arabia are talking is progress towards avoiding a major conflict between the region's two main powers.