The Conflict Goes Digital Reply

How social media shaped recent developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

By Dan Yonker

Wide-scale violence between Israel and Hamas may have ended with the November 21 ceasefire, but shockwaves from the renewed hostilities are still being felt. An Instagram picture from an Israeli soldier made headlines this week after it was discovered and circulated across the Internet by Palestinian activist Ali Abunimah. The photo shows a Palestinian youth in the crosshairs of the soldier’s rifle scope, generating shock, disapproval, and an official statement from the Israel Defense Forces.

At the center of the controversy is the growing prominence of social media. After all, if it wasn’t for Instagram, the picture would never of made international headlines, or even been seen outside his group of friends. Now, however, anyone with an Internet connection can view it with a simple Google search. Embarrassing and offensive yes, but can a website like Facebook really impact a conflict as divisive as the one that divides the Palestinians and Israelis? The answer is yes, and the transformation makes perfect sense.

To truly understand how social media is affecting this conflict, it is important to examine why it is able to exert such an influence. A polarizing moment displaying the power of social media came during the Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara in May 2010. The activists on board the Turkish vessel employed sites like Facebook and Twitter to broadcast their mission to end the Gaza blockade, and when Israeli commandos boarded the ship, the cameras continued to roll. The swift distribution of video footage and first hand accounts across social media sites gained sympathy for the pro-Palestinian actors involved and left Israel scrambling to play catch up. The Israeli response using the same websites was viewed as inadequate, and did little to change the perception of Israel as the aggressor. This utilization of social media scored a major victory for the Palestinians and proved just how powerful a site like YouTube can be.

The PR fallout from the Flotilla interdiction can also be seen as the catalyst for the IDF’s renewed interest in social media. The Israeli Foreign Ministry has been developing its Brand Israel campaign since 2005, and during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, the IDF promoted the morality of its actions through blogs and YouTube clips. But the sheer mass and effectiveness of the 2010 Flotilla incident forced an overhaul of Israel’s social media approach. This included a $15 million investment from the Foreign Ministry to establish a more effective campaign.

When open conflict between Israel and Hamas began in November 2012, both sides were prepared to open the digital front. Israel announced Operation Pillar of Defense not through an official press conference, but via Twitter, essentially declaring the first actual Twitter war. Hamas’ Al-Qassam Brigades promptly offered a rebuttal on the same day. How did social media come to play such a large role? Two reasons: marketing and strategic advantage.

Sites like Facebook and Twitter have been used by thousands of companies to drum up interest in their products, but both Israel and the Palestinians saw the advantages of using the same approach to attract support. The IDF Facebook page was filled with patriotic slogans and somber pictures warning of the dangers of rocket attacks. The Palestinians took to Twitter to raise awareness of Israeli military operations using the #terrorism handle to tweet updates.

While the marketing aspect of these sites was well known, the strategic advantage they offered was a new development. Both parties saw an opportunity for intimidation. As ground operations were underway, Israel provided a live account over Twitter, even posting video of the attack that killed Hamas Military Commander Ahmed al-Jabari. The video was followed by Tweets warning Hamas to stay low while the Al-Qassam Brigades warned Israeli soldiers they had “opened Hell’s gates.”

Social media creates an opportunity to erode the credibility and damage the morale of both sides. Hamas and other Palestinians used this to great effect. Insensitive remarks made by IDF soldiers on Facebook and offensive pictures posted on Instagram provided Palestinian bloggers with ammunition to create widespread outrage, even after military action had ceased. Israel countered with video of rocket attacks targeting civilians, raising awareness of what many encountered on a daily basis.

Although brief, this conflict became one of the first to be truly interactive. Viewers now had the ability to comment, like, and share as the conflict played out in real time. What made November 2012 remarkable was the unprecedented embrace of social media, especially by Israel. The IDF’s Facebook page currently has 315,378 “Likes,” and the slick design and wealth of content reflects the resources the IDF is willing to commit to the future of this new tool.

The Palestinians continue their drive as well. Like the IDF, the Al-Qassam Brigades remains active on Twitter and Facebook. Websites, like The Electronic Intifada, a publication run by Abunimah that focuses on Palestine, also continue to emerge. Bloggers from sites like these actively patrol all forms of social media, finding and circulating content damaging to Israel’s reputation. A ceasefire may have ended the fighting  between Israel and Hamas, but the social media arms race shows no sign of slowing.

Dan Yonker is a Staff Writer for the Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs.


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