An army of Iranian “bots” are being deployed online to drive division during Israel’s pre-election discourse. At the Gaza border, a new smart fence is the latest in a comprehensive defense plan, and an IDF search and rescue team returned from a dam collapse in Brazil.
Iranian Bots Deployed in Israeli Elections
Israeli politicians and activists are entering full gear as the impending early elections in April approach, but so is an army for Iranian bot accounts on social media that are seeking to influence the elections.
The report comes from Vocativ, an American data-mining company that tracks web traffic, among other things. They reported a spike in the number of automated, Iranian-connected accounts that were driving coordinated radical and divisive debates online around Israeli politics. The report said that at least 350 of these automated “bot” accounts on major social media sites also carried links to the Countdown 2040 website, an English-language Iranian site that “counts down” to Israel’s predicted destruction in the year 2040 by Iran’s Supreme Leader, according to the Times of Israel.
“The discourse the bots are trying to create tries to magnify the fractures in Israeli society and weaken unity,” said Vocativ’s Israeli founder, Mati Kochavi. “It looks like they know that our strength lies in our unity. In the US and Europe, bots that emphasized the divisions [in society] were very influential in the political campaigns.”
The strategy is similar to those employed in European and U.S. elections by so-called “bot armies” that constantly drive coordinated messaging campaigns on social media that enflame divisive debates or spread misinformation. In Israel, these topics focused on Israeli leadership policy toward Iran, direct involvement in Syria, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Vocatic also contacted the social networks affected and asked them to stop what appears to be an organized Iranian move, something warned about by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On January 31, Facebook’s head of security said in a statement that the platform had removed 783 accounts “that engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook and Instagram. This activity was directed from Iran, in some cases repurposing Iranian state media content, and engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior targeting people across the world, although more heavily in the Middle East and South Asia.”
Examples of posts removed can be seen in the Facebook statement here.
The posts relating specifically to the upcoming elections may have been seen by as many as half a million Israelis, Vocativ said.
Israel Begins Construction of “Smart” Border Fence
The Israeli Defense Ministry broke ground on a new security fence this week along the Gaza border that is said to be specially suited for threats from Gaza.
When completed, the new barrier will stretch sixty-five kilometers along the route of the border from a new sea barrier near Zikim beach in the north all the way to the Kerem Shalom crossing in the south. The fence is made from galvanized steel, will weigh about 20,000 tons, and will reach a height of about twenty feet, according to the Jerusalem Post.
“The barrier will prevent the infiltration of terrorists from Gaza into our territory. Those in Gaza have to understand that if they do not keep quiet, we will not hesitate to act,” said Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israel has had a border fence facing Gaza for years, but the new fence is part of a comprehensive border defense plan that includes a sea barrier, an underground wall to block tunnels and advanced tunnel detection sensors.
The new fence is the latest step in the comprehensive border plan and is similar to the one already constructed on the Egyptian side of the Gaza Strip. The need for a more equipped and modern fence is not hard to imagine, especially from the perspective of Israel’s southern border communities. For ten months, explosive riots and protests of thousands of Palestinians have presented a security risk. Small groups of potential terrorists or Hamas operatives regularly attempt to breach the border fence. Just this week, the IDF arrested five Palestinians armed with knives who infiltrated into Israel from the southern Gaza Strip. They were arrested and transferred to Shin Bet security service for questioning.
A more modern fence may help prevent infiltrations, but the threat of the Hamas enclave still looms large. More than 1,000 rockets and mortar shells were fired into Israel in 2018 alone and the weekly March of Return clashes at the border have left hundreds of Palestinians dead and wounded and several IDF casualties. Last week, tensions on the border spiked after a Palestinian sniper opened fire on an IDF soldier firing his weapon during a border clash. A video shows the bullet from the sniper hitting the helmet of an officer who was miraculously only lightly injured.
This weekend, some 10,000 protesters gathered for the weekly protests and violently rioted throwing rocks and burning tires. They were met by Israeli tear gas and occasional live-fire. The Palestinian Health Ministry reported twenty-three protestors injured, according to the Times of Israel. At the same time, an Egyptian delegation is visiting the Gaza Strip to carry on discussions with Hamas leadership regarding maintaining calm in and around the strip.
Israel Sends Rescue Teams to Brazil
After a dam rupture from a mine in Brazil killed ninety-nine people and left hundreds more missing, Israel dispatched IDF teams to aid in the search and rescue process. During the operation, the IDF delegation helped recover thirty-five bodies since it arrived at the site last Monday morning, but unfortunately did not locate any survivors.
The collapse sent a torrent of mud sweeping over a complex where three hundred employees of the dam, owned by Brazilian mining giant Vale, were working. The flow, which was made of mining tailings and sludge, was unlikely to leave anyone alive underneath it.
The IDF team included some 130 soldiers and officers from both active duty and reserve forces, including engineering experts, doctors, and search and rescue personnel, firefighters, and even soldiers from the IDF's underwater missions unit according to i24 News.
The IDF publicized the aid mission on Twitter expressing unity with Brazil during the catastrophe. As the aid mission came to a close and Israeli troops returned home, the Brazilian president responded in kind on Twitter, saying “The brave Israeli troops, sent by the Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu, today ended their mission in Brazil. Thank you, on behalf of the Brazilian people, for your services.”
Israel is known for sending quick response search teams in the wake of natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in recent memory, but this event marks the first time a team was dispatched to Brazil, another sign of close relations after Brazil pledged to move its embassy to Jerusalem last year.