No one doubts that Majd Oweida, 23, is brilliant, but it is what he did with his brilliance that is a source of contention between his parents who are advocating for his release from an Israeli prison, and Israel’s security service who have accused him of hacking their drones for Islamic Jihad.
I tracked down a hacker and tried to follow up with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. None of them claimed Majd, a local hero of sorts, a Palestinian robot designer and talent scout of the popular program “Palestinians Got Talent.” In February Majd was sentenced to nine years in prison for spying on the Israeli military for a terrorist organization, Islamic Jihad.
Majd confessed, but his parents say the charges are nonsense and the authorities did not have concrete evidence when they made the conviction. They claim Majd was tortured into making a false confession, and Palestinian human rights groups have agreed.
Majd first garnered fame locally in the Gaza Strip after he graduated with honors from the department of Information Technology at the Islamic University in Gaza with an unconventional senior project, a housekeeper robot.
Before his sentencing, Majd was already in an Israeli jail for nearly a year. He was first detained on Feb. 23, 2016, while in the process of exiting the Gaza Strip via the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing. The purpose of his travel was to scout talent for the program “Palestinians Got Talent.”
His burgeoning career came to an untimely end when prosecutors at Israel’s Beersheba District Court arraigned him back in March 2016. They had a steep list of charges alleging he hacked Israeli military computers, drones and surveillance cameras, and then handed the classified information to Islamic Jihad.
According to the Shin Bet, Israel’s security agency, Majd was stealth hacker—aside from his work in televised game shows. They accused him of successfully developing a program to break into a network of cameras on Israeli roads, and virtually infiltrate the movements of the Israeli police. The also alleged he showed members of Islamic Jihad fields and roads where Israeli forces were operating during rocket launches by militant groups in Gaza.
According to a Israel’s Channel 2 network, the Shin Bet believe Majd began working for Islamic Jihad five years ago.
Before working behind the camera, Majd was on screen in another show in the same franchise, “Arabs Got Talent.” The band he managed al-Takht al-Sharqi made it to the semifinals in the 2014 season. In a video clip of the musical group, Majd can be seen tearing up on the wings of the stage.
‘A trap to lure Palestinians’
Lawyers representing Majd with the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights said in a statement they were denied visits to Majd for the first 19 days of his detention. It was during this time that Majd made the confession used in court, which Al Mezan said was “extracted under torture.”
Attorney Mohammed Jabareen, one of Majd’s lawyers, added to Mondoweiss, “Majd has is in a difficult situation, the Israeli prison service refused a request from the Red Cross to check his conditions.”
Al Mezan added the Erez checkpoint from Gaza into Israel is frequently used as a location where Israeli soldiers detain Palestinians, and later charge them with crimes. Because Palestinians need to be issued travel permits from the Israel military to access Erez, Al Mezan found the promise of travel is being used as a “trap to lure the Palestinians.”
Other Palestinian monitoring groups have come to the same conclusion. Spokesperson for the Palestinian Prisoners’ Center for Studies Riyad al-Ashqar said in 2016, 223 Palestinians were arrested by the Israeli authorities, of whom half were attempting to exit Gaza through Erez. The other half were fisherman. Al-Ashqar indicated some of the travelers detained at Erez were children, medical patients who received a humanitarian permit and businessmen.
After the verdict came down in court, Majd’s family in Gaza were sorrowful. They said he would spend the last years of his youth behind prison bars.
Majd mother, Maha Oweida, 42, told Mondoweiss she has not accepted that the next hug she will give her son will be in another nine years.
“Majd has no relationship to the parties [Islamic Jihad] or hacking, he is a smart engineer and he is well known for his intelligence,” Maha added the Israeli authorities have thus far prevented her from visiting her son. “They have not given us any information about it.”
Majd’s father, Jawad Oweida, 50, said, “The accusations directed to Majd are by no stretch of the imagination, true,” emphasizing that his son never belonged to any political party, let alone an armed group in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank.
For its part, the Islamic Jihad movement would not claim Majd as one of their members. Speaking to Mondoweiss, senior political leader Khader Habib said, “Even if Majd is considered one the members of any faction in Palestine, this [should] not [be enough to] charge!”
If that weren’t enough, no one else in Gaza seems to think Majd is guilty. There are hackers here and hackers who go after the Israeli military, but the optics for Majd suggest his heavy prison sentence is to make an example out of him, irrespective of guilt. At least that is what Omar J’ara, a lecturer at Al Najah National University in Nablus told me, “ The process of pressing charges against Majd and the marketing of this case is to show the people that [Israel] has strong security even though they have been suffering from hacking since 2014.”
J’ara suspected Majd is being used as a pretext to increase U.S. aid budgets to Israel for cyber security programs.
The director of the Atlas Center for Israeli Studies a Gaza-based think tank specializing in analyzing Israeli media, Abdul Rahman Shehab, agreed.
“Israel is aiming at a media exaggeration, they are proud of this achievement of imprisoning one of many hackers when they have failed to control the tunnels issue,” he said. “On the other hand, the exaggeration is to convince the Israeli community that the battleground with the Palestinian is not only wars or militaries, it is also hackers and cyberspace.”
Gaza Cybergang says Majd was no hacker
Moving from Majd’s case the larger world of criminal hacking networks where the membership is anonymous, after one week of making contacts, Mondoweiss managed to get in touch with one of Gaza’s hackers.
He selected the venue and I had a short conversation with him, where he did not reveal his identity to me.
At the beginning of the talk, the hacker scoffed at the notion that Majd hacked the Israeli military, partly because he said that he has hacked the military before.
“If Majd is working as a hacker, he would never go to Erez because he knows that they [the IDF] will already have his IP, as the Israeli authorities have advanced technological system,” he said.
He added, “We connect to one and another with confidential codes and coding systems which no one can understand but us.”
This hacker gave his credentials as once taking over the person email of IDF spokesperson for Arabic media, Avichay Adraee and used the account to email pictures praising Ahmed al-Jabari, a second in command for Hamas’ military wing who was killed in an Israeli airstrike in 2012.
“I did that after a month of the assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari to punish Israel my own way for what they have done,” he said.
When asked about hacking the Israeli military and it’s spokespeople in the future, and if Israel’s efforts to root out hackers posed a change of course, the hacker smiled and said, “Israel will always be our first target.”
The hacker I interviewed refused to reveal whether he’s part of the notorious Gaza-based hacking group Cybergang Gaza, the network most associated with cyber attacks on the Israeli military.
Cybergang Gaza gained international attention in 2012 after they unloaded malware on Israeli government and private sector systems. Other pro-Palestinian hacker groups also launched online attacks on Israeli websites in quick succession that same year, temporarily taking down the website for a number of Israeli newspapers.
According to a white paper published by the cyber security group ClearSky, Cybergang Gaza is most likely funded by Hamas. “We estimate with medium-high certainty that the Hamas terrorist organization is behind these attacks,” it said in the June 2016 report.
Mondoweiss attempted to confirm the relationship between Hamas and Cybergang Gaza by reaching an engineer and electronics specialist working with Hamas with knowledge of the undergroud world of cyber espionage. He asked for his name to be withheld from publication and refused to comment directly. Although he did intimate a connection between the two, “Hamas is fighting Israel on all fronts, be it military or cyber.”
That much seem evident. Israel may be able to prevent Palestinians from entering via Gaza’s tunnel networks, but cyber teams are still able to find access points to Israel’s virtual space, and much more rapidly. Hamas is fighting Israel online, with all its possible powers and resources.
In January Israel’s Channel 2 network reported more than 100 Israeli soldiers were targeted in a Hamas cyber honeypot scheme that ended in embarrassment.
Soldiers who fell victim to this cyber campaign were duped by Hamas hackers who impersonated women by sending pictures of females in bathing suits. The hackers then tricked the soldiers into downloading software, which gave them access to content including audio, texts, and photos.
Journalist Mustafa Al Sawaf who is affiliated with Hamas further alleged Hamas has made cyber attacks on Israeli government departmental websites for a few years now but joined the cyber game in Gaza relatively late. “Hamas’ cyber [network] wasn’t the first. After 2014 war, groups with Hamas were able to hack the Israeli ministry of defense and managed to get information about [Israeli army] Operations,” he said in a column that appeared on the website of the armed-wing of Hamas, al-Qassam.
Back to Majd’s mother, Maha. She rubs tears from her cheeks and tells me, “Majd dreamed of nurturing all the talents in Gaza, to support them and develop them. However, his dreams are now a mirage in a desert. His reality is only Israeli confinement.”