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Activists under cyber-attack in internet propaganda war

Washington, DC, Nov. 8— A little-reported nationwide cyber-attack has been under way in the United States for some time, aimed at regularly disrupting, if not eliminating, the websites of pro-Palestinian advocacy groups and the e-mail addresses of some of their prominent American supporters like Noam Chomsky and Francis Boyle.

Although no one has claimed responsibility, some activists suspect pro-Israel groups. They point out that these internet hackers target various well-known websites and addresses of key activists and bombard them with copies of forged e-mail messages sent to their subscribers or friends misrepresenting their views.

Usually the messages are embarrassingly anti-Semitic, racist, or pornographic and sometimes include computer viruses.

Nigel Parry, co-founder of Electronic Intifada, one of the widely read online publications that has been subjected to these attacks, said that “the fact that pro-Israel forces have sought refuge in this electronic shouting down of pro-Palestinian activists is a sign of their desperation and a feeling that they are losing the argument.”

“The truth is that no amount of Israeli effort will prevent the world from understanding that normal Palestinians, through no fault of their own, live a desperate life under Israeli military occupation. And this bothers people of conscience as Apartheid did a decade ago,” he said.

Some law-enforcement agencies in various constituencies have been reluctant to undertake any serious investigation, alleging, some of the targeted activists were told, that there are no statutes against this type of activity. Many of these messages are sent from internet cafes or the like. These are then routed through various servers around the world.

Boyle, a professor of law at the University of Illinois at Champaign and a onetime legal adviser to the Palestine peace delegation, recalled that upon his return last August from a 17-day vacation he found to his surprise some “55,000 messages in my inbox - and this has been going on continuously since then.”

In addition, “large numbers of forgeries have been put out in my name on the internet, circulating all over, basically misrepresenting my viewpoints on the Middle East, on the Arab world and the Muslim world - even on the United States.”

“And last week I got a threat saying that I would be eliminated because of my support for terrorism,” he added.

But Boyle, who inspired the campaign for Israeli divestment/disinvestment which has now spread to more than 50 US campuses, refuses to seek the help of law-enforcement agencies like the FBI. He said he does not want a “fishing expedition” through his computer files.

Professor Chomsky, the eminent linguist who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a harsh critic of Israeli policies, has also complained about cyber-attacks. He told The Nation magazine: “There is an awful lot of stuff going out in my name that’s totally insane and that I haven’t written.”

Chomsky’s inbox, as those of several other key activists, has also been regularly inundated with return-to-sender mail, or “Joe jobs” as they are called in the industry. Obviously, these may constitute only a small fraction of the e-mails that have been sent using his private address.

In Boyle’s opinion, pro-Israel sources are trying to drive pro-Palestinian activists off the internet for two reasons. “First, the internet is very important to get information that challenges the Israeli party line that is injected into the mainstream news media here and the so-called academic world, which is mostly pro-Israel. Secondly, the internet is very important for organizing ... The whole divestment campaign [was] organized on the internet.”

Many Arab-American activists and organizations in the country have been targeted, including Ahmed Bouzid of the Philadelphia-based Palestine Media Watch, Nidal Saqr of the Miami-based The March for Justice, Yale medical school professor Mazin Qumsiyeh and the Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the largest Arab-American organization, especially its New York office, run by Monica Tarazi.

In an e-mail message, Tarazi wrote: “While these e-mails are a nuisance, offensive and intimidating, the FBI didn’t find anything illegal. There haven’t been threats that rise to the level of a hate crime, no money has been stolen, public safety has not been endangered and, as far as we can tell, our computers have not been hacked or ‘technically intruded into’ as one agent put it. The offensive messages are all protected by the First Amendment.”

Nevertheless, for individuals, the task of deleting these forged messages that are clogging personal computers is frustrating and time-consuming. For organizations, it is disruptive and may compel them to shut down, as in the case with one popular site, Free Palestine.

According to Bouzid: “The effect is my mailbox is down. There is confusion. In addition to the bad name, you are slowed down tremendously. It is frustrating.” He added:

“What you have here is clearly a case of spamming, that is, malicious intent, identity theft.”

Although some believe this bombardment could be stifled with little effort by well-established organizations, Bouzid and Saqr teamed together and last month began the National Coalition against Cyber Terrorism. Membership is open to organizations or individuals, Bouzid explained. Parry noted that the bombardment coincided with the launching of the Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank.

But the national office of the ADC seemed more hopeful about getting help from law enforcement agencies.

In an interview, Nawar Shora, the ADC’s legal counsel, disclosed that he has been working with law-enforcement agencies in an effort to have an investigation opened. Shora said that he has recently met with the FBI’s Civil Rights Division and its Cyber Crimes Unit, as well as the Washington field office, “on the identity theft and spoofing of ADC [and] other civil rights groups and organizations, and Arab-American advocates and professors.”

“It is in its initial stages, though,” he cautioned. “We are setting another meeting, hopefully next week, in order to hit the ground running. We are planning to broaden the scope, not for only the ADC national [but also for other] Arab-American organizations.”

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