JERUSALEM -- The Web site of Hezbollah, the militantly anti-Zionist Islamic guerrilla movement, had a surprising new look last week: On its home page, the Israeli flag, Hebrew text and a tinny piano recording of the Israeli national anthem greeted visitors.
A spearhead force of Israeli hackers, augmented by thousands of teenage keyboard warriors, launched their Internet assault on Hezbollah and other Arab world Web sites earlier this month as violence in the region spun out of control.
Last week, the Arabs struck back with a fury, apparently led by pro-Palestinian cybersoldiers in the United States. In a sustained, coordinated counterattack, Web sites of the Israeli Army, Foreign Ministry, prime minister and parliament, among others, were staggered by a barrage of hundreds of thousands -- possibly millions -- of hostile electronic signals.
"We checked it and for what we found this is the first full-scale war in cyberspace," said Gilad Rabinovich, CEO and president of Netvision, Israel's largest Internet provider. "It's costing a lot of money and human resources. . . . Instead of being billable, our technical experts are busy protecting the Web sites."
The cyberwar between Arabs and Jews that peaked last week has raged parallel to the fighting on the ground, and while it isn't deadly, it apparently involves at least as many people and all the same passions.
'IT'S A BRAIN WAR'
What distinguishes this cyberconflict from past ones, such as during last year's Kosovo war, is that it isn't exclusively, or even mainly, a cat-and-mouse game of highly specialized hackers attempting to wreak havoc with one another's sites.
Thousands of Israeli and Arab youngsters apparently have also joined in the contest, sending nasty, racist and occasionally pornographic e-mails. Within their own camps, they circulate Web site addresses with simple instructions for how to ping, zap and crash the enemy's electronic fortresses.
As one of the world's most computer literate societies, Israel has an immense advantage: It has about 1.1 million Internet hookups, more than in all 22 Arab countries combined.
But that also means it offers more targets and is vastly more vulnerable to attack. And Arabs are finding ways to strike back.
For half of Wednesday and virtually all day Thursday, the Israeli foreign ministry site has been inaccessible as computer technicians build stronger firewalls to protect it. Also Thursday, following three straight days of concerted attacks, the Israeli army announced it had hired AT&T as a backup Internet provider in case the electronic firestorm makes access impossible through Netvision, its usual server.
"It's a brain war because all the time we need to analyze the ways our attackers tried to penetrate the site," Rabinovich said. "After we learn what they've done, we have to build the right shields to protect [against] it."
Starting about dawn Thursday, the Web site of Israel's right-wing Likud Party was bombarded by several thousand e-mail messages reading "Death to the Jews," "Hell is waiting for you" and other, more obscene messages.
AN INTERNET FORTRESS
Israel, whose extravagant security-mindedness extends to the Internet, appears so far to have prevented the attackers from penetrating and meddling with any of its sites. Although Internet access in Israel has at times slowed to a crawl, and several sites have closed to fortify themselves, none seems to have been breached by invaders.
Israeli hackers seem to have had more success in breaking and entering the sites of their enemies, notably Hezbollah. …