Digital Jihad: Palestinian Resistance in the Digital Era

Digital Jihad: Palestinian Resistance in the Digital Era

by Erik Skare


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An innovative and technology-driven form of dissent has emerged in response to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Dubbed “electronic jihad,” this approach by groups of Palestinian hackers has made international headlines by breaching the security of websites, such as the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, Avira, Whatsapp, and BitDefender. Though initially confined to small clandestine groups, interest in hacktivism continues to grow and is being adopted by militant Palestinian parties, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad,  groups which are now incorporating hackers into their ranks.
Based on extensive firsthand interviews with Palestinian hackers and other activists, Digital Jihad is the first book to look at the increasing role of hacktivism in the Palestinian resistance movement. Erik Skare provides unique insight into the evolution of the movement within Palestine as well as its place within the global transformation of activism, which has embraced technology—and its disruption—as a form of protest.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783607846
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 11/15/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 300
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Erik Skare is a native of Norway and an activist and editor for the pro-Palestinian website Infofada.

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Digital Jihad

Palestinian Resistance in the Digital Era

By Erik Skare

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2016 Erik Skare
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78360-787-7



Palestinian hacktivism and electronic jihad cannot be seen in isolation from the Palestinian resistance movement itself. Instead, it should be considered as the digitalization and development of an already existing resistance – based on the necessities and challenges facing people under a persisting military-technological occupation.

Of course, to define "resistance" is not a simple task. Not only because the term contains qualitatively different means and strategies such as armed/non-violent and active/passive resistance, but also because the term is politically charged. That is, politically charged as far as it implies legality, contrary to the term "terrorism", which implies illegality. Also, the Palestinian resistance movement's approach to a future statehood and the means to achieve it has been historically conditioned and oriented according to what the Palestinians themselves have regarded as possible. Thus, the resistance and its goals have changed several times throughout its history.

We should not get trapped by the normalizing narrative of a conflict between "equals", a conflict where Israelis and Palestinians are simply two neighbors who just cannot seem to get along. It is first and foremost expressed through one of the words which, perhaps, appears most frequently in this book: "occupation". Israel not only disputes the notion of the illegality of the occupation but also that an occupation even exists. However, international law, despite its at times obvious flaws, has to be applied to any ongoing conflict. Thus, when using the term occupation, I am referring to UN resolution 242 declaring the occupation of the Palestinian territories to be illegal and that the Israeli army must be withdrawn immediately, and to UN resolution 194, which states the Palestinian refugees' right of return. These are undisputable human rights.

Last, I also refer to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) deeming the wall and settlements as illegal and in breach of international law. Thus, as a professor at the University of Oslo emphasized in a seminar: "No doubt one has to be objective, but if you point out that Israel is breaking international law, you are not being subjective – you are referring to an objective fact." So when I refer to the Palestinian resistance, I am referring to a people's use of violent and non-violent means to end or change a particular kind of political situation such as an occupation. The term "occupation" also denotes an objective reality: that is, the ensuing rights of the Palestinians within that context – including the right to resist. It is precisely this resistance that has developed according to the local and global situation, with the associated challenges that the resistance has faced. From the Cold War to the fall of the Berlin Wall; from the Oslo process to the "War on Terror".

Of course, the goals of the Palestinian resistance have not been limited to directly forcing Israel to end its occupation, but also aim to make the international community aware that there actually is such a thing as a Palestinian people with a lost home.

When we analyze this resistance, it must be based on the notion that human beings, and our way of organizing, are historical products formed by the contradictions of society at large and within the resistance movement itself. This means that the issues raised and the strategies proposed by the Palestinian resistance through different periods of time are not historical abstracts. Ellen Meiksins Wood's assessment of Western political thought may be useful:

To understand what political theorists are saying requires knowing what questions they are trying to answer, and those questions confront them not simply as philosophical abstractions but as specific historical conditions, in the context of specific practical activities, social relations, pressing issues, grievances and conflict.

Thus, the account of the history of the Palestinian resistance is by virtue an account of a social history. My intent here is not to give the reader a full account of Palestinian history. Rather, I wish to present a glimpse of the wider and longer threads that run through it in order to understand how Palestinian hacktivism fits in as a continuation: From the fida'i and symbolic violence, the shahid and non-violence, and subsequently the istishhadi and emergence of electronic jihad.


Before the establishment of Israel in 1948 – through what several Israeli historians, such as Ilan Pappé and Benny Morris, have argued to be the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians – the region had already seen organized protests and campaigns against the colonization of the homeland through boycotts, demonstrations, armed resistance, general strikes and graffiti to name a few. However, in 1955 – following a period of shock and apathy after the nakba (the catastrophe) – the Palestinian refugees began to organize themselves in commando units. It was the beginning of a new era of resistance and military campaigns against the Israeli state – in which the only perceived way of liberating Palestine was through armed means.

The armed campaigns were mainly small-scale attacks conducted from Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan against Israeli military sites and settlements – also called pinprick guerilla tactics, given the name from the small hole made by a needle used by the Palestinian resistance in order to frustrate and exhaust a superior Israeli army, and also sometimes inciting excessive reprisals.

As many of the operations resulted in the death of the fighter, they were branded as fida'iyyin (the ones who sacrifice themselves). The campaigns of the fida'i were, however, not limited to pure military campaigns but contained within them the notion of umud (steadfastness). For example, the fida'i would in many cases harvest the crops of their former farms and retrieve their livestock.

During this time the Palestinian resistance created several cultural perceptions, with the fida'i as a cultural icon, the klashin (the Kalashnikov) as a symbol of pride and the Palestinian songs of "revolution, resistance, sacrifice, return and self-reliance". There was thus a consistent secular-nationalist notion in the narrative of the fida'i in accordance with the prevailing ideology of that time, secular Arab socialism/pan-Arabism.

It should be mentioned that the fida'i who died in battle would still be considered a martyr, yet, as the Palestinian-American anthropologist Nasser Abufarha points out, although the military campaigns to a large extent were an act of sacrifice, that did not necessarily include a religious dimension as it would later on. Rather, "In the Palestinian context the perception of fusion between the human sacrificer and the land is more prevalent than fusion with divine life, especially in cultural representations, although the latter also exists".

Nevertheless, although they faced a superior opponent in the Israeli state, it is hard to underestimate the sheer optimism in the narrative of the fida'i, where a future victory and the liberation of Palestine seemed inevitable. Partly, the optimism of the fida'i was linked to the fact that the liberation of Palestine through armed means was not something limited to the Palestinian cause, but rather a phenomenon in the global development of decolonization. This period of time saw the armed struggle against colonialism in Vietnam (1955-1975) and in Algeria (1954-1962), to mention just two, and in the majority of cases the former colonies achieved independence. The Palestinian resistance studied these different armed anti-colonial movements in detail. They were the embodiment of Frantz Fanon's thesis: "Decolonization is the veritable creation of new men. But this creation owes nothing of its legitimacy to any supernatural power; the 'thing' which has been colonized becomes man during the same process by which it frees itself."

This is not to say that the campaigns of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its fida'iyyin were perfect. On the contrary, the movement managed to get into conflict, first with King Hussein of Jordan as in the beginning he resisted the idea of the PLO establishing itself in Jordanian-occupied East Jerusalem, and feared that the Palestinians would later on attempt to overthrow him and take over Palestine. Later, in 1964, he would accept the claim after pressure from Nasser.

The March 1968 victory at Karameh in Jordan, then head-quarters of the PLO's dominant faction, Fatah, where the Palestinians, with decisive aid from the Jordanian military, managed to fight off 15,000 Israeli soldiers, and further entrenched its legitimacy, did not help. For example, as a result of Karameh, the Palestinian organizations strengthened their positions in the Palestinian refugee camps and members of Fatah and the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) established themselves in the camps of Wihdat, Baqa'a, Sulh, al-Husn, Jerash, Zizia in the north and outside of Tufila, Shubaq and Karak in the south. Subsequently, there were several clashes between the Palestinians and Jordanians, and in November that same year, three of the PFLP's training camps were bombed by the Jordanian monarchy.

It all culminated two years later in 1970, in what would be known as Black September. First, the Palestinian guerillas attempted to assassinate King Hussein, an attack which he barely survived, and then the PFLP hijacked three airplanes that were forced to land in Jordan; shortly after Yasser Arafat declared Irbid District of Jordan a liberated zone. If decolonization creates new men, there is apparently no guarantee that the same men will not be overcome by bravado. The repercussions of Black September, which lasted from September 1970 until July 1971, led to the loss of thousands of Palestinian lives.

As the Palestinian resistance was expelled from Jordan and moved to Lebanon, the "pinprick" operations of the fida'i decreased. However, the tactics and the establishment of fida'i bases in their new host country created tensions with the Lebanese population, which started to consider the PLO and the rest of the Palestinian resistance as a threat to the stability of the country. The fact that the majority of Palestinians are Sunni Muslims and Lebanon had, and still has, a principle of power distribution along religious and sectarian lines did not make it any easier. In 1982, as a result of the war in Lebanon, the PLO – humiliated and disarmed – moved to Tunisia, where it would remain irrelevant for a decade. The final sacrifice of the fida'i had been made.


In retrospect, it is important to keep in mind that the goals of the Palestinian resistance were not limited to the military defeat of Israel. We should not forget that the aftermath of the nakba happened in a period when a majority of the Western world held deep sympathies for the Israeli state project because of the Holocaust. Furthermore, there were not that many people who even knew such a thing as the Palestinian people existed. While the majority today is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, it would have been unthinkable to question the legitimacy of Israel in the 1950s, 1960s, and even into the 1970s.

The myth that the Jews had come to the land and made the desert bloom was prevalent, with the corresponding idea that the "lazy" Arabs only came later on to reap the benefits. Yet, as a Polish rabbi reported coming back from Palestine in 1920, "The bride is beautiful, but she has got a bridegroom already". Fortunately for the Zionists, as Golda Meir expressed it, "I thank God every night that the bridegroom was so weak, and the bride could be taken away from him". Simply put, it was a period when it was not controversial to claim that "There is no such thing as a Palestinian people ... They didn't exist", as was done by the same Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir. The Palestinians thus saw the necessity to create their own existence as if they were a child forced to give birth to itself. For them, the saying "To resist is to exist" was not just a meaningless phrase.

It is only within this context that we can understand what happened. In 1970 parts of the resistance – predominantly through the Marxist-Leninist PFLP – started hijacking international flights. As George Habash, then leader of the PFLP, stated: "When we hijack a plane it has more effect than if we killed a hundred Israelis in battle", and "For decades, world public opinion has been neither for nor against the Palestinians. It simply ignored us. At least the world is talking about us now."

Thus, the Palestinian armed resistance was not limited to imposing direct damage on the Israeli state, but aimed to enhance its symbolic power where none existed. One can say that the Palestinian resistance emerged not only as a result of the objective violence of bullets and bombs but also from the imposition of the symbolic violence associated with the production of knowledge in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The hijacking of airplanes was not a mere act of what Slavoj Zizek terms "visible 'subjective' violence", that is "the perturbation of the 'normal' peaceful state of things". Rather, it was an act of counter-symbolic violence resulting from the actual situation of that time and the hopes for tomorrow.

Indeed, we could moralize as if the unfolding events were created in a political void; but instead, perhaps we should remember the German officer who visited Picasso in his Paris studio during the Second World War. When he saw the painting Guernica, depicting the German bombing of the Basque city, he asked Picasso, shocked: "Did you do this?" Calmly Picasso replied: "No, you did this!"



While the PLO and the rest of the Palestinian resistance had emerged in a time of decolonization, in the 1980s the global situation had changed drastically. Decolonization and armed struggle for liberation had to large degree ended – and with the fall of the Berlin Wall the Cold War did too. In other words, what had been seen as the Great War of Ideologies, capitalism versus communism, had come to an end with what Francis Fukuyama termed "the end of history". Capitalism and its hegemony had won and what awaited was for the rest of the world to adopt that notion. It was in this period, after the defeat of the PLO in Lebanon in 1982 and while the traditional Palestinian resistance faced a situation of irrelevance and isolation in Tunisia, that two new currents emerged.

First, a new generation of Palestinians emerged in the Palestinian territories and with it new leaders who were growing restless after twenty years of a seemingly unending occupation of the Palestinian territories. Hence, the resistance moved its geographical center from the Arab countries neighboring Israel to the occupied territories themselves for the first time since 1948.

Second, the defeat of the PLO, not merely as a resistance movement but also as a secular movement, led to the rise of the Islamic resistance and its religious superstructure through movements such as Hamas (the former Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood) and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Although the use of religion in the resistance was growing with these movements as they appropriated larger parts of the definitionsmacht – the power to define the social, cultural and moral reality it should be emphasized that they were still nationalist in their goals and programs.

On the other hand, the rise of the Islamic political movements cannot be seen as a strictly Palestinian phenomenon, but rather was a broader regional development. As the defeat of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the Six Day War in 1967 represented the end of secular pan-Arabism, the Islamic revolution in Iran, in 1979, was by many perceived as the success of political Islam in imposing real change and restoring dignity for the Arab and Muslim masses. This led to new currents not only in Palestine with Hamas, but also in, for example, Lebanon with the rise of Hizbollah in 1985.

With the outbreak of the First Intifada in late 1987, the Palestinian resistance changed its discourse, rhetoric and tactics. One example is the growing notion that it was necessary to create international pressure on Israel in order to make it withdraw from the occupied territories. Another was the emerging religious superstructure of the resistance in line with the increasing impact of the Islamist Palestinian parties and movements: From the secular fida'i who acted as an active subject by his autonomous action of "sacrificing himself" and merging his body with the land, the resistance moved to the Palestinian shahid (martyr) who, as a passive object, was killed by forces external to him within the framework of a distinct religious dimension. In this case Palestinians were martyred by a superior and oppressive military army for the relatively harmless action of, for example, throwing rocks against a tank. And thus the notion of the shahid was the transcendence of the initial victimization to that of becoming a national hero.


Excerpted from Digital Jihad by Erik Skare. Copyright © 2016 Erik Skare. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Editorial note xiii

Prologue xv

Introduction 1

Part I Heading for the Military-Digital Complex

1 The resistance develops 13

2 The shahid and the normalization of occupation 23

3 A digital fortress: The Israeli military-digital complex 31

4 The istishhadi and the emergence of Palestinian electronic jihad 51

Part II Palestine 2.0 and the New Cyber-Warriors

5 Gaza Hacker Team: Electronic jihadists and script kiddies 65

6 From the nation to the umma 87

7 Islamic Jihad and Hamas: The Palestinian cyber-brigades 111

8 Does matter really matter? Palestinian ambivalence about electronic jihad 131

Part III When the Guns Fall Silent

9 A continuation of the armed struggle? 149

10 Final thoughts 167

Epilogue 183

Notes 187

Index 212

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