Articles2018-05-28T23:30:26+00:00

Palestinians, Israel trade new rocket fire and airstrikes

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JERUSALEM — Palestinians launched dozens of rockets from Gaza and Israel unleashed new airstrikes against them early Tuesday, in an escalation triggered by soaring tensions in Jerusalem and days of clashes at an iconic mosque in the holy city.

Twenty-four people, including nine children, were killed in Gaza overnight, most of them in Israeli strikes. More than 700 Palestinians were hurt in clashes with Israeli security forces in Jerusalem and across the West Bank in 24 hours, including nearly 500 who were treated at hospitals. The Israeli military said six Israeli civilians were hurt by rocket fire Tuesday morning.

This round of violence, like previous ones, was fueled by conflicting claims over Jerusalem, home to major holy sites of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The rival national and religious narratives of Israelis and Palestinians are rooted in the city, making it the emotional core of their long conflict.

In recent weeks, tension has been soaring in Jerusalem, marked by clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police in the walled Old City, located in east Jerusalem which Israel captured and annexed in the 1967 war.

One of the flashpoints in the Old City has been the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, the third holiest site of Islam and the holiest site of Judaism. Another driver of Palestinian anger has been the threatened eviction of Palestinian families from homes in an east Jerusalem neighborhood by Israeli settlers.

Monday was a long day of anger and deadly violence, laying bare Jerusalem’s deep divisions, even as Israel tried to celebrate its capture of the city’s eastern sector and its sensitive holy sites more than half a century ago. With dozens of rockets flying into Israel throughout the night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with top security officials and warned that the fighting could drag on, despite calls for calm from the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.

Hamas, the militant group ruling the Gaza Strip, fired dozens of rockets Monday evening, setting off air raid sirens as far as Jerusalem. The barrage came after Hamas had given Israel a deadline to withdraw forces from the Al-Aqsa compound.

By Tuesday morning, Hamas and other Gaza militants had fired more than 200 rockets. That included a barrage of six rockets that targeted Jerusalem, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) away. It set off air raid sirens throughout Jerusalem, and explosions could be heard in what was believed to be the first time the city had been targeted since a 2014 war.

There appeared to be some first signs of de-escalation in Jerusalem early Tuesday. Palestinian worshippers performed the dawn prayer at the mosque without confrontations as Israel apparently limited the presence of its police officers around the compound. Amateur videos showed dozens of faithful marching to the mosque and chanting “we sacrifice our blood, soul for Al-Aqsa.”

In Gaza, an Israeli drone strike killed a man in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis early Tuesday, according to local media reports. In another strike, a woman and two men were killed when a missile struck the upper floors of an apartment building in the Shati refugee camp on the edge of Gaza City, according to Gaza Health Ministry and rescue services.

Hamas’ armed wing said it intensified the rocket barrages following the airstrike on the house.

The Israeli military said it had carried out dozens of airstrikes across Gaza overnight, targeting what it said were Hamas military installations and operatives. It said a Hamas tunnel, rocket launchers and at least eight militants had been hit.

Dozens of rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system. But one landed near a home on the outskirts of Jerusalem, causing light damage to the structure and sparking a brush fire nearby. In southern Israel, an Israeli man was lightly wounded after a missile struck a vehicle.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “terrorist organizations in Gaza have crossed a red line and attacked us with missiles in the outskirts of Jerusalem.”

He said fighting could continue for some time and that “”whoever attacks us will pay a heavy price,” he said, warning that the fighting could “continue for some time.”

Gaza health officials gave no further breakdowns on the casualties. At least 15 of the 22 deaths in Gaza were attributed to the airstrikes. Seven of the deaths were members of a single family, including three children, who died in a mysterious explosion in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. It was not clear if the blast was caused by an Israeli airstrike or errant rocket. More than 100 Gazans were wounded in the airstrikes, the Health Ministry said.

In a statement issued early Tuesday, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said the rocket attacks would continue until Israel stops “all scenes of terrorism and aggression in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa mosque.”

Tensions at the site, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, have triggered repeated bouts of violence in the past.

In Monday’s unrest, Israeli police fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets in clashes with stone-throwing Palestinians at the compound.

More than a dozen tear gas canisters and stun grenades landed in the mosque as police and protesters faced off inside the walled compound that surrounds it, said an Associated Press photographer at the scene. Smoke rose in front of the mosque and the golden-domed shrine on the site, and rocks littered the nearby plaza. Inside one area of the compound, shoes and debris lay scattered over ornate carpets.

Over 600 Palestinians were hurt in Jerusalem alone, including more than 400 who required care at hospitals and clinics, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.

Palestinians and police reported renewed clashes late Monday. Israeli police also reported unrest in northern Israel, where Arab protesters burned tires and threw stones and fireworks at security forces. Police said 46 people were arrested.

Monday’s confrontations came after weeks of almost nightly clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police in the Old City of Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The month tends to be a time of heightened religious sensitivities.

Most recently, the tensions have been fueled by the planned eviction of dozens of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem, where Israeli settlers have waged a lengthy legal battle to take over properties.

Israel’s Supreme Court postponed a key ruling Monday in the case, citing the “circumstances.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned “in the strongest terms” the rocket fire on Israel and called on all sides to calm the situation.

“More broadly, we’re deeply concerned about the situation in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, including violent confrontations in Jerusalem,” he said. He said the U.S. would remain “fully engaged” and praised steps by Israel to cool things down, including the court delay in the eviction case.

In an apparent attempt to avoid further confrontation, Israeli authorities changed the planned route of a march by thousands of flag-waving nationalist Jews through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City to mark Jerusalem Day.

The annual festival is meant to celebrate Israel’s capture of east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war. But it is widely seen as a provocation because the route goes through the heart of Palestinian areas.

Youngkin wins Virginia GOP nomination for governor

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Businessperson Glenn Youngkin won the Republican nomination for governor in Virginia, emerging from a crowded field to claim the GOP mantle for one of the most closely watched races of 2021.

Youngkin defeated fellow businessperson Pete Snyder in the sixth and final round of a ranked-choice tabulation that took most of the day on Monday, 55 percent to 45 percent, after Snyder conceded the race before counting concluded. Virginia Republicans eschewed holding a state-run primary and instead opted for what organizers described as an “unassembled convention,” with about 30,000 pre-registered Republicans voting at nearly 40 sites across the commonwealth on Saturday.

Youngkin, a former CEO at the private equity firm Carlyle Group, brings a significant capacity to self-fund to the race. He had personally loaned his campaign $5.5 million through the end of March — according to the last available campaign finance report.

“Virginians have made it clear that they are ready for a political outsider with proven business experience to bring real change in Richmond,” Youngkin said in a statement shortly after Snyder conceded.

Youngkin’s victory closes a contentious primary process that saw months of in-fighting among Republicans in the state over the process of how the party would pick its nominee. Eventually, they opted for a “firehouse primary,” but not before multiple gatherings and threats from one of the candidates, controversial state Sen. Amanda Chase, to run as an independent depending on the rules the party put in place.

Democrats will pick their nominee on June 8 in a state-run primary. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who couldn’t seek a second consecutive term four years ago but is running again, is well ahead of his competitors in most polls, though former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax are also in the running for the Democratic nomination. Incumbent Gov. Ralph Northam is term-limited.

November’s general election will be perhaps the most competitive statewide race of the year. Though Virginia voted for now-President Joe Biden, the state has often veered away from the party that occupies the White House in gubernatorial races: One year after Virginia voted for Barack Obama, voters in 2009 chose Republican Bob McDonnell for governor by a double-digit margin.

Still, former President Donald Trump remains a very unpopular figure. He lost Virginia to Biden by 10 points, and a Christopher Newport University poll earlier this year found that a majority of Virginia voters said Trump was worse than most presidents while in office.

But in order to win over the party activists in the primary, Youngkin and the rest of the gubernatorial field embraced much of Trump’s legacy. One of Youngkin’s earliest moves in the race was to introduce an “election integrity task force” — an unmistakable response to Trump’s repeated false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. He also promoted a clip of the former president praising him during the trade war with China. (Trump, who has weighed in on Republican primaries in other states, including intraparty battles for state party chair posts, did not endorse in this race.)

Youngkin, like much of the rest of the field, ran on red-meat conservative issues. The former Rice University basketball player’s campaign cut a March Madness-themed ad hitting Democrats’ “out there socialist ideas” including defunding the police, “canceling Dr. Seuss” and raising taxes. And in the closing days of the primary campaign, he barnstormed the state with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a late endorsee of Youngkin.

“I think that Sen. Cruz has a tremendous amount of legitimacy to the claim that Glenn is not only capable of providing leadership and [is] right on policy, but he is going to be a conservative when he gets into office,” state Sen. Steve Newman said last week, before votes were cast.

Republicans largely expect to face off against McAuliffe in November. McAuliffe narrowly won in 2013 in a race that included a Libertarian candidate who earned about 6.5 percent of the vote.

The former governor blasted Youngkin in a statement shortly after his victory. “Glenn Youngkin has gone all in on Trump’s most dangerous, divisive conspiracy theories, and his extreme social agenda is clear,” he said in a statement. “I’ve beaten extreme Republicans like Glenn before, and I’m ready to do it again.”

Republicans also picked state Del. Jason Miyares as their nominee for state attorney general. In the Democratic primary next month, incumbent Mark Herring is facing off against an intraparty challenger, state Del. Jay Jones. The vote counting for the Republican lieutenant governor’s nomination is expected to take place on Tuesday.

In addition to the statewide races, there will likely be a fierce battle over the state House, which Democrats flipped in 2019, giving them unified control of state government for the first time in decades.

Democrats have won a string of victories in Virginia in statewide races as of late. After McAulliffe’s narrow victory in 2013, Northam won by about 9 points over Republican Ed Gillespie in 2017. Biden’s 10-point victory in 2020 was a roughly 5-point improvement over Hillary Clinton’s 2016 margin of victory.

FBI Confirms DarkSide as Colonial Pipeline Hacker

The attack by DarkSide, a relatively new criminal group believed to have roots in Eastern Europe, exposed the remarkable vulnerability of key American infrastructure.

President Biden said on Monday that the United States would “disrupt and prosecute” a criminal gang of hackers called DarkSide, which the F.B.I. formally blamed for a huge ransomware attack that has disrupted the flow of nearly half of the gasoline and jet fuel supplies to the East Coast.

The F.B.I., clearly concerned that the ransomware effort could spread, issued an emergency alert to electric utilities, gas suppliers and other pipeline operators to be on the lookout for code like the kind that locked up Colonial Pipelines, a private firm that controls the major pipeline carrying gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from the Texas Gulf Coast to New York Harbor.

The pipeline remained offline for a fourth day on Monday as a pre-emptive measure to keep the malware that infected the company’s computer networks from spreading to the control systems that run the pipeline. So far, the effects on gasoline and other energy supplies seem minimal, and Colonial said it hoped to have the pipeline running again by the end of this week.

The attack prompted emergency meetings at the White House all through the weekend, as officials tried to understand whether the episode was purely a criminal act — intended to lock up Colonial’s computer networks unless it paid a large ransom — or was the work of Russia or another state that was using the criminal group covertly.

So far, intelligence officials said, all of the indications are that it was simply an act of extortion by the group, which first began to deploy such ransomware last August and is believed to operate from Eastern Europe, possibly Russia. There was some evidence, even in the group’s own statements on Monday, that suggested the group had intended simply to extort money from the company, and was surprised that it ended up cutting off the main gasoline and jet fuel supplies for the Eastern Seaboard.

The attack exposed the remarkable vulnerability of a key conduit for energy in the United States as hackers become more brazen in taking on critical infrastructure, like electric grids, pipelines, hospitals and water treatment facilities. The city governments of Atlanta and New Orleans, and, in recent weeks, the Washington, D.C., Police Department, have also been hit.

The explosion of ransomware cases has been fueled by the rise of cyberinsurance — which has made many companies and governments ripe targets for criminal gangs that believe their targets will pay — and of cryptocurrencies, which make extortion payments harder to trace.

In this case, the ransomware was not directed at the control systems of the pipeline, federal officials and private investigators said, but rather the back-office operations of Colonial Pipeline. Nonetheless, the fear of greater damage forced the company to shut down the system, a move that drove home the huge vulnerabilities in the patched-together network that keeps gas stations, truck stops and airports running.

A preliminary investigation showed poor security practices at Colonial Pipeline, according to federal and private officials familiar with the inquiry. The lapses, they said, most likely made the act of breaking into and locking up the company’s systems fairly easy.

Colonial Pipeline has not answered questions about what kind of investment it had made in protecting its networks, and refused to say whether it was paying the ransom. And the company appeared reluctant to let federal officials bolster its defenses.

“Right now, they’ve not asked for cybersupport from the federal government,” Anne Neuberger, the deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology, told reporters at a briefing at the White House. She declined to say whether the federal government would advise paying the ransom, noting that “companies are often in a difficult position if their data is encrypted and they do not have backups and cannot recover the data.”

While Ms. Neuberger did not say so, that appears to be essentially what happened to Colonial.

Mr. Biden, who is expected to announce an executive order in the coming days to strengthen America’s cyberdefenses, said there was no evidence that the Russian government was behind the attack. But he said he planned to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia soon — the two men are expected to hold their first summit next month — and he suggested Moscow bore some responsibility because DarkSide is believed to have roots in Russia and the country provides a haven for cybercriminals.

“There are governments that turn a blind eye or affirmatively encourage these groups, and Russia is one of those countries,” said Christopher Painter, the United States’ former top cyberdiplomat. “Putting pressure on safe havens for these criminals has to be a part of any solution.”

Colonial’s pipelines feed large storage tanks up and down the East Coast, and supplies seem plentiful, in part because of reduced traffic during the pandemic. Colonial issued a statement on Monday saying its goal was to “substantially” resume service by the end of the week, but the company cautioned that the process would take time.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Mr. Biden’s homeland security adviser and a former deputy secretary of energy in the Obama administration, said that the Energy Department was leading the federal response and had “convened the oil and natural gas and electric sector utility partners to share details about the ransomware attack and discuss recommended measures to mitigate further incidents across the industry.” She noted that the federal government had relaxed rules for drivers who transport gasoline and jet fuel by truck, in an effort to alleviate the effects.

“Right now, there is not a supply shortage,” she said. “We are preparing for multiple possible contingencies.” But she said the job of getting the pipeline back online belonged to Colonial.

To many officials who have struggled for years to protect the United States’ critical infrastructure from cyberattacks, the only surprise about the events of the past few days is that they took so long to happen. When Leon E. Panetta was defense secretary under President Barack Obama, Mr. Panetta warned of a “cyber Pearl Harbor” that could shut off power and fuel, a phrase often used in an effort to get Congress or corporations to spend more on cyberdefense.

During the Trump administration, the Department of Homeland Security issued warnings about Russian malware in the American power grid, and the United States mounted a not-so-secret effort to put malware in the Russian grid as a warning.

But in the many simulations run by government agencies and electric utilities of what a strike against the American energy sector would look like, the effort was usually envisioned as some kind of terrorist strike — a mix of cyber and physical attacks — or a blitz by Iran, China or Russia in the opening moments of a larger military conflict.

But this case was different: a criminal actor who, in trying to extort money from a company, ended up bringing down the system. One senior Biden administration official called it “the ultimate blended threat” because it was a criminal act, the kind the United States would normally respond to with arrests or indictments, that resulted in a major threat to the nation’s energy supply chain.

By threatening to “disrupt” the ransomware group, Mr. Biden may have been signaling that the administration was moving to take action against these groups beyond merely indicting them. That is what United States Cyber Command did last year, ahead of the presidential election in November, when its military hackers broke into the systems of another ransomware group, called Trickbot, and manipulated its command-and-control computer servers so that it could not lock up new victims with ransomware. The fear at that time was that the ransomware group might sell its skills to governments, including Russia, that sought to freeze up election tabulations.

On Monday, DarkSide argued it was not operating on behalf of a nation-state, perhaps in an effort to distance itself from Russia.

“We are apolitical, we do not participate in geopolitics, do not need to tie us with a defined government and look for our motives,” it said in a statement posted on its website. “Our goal is to make money and not creating problems for society.”

The group seemed somewhat surprised that its actions resulted in closing a major pipeline and suggested that perhaps it would avoid such targets in the future.

“From today we introduce moderation and check each company that our partners want to encrypt to avoid social consequences in the future,” the group said, though it was unclear how it defined “moderation.”

DarkSide is a relative newcomer to the ransomware scene, what Ms. Neuberger called “a criminal actor” that hires out its services to the highest bidder, then shares “the proceeds with ransomware developers.” It is essentially a business model in which some of the ill-gotten gains are poured into research and development on more effective forms of ransomware.

The group often portrays itself as a sort of digital Robin Hood, stealing from companies and giving to others. DarkSide says it avoids hacking hospitals, funeral homes and nonprofits, but it takes aim at large corporations, at times donating its proceeds to charities. Most charities have turned down its offers of gifts.

One clue to DarkSide’s origins lies in its code. Private researchers note DarkSide’s ransomware asks victims’ computers for their default language setting, and if it is Russian, the group moves along to other victims. It also seems to avoid victims that speak Ukrainian, Georgian and Belarusian.

Its code bears striking similarities to that used by REvil, a ransomware group that was among the first to offer “ransomware as a service” — essentially hackers for hire — to hold systems hostage with ransomware.

“It appears this was an offshoot that wanted to go into business for themselves,” said Jon DiMaggio, a former intelligence community analyst who is now the chief security strategist of Analyst1. “To get access to REvil’s code, you’d have to have it or steal it because it’s not publicly available.”

DarkSide makes smaller ransom demands than the eight-figure sums that REvil is known for — somewhere from $200,000 to $2 million. It puts a unique key in each ransom note, Mr. DiMaggio said, which suggests that DarkSide tailors attacks to each victim.

“They’re very selective compared to most ransomware groups,” he said.