Fake text warnings unnerve Israelis

Use of fake texts to scare civilians marks a new form of psychological warfare

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 July, 2014, 10:37pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 July, 2014, 1:21am

On the same morning that the Israeli military dropped leaflets on the northern Gaza Strip warning residents of an impending military strike, thousands of Israelis in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and elsewhere received on their smartphones what initially appeared to be official text messages.

First, the messages warned residents to stay close to bomb shelters, indicating an impending rocket attack from Gaza, and then they warned of suicide bombers who may have infiltrated the public shelters.

The messages clearly were fake - some were in Hebrew and some in English, all with grammatical mistakes, and it's unlikely that Israeli officials would contact the public in such a manner.

While it is unclear who sent the messages, their appearance over the past week marks a new type of psychological warfare. In a sense, it is not unlike the Israeli military tactic of "roof knocking", the use of preliminary non-explosive shelling to warn Gazans of an impending strike on a specific target.

The internet can be used in many ways, said Tal Pavel, an expert on cyberthreats in the Middle East. "It can be used to send serious information, or the different platforms can be used to spread rumours and disinformation or as part of the fighting," he said. "The goal of the enemy is to scare people."

It is unnerving, say those who have received the messages. It takes a few minutes to realise that they are not real.

"I got the message forwarded to me by several concerned citizens asking me if it was true," said Brachie Sprung, a spokeswoman for the Jerusalem municipality, referring to a fake text message purportedly sent by the Home Front Command warning residents to stay near a bomb shelter.

On Wednesday, a text message that initially appeared to have been sent by the Israeli newspaper
Haaretz said that a "rocket from Gaza hit petrochemical plant in Haifa, huge fire, possible chemical leak, advised to evacuate Haifa". Another said, "Just Now: 25 Israelis killed in missile hit Haifa."

The newspaper later put out a statement saying that it had nothing to do with the messages.