Interventions

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Another War Zone

Social Media in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

by Adi Kuntsman , Rebecca L. Stein | published September 2010

In late May 2010, the convoy known as the Freedom Flotilla met off of Cyprus and headed south, carrying humanitarian aid and hundreds of international activists who aimed to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. The organizers used social media extensively: tweeting updates from the boats; webcasting live with cameras uplinked to the Internet and a satellite, enabling simultaneous rebroadcasting; employing Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and other social networking websites to allow interested parties to see and hear them in real time; and using Google Maps to chart their location at sea. Until shortly after its forcible seizure by Israeli commandos in the wee hours of May 31, the flotilla stayed in touch with the outside world despite the Israeli navy’s efforts to jam its communications. A quarter of a million people watched its video feed on Livestream alone, while many more consumed these images in abbreviated form on television news.

The Israeli state also deployed social media to argue its case for boarding and diverting the aid vessels, a bloody interdiction the state claimed was defensive in nature and part of Israel’s continuing struggle against Islamic extremism. Many Israeli pundits and journalists lamented, however, that the effort was belated and inadequate, raising more questions than it answered. Amir Mizroch articulated the objections succinctly: “For a country so technologically advanced, and with such acute public diplomacy challenges, to fail so miserably at preparing a communications offensive over new media is a failure of strategic proportions.” [1] Ordinary Israelis were also active in seeking to shape flotilla news in cyberspace. Some took to new media outlets to correct what they viewed as the state’s public relations failures, while a minority employed these tools in opposition to the state line.

That contemporary warfare has been extended to cyberspace is by now a truism. Web 2.0 technologies have increasingly turned the Internet into a digital battlefield. States combine conventional operations with disinformation and propaganda disseminated via blogs and YouTube; non-state actors retaliate with online narratives of their own; hackers who back the states or the non-state actors target the enemy’s websites for cyber-attack. In recent years, Western militaries have placed the new technologies in their toolboxes as well. The aftermath of the flotilla events suggests that the Arab-Israeli conflict will continue to play out in social media. In the words of Maj. Avital Leibovich of the Israeli army’s foreign press office, “The blogosphere and the new media are another war zone. We have to be relevant here.”

Live from the Front

The first outbreak of cyberwarfare between Israelis and Palestinians dates to October 2000, following the dissolution of that July’s peace talks at Camp David and the advent of the second intifada. At that time, both Israeli and Palestinian hackers went after the official and unofficial websites, databases and e-mail programs of the other side. Most notable among these efforts were “defacement attacks” whereby hackers scrawled on top of the content of opposing websites with patriotic taunts, hate speech and, occasionally, pornography. During the summer 2006 bombardment of Gaza, cyber-guerrillas based in Morocco who had disabled Israeli Internet networks left a calling card: “You kill Palestinians; we kill Israeli servers.”

Cyberwarfare of this kind intensified during the second summertime war of 2006, between Israel and the Lebanese Shi‘i movement Hizballah. Indeed, that war represented the first instance in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict in which the virtual and real battlespaces were actively conjoined. In addition to hacking on both sides, new web technologies were enlisted in the waging of psychological warfare. Israeli hackers used Google Earth to identify areas where the Israeli army had successfully targeted Hizballah’s positions, while Hizballah employed the same service to point to Israeli-wrought destruction in civilian areas.

After the war, Hizballah was credited with triumph. Critics argued that the Israeli state had grossly neglected to take cyberspace seriously, erroneously focusing on traditional modes of disinformation and psychological warfare, such as dropping leaflets and jamming broadcasts. [2] Not only that, but the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were accused of laxity on the front lines, with soldiers placing cell phone calls that Hizballah (allegedly) tapped. Meanwhile, international journalists broadcast the war live “via broadband,” frustrating the Israeli censor’s efforts to prevent publication of sensitive information on IDF coordinates. The soldiers’ calls from the front were sometimes frantic in tone, revealing the ferocity of ground combat and boosting the morale of Hizballah fighters and their partisans. A damning internal investigation concluded that lack of media coordination and preparedness had been among the war’s chief failures. As a corrective, Israel established the National Information Directorate to “synchronize the content and tone of Israel's message” in subsequent military theaters, including heavy reliance on new media. [3] This shift in state strategy was also an effort to advance the lessons of the evolving “Brand Israel” campaign launched in 2005 by the Foreign Ministry. This campaign infamously took credit for a 2007 photo spread of scantily clad Israeli women soldiers in the men’s magazine Maxim.

The Tweets of Zion

Social media were a key weapon in what the press termed an “arsenal of Internet tools” during the 2008-2009 incursion into the Gaza Strip codenamed Operation Cast Lead. For the traditional media, there were severe restrictions, with both Israeli and foreign reporters allowed no closer to the fighting than a few desert hillsides in southern Israel. Meanwhile, following instructions from the new information directorate, state operatives and specially recruited volunteers were tasked with using social media to stress the morality of Israel’s war aims to the international cyber-public.

On December 29, 2008, with the incursion in its early days, the IDF launched its own YouTube channel. Using English subtitles, the video clips showcased black-and-white aerial footage of the Israeli assault and video blogs from IDF spokespersons justifying the actions on screen. Most popular were the clips that circled bombing targets in color and added captions to aid the viewer: “Although the site appears to be empty, the secondary explosion confirms the presence of concealed rockets.” [4] Such footage, taken from the vantage point of the bombardier, functioned to sterilize the air campaign by rendering all persons and buildings as proto-targets. A number of YouTube viewers and human rights organizations subsequently disputed some of the IDF’s targeting justifications, but the controversies did little to temper the clips’ popularity. The station boasted more than 4,000 subscribers two days after launch. [5] By war’s end, some of the videos would be viewed more than 2 million times. [6] In tandem, Israeli officials delivered private briefings to international bloggers and maintained personal video blogs. Perhaps in testament to the efficacy of the image, Israel mounted video cameras at the Kerem Shalom crossing in order to broadcast -- online, in real time -- its transfer of humanitarian goods into Gaza after Cast Lead.

In the Twittersphere, the hashtag #gaza ranked among the world’s top ten throughout the war, with six new posts on the topic per minute. The pan-Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera’s Twitter feed had a central place in this discussion. Perhaps in response, the Israeli consulate in New York opened its own Twitter account two days after the start of the offensive. Its first initiative was a Twitter-based press conference held on December 31, at a moment when Israel’s control of the media message was thought to be relatively secure. The response was considerable, yielding several thousand new subscribers; some bloggers credited the effort with “ushering in a new era of accountability and transparency.” Unable to handle the volume on Twitter, the consulate launched a blog to continue its dialogue with the public. The consulate and Israeli media later lauded the technological innovation, with a Ha’aretz headline insisting that Twitter had “revolutionized Israeli diplomacy.” [7]

Cellular War

Phones, particularly cell phones, also played an instrumental role in the Gaza offensive. Following the IDF’s experience in 2006, Israeli soldiers were asked to surrender their cell phones before entering the Strip in an effort to prevent security breaches in the form of illicit calls, tweets or photographs. After Cast Lead, as reported by the Israeli left media, many military personnel discovered that their phones had been bugged by security services, lest they make incriminating comments to the press. [8] But the phones of Gaza residents were the chief locus of the IDF’s cellular strategy. The IDF employed varying degrees of electronic signal jamming throughout the incursion in order to stop Palestinian fighters from communicating with each other or detonating roadside bombs. The policy’s secondary effect -- stanching the flow of ordinary Gazans’ reporting via land line, mobile phone or e-mail -- was no less powerful. Concurrently, the cell phones of Israeli citizens received a signal like an air raid siren when Qassam rockets were incoming.

Perhaps the best known use of phones was the “knock on the roof” of Gazan houses, whereby Arabic-speaking military personnel would ring residents (typically, using the land line) with live or recorded warnings that their house was marked for demolition. These phone calls were defended by the IDF and celebrated in the Western mainstream media as evidence of Israel’s morality in times of mortal peril. “Israel is so scrupulous about civilian life,” wrote Charles Krauthammer, “that, risking the element of surprise, it contacts enemy non-combatants in advance to warn them of approaching danger.” [9] Others, Israeli scholar Eyal Weizman among them, decried such “warnings” for rendering “legitimate” the targeting of civilian homes in contravention of the laws of war. Weizman concluded that there was “a direct relationship between the proliferation of warning and the proliferation of destruction.” [10]

Meanwhile, the use of cell phones by Gazans amidst the incursion was deemed evidence of terrorist activity. As one soldier testified to the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence: “If I detect a lookout, someone holding binoculars or a cell phone, he’s an accomplice…. If he stands on a roof holding a cell phone, that’s suspect.” [11]

Everyday Battles for Hearts and Minds

Yet it was the domain of popular Internet usage that most concerned the Israeli state during Operation Cast Lead. In an effort to stem what it viewed as a proliferation of anti-Israel sentiment, the Foreign Ministry recruited undercover volunteers to deliver the state-sponsored war message to the Internet public through the informal language of the “talkback.” The campaign focused on websites originating in Europe, where audiences were thought to be particularly hostile to Israel. This project was formally added to the state budget in 2009 under the rubric “Internet warfare team.” In the words of the responsible officials: “They will speak as net surfers and as citizens, and will write responses that will look personal but will be based on a prepared list of messages that the Foreign Ministry developed.” [12]

Such state-sponsored efforts were often framed as corrections of the record, much as the American pro-Israel group CAMERA polices the “accuracy” of reporting on Israel in the traditional media. In the aftermath of Cast Lead, sensing an enduring injury to Israel’s image, the Foreign Ministry also funded efforts to saturate the Internet with “positive” photographs of the country and its people. The pictures were uploaded onto popular websites to counter the problem that Internet searches for “Israel” tended to yield photographs of devastation in Gaza, even months after war’s end. In the words of the Israeli consulate in New York, a partner in this project: “We want to see the Internet flooded with the true images of beautiful Israel.” [13] As with many of CAMERA’s releases, these “corrections” of the visual record were enunciated as laments about unflattering and hence “unfair” representation rather than direct rebuttals of the evidence of damage done to civilian life at Israeli hands.

State-sponsored initiatives, however, were far from the only forms of Israeli citizen mobilization in the digital war for hearts and minds. Rather, Operation Cast Lead was the occasion for a flurry of online activity among ordinary Israeli users. During the war, Israeli national news websites and their talkback platforms were galvanized by comments from state supporters, as well as from a decided minority who opposed or criticized the incursion and were often verbally attacked. On Facebook, many Israelis debated the events with their friends inside and outside the country. Most saw fit to promote “the Israeli point of view,” arguing for the state’s right to “defend itself against terrorists.” Charges of anti-Semitism abounded.

Much of this digital engagement took place in Hebrew or English, but not all. A telling example is the Russian-language network LiveJournal -- the most popular blogging server among Russian speakers worldwide -- where Russian-Israelis made vigorous interventions. Bloggers made a particular effort to challenge others who criticized Israel or did not express adequate support for Cast Lead. In the early days of the war, two virtual communities -- The Gaza War Through Bloggers’ Eyes and Our Truth -- formed at LiveJournal to explain Israel’s position in its “war on terror in Gaza” and broadcast the experience of “ordinary Israelis.” “Here you can repost or create your own texts, opinions and comments reflecting our -- Israeli -- position on the Middle East conflict,” wrote one of the bloggers on the About page of Our Truth. Another blogger added, in the capital letters indicating emotional distress, “The world does not see, does not understand an ORDINARY Israeli. It does understand an ARAB who is screaming and crying hysterically, every day on television screens. But we are modest, and our voice is not heard.” [14]

Militantly patriotic and often explicitly right-wing, these two very popular blogging communities depicted themselves as speaking for Israel and all its citizens and even as transcending political divides. “Here we won’t have any politics or internal debates between right and left,” declared participants at The Gaza War Through Bloggers’ Eyes. “This military action is just, and is supported by all Zionist parties, beyond politics and elections.” [15] This proclamation obscured the participation of left-wing Russian-Israeli bloggers, some Zionist and some anti-Zionist, but united in opposition to the war, in the LiveJournal conversations. The case of the Russian-Israeli bloggers is thus an example of how social media, like the traditional media, can encourage a more pronounced rally-‘round-the-flag effect in the diaspora than at home.

Digital Journeys

From its inception, the journey of the Freedom Flotilla was a social media event. In the days leading up to the commando raid on the lead ship, the Mavi Marmara, the activists’ supporters “tweeted and tweeted” so that #Flotilla might “trend,” or become one of the highly popular discussion topics crawling across the top of the screen on Twitter’s home page. [16] On board the vessels, activists did plenty of tweeting of their own; the organizers had also set up a system called SPOT to plot the convoy’s coordinates with blue dots on the Google Map being monitored worldwide. SPOT dropped a pink dot to mark the location of the ships’ last communication before they were attacked at 4 am on May 31.

During the raid, the IDF confiscated all of the activists’ media equipment, but did not entirely stop the stream of information. “Although we received no more messages until after the passengers were released,” said flotilla organizer Greta Berlin, who had stayed behind in Cyprus, “we did, ironically, stay in touch with some of what was going on through sympathetic Israeli media who called us with information from the navy.” Though the IDF interrupted the real-time broadcasts, the flotilla’s fight for recognition continued in social media -- and was arguably given a boost by the tremendous publicity surrounding the raid. On Facebook, groups such as Flotilla for Palestine featured lively arguments between Palestinian and Israeli participants; other groups, such as Jewish Voice for Peace or Israelis for Palestine, brought Israelis and Jews outside of Israel together in opposition to the state’s act. These and other groups and individual users on Facebook and Twitter documented the flotilla events as they unfolded. Many Internet users wrote flotilla-related talkbacks on newspaper websites, and bloggers covered the issue extensively. As with Cast Lead and the Lebanon war, the episode animated cyber-activists on both sides of the underlying political question.

As has been well documented, new media was also heavily employed by the Israeli state to deliver its narrative of the raid on the Mavi Marmara -- namely, that it was a defensive operation against supporters of terrorism in humanitarian guise. YouTube was again the IDF’s platform of choice. The IDF video producers were prolific, posting over 20 clips, most of them in English, in the first few days after the commandos boarded the ships. The focus of the videos fluctuated in accordance with popular sentiment and the exigencies of the state: from footage of the original encounter, to shots of the “knives, slingshots, rocks and smoke bombs” found on board, to images of the “humanitarian cargo” from the confiscated vessels that Israel eventually delivered to Gaza. Three of the videos ranked among YouTube’s most popular features during the first week of June. The most viewed clip, showing the commandos rappelling from helicopters onto the deck of the Mavi Marmara, uploaded on June 2, logged an astonishing 1.2 million viewers on June 3 alone. [17] In Israel, these videos were at the center of the national media conversation, bolstering the already strong public support for the state-sponsored narrative. State-generated Twitter streams (particularly those of the IDF and Israeli consulate in New York) and blogs provided steady updates, reinforcing the visual accounts.

Yet YouTube engendered as many problems for the state as it solved. First was the issue of timing. As many Israeli and pro-Israel pundits complained, the IDF waited several hours after the initial confrontation at sea to release the “grainy but distinct footage it had been sitting on all day,” that of the boarding party’s nighttime descent. [18] According to the Israeli media, the delay resulted from a disagreement between the Foreign Ministry and the IDF over the images’ impact, with the IDF fearing irrevocable harm to both the army’s morale and its global reputation for combat prowess. The Foreign Ministry argued that precisely these images would allow the world to see the activists as aggressors and the commandos as victims. In the window of delay, angry Israeli pundits noted, the war for hearts and minds was being lost. Second was the confiscation of media materials. It soon emerged that much of what was being released as IDF footage had been seized from activists and journalists on board before their detention, as had all camera equipment, recording devices and notes. The footage was subsequently edited and captioned to tell the state’s story and distributed without attribution. There was a scandal when the IDF released via YouTube what it claimed was a damning radio exchange with the flotilla activists in the hours before the raid. Alleged activists could be heard telling the IDF to “go back to Auschwitz” and boasting that “we’re helping Arabs go against the US -- don’t forget 9/11, guys.” Independent blogger Max Blumenthal, however, charged the Israelis with doctoring the tape. [19] One day later, the IDF was compelled to issue a “correction” on its website, admitting to “questions regarding the authenticity of the recording.”

Needless to say, there was almost no agreement online about the reliability of the new media documents. For the state, the release of its second video -- the confiscated footage shot from the deck of the boat -- provided incontrovertible evidence of the rightness of its actions, belying activist claims of a peaceable humanitarian mission. For the flotilla organizers and their proponents, this footage told another story of capture on the high seas and the desperate, ad hoc efforts of the activists at self-defense using the materials at hand. Disagreement continued when the state displayed the visual evidence of on-board “weapons” via Flickr and other social networking sites. Many users questioned the function of the objects (were the knives weapons or kitchen utensils?) and also the credibility of the images as documentary photographs. Some visitors to the Foreign Ministry’s Flickr page argued that the images’ time stamps showed they were taken prior to the raid, again suggesting a fraud, while others defended the state, hypothesizing that the IDF’s cameras had been inaccurately set.

What consistently emerged in the ensuing conversation was controversy about the status of the visual itself. The state reiterated the claim that the videos and still photographs rendered its official position incontestable. As a journalist for the Israeli news service Ynet contended: “The truth is on video, for all to see.” [20] But contrary to state presumptions, the digital field was rife with divergent readings of the same visual material. As in Operation Cast Lead, the IDF’s YouTube videos were subject to close scrutiny. Some pointed to the captions as manipulative; others argued that specific video frames (particularly during the initial boarding of the ship) had been digitally altered to support state claims. Independent bloggers combed the Israeli media, drawing attention to the selective use of photographs and the ways that cropping produced the possibility of ideological distortion. For their part, pro-Israel users and bloggers spoke dismissively of the visual evidence of Israeli harm to flotilla activists -- and, more vehemently, of images of Gazan suffering. The Israeli state participated in this discourse, not merely through its forced “apology” for manifestly doctored audio, but with claims that flotilla activists could be seen on tape staging Israeli-inflicted violence on passengers in an effort to frame the state. These claims were neither substantiated nor retracted.

Digital Media and the Future

As the stronger party in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel is accustomed to writing the dominant draft of history. As such, the state’s marked loss of control over the public narrative that followed the flotilla episode narrative has caused no small amount of consternation and surprise among its supporters. Some of the criticism has been directed at Israelis and pro-Israel activists. Writing ruefully about the the failure of Israeli supporters adequately to respond in kind, Amir Mizroch pronounced Israel the loser in the ongoing social media wars: “We may be a startup nation, but we are bricks-and-mortar communicators.” [21]

In the months that followed, Israel would receive more bad press in the digital sphere. First, video footage of a group of Israeli combat soldiers performing a choreographed dance through the streets of occupied Hebron -- streets forcibly emptied of their Palestinian residents -- went viral on the Internet, earning the offenders an army reprimand. More recently, the digital sphere was saturated with the Facebook images uploaded by a young Israeli female soldier shown smiling in front of blindfolded Palestinians -- images that, for many pundits, resonated with those from Abu Ghraib. In the exposé that followed, Israeli newspapers reported on the prevalence of this digital activity. They noted the frequency with which soldiers in other units had taken and shared similar photographs from their military service or posted video clips of their everyday army activities on YouTube -- despite IDF regulations forbidding the posting of such images on security grounds. The Palestinian Authority indicted these images as evidence of how military occupation has corrupted the occupier.

Wikipedia has become the latest locus of these digital skirmishes. In August, the Yesha Council representing Jewish settlers in the West Bank responded to the perceived crisis of Israeli public relations by sponsoring a course on the “Zionist editing” of the omnipresent informational website. Some 50 people attended the first training session, where participants were informed that the person who enters the greatest number of “Zionist” editorial changes -- such as identifying Ariel as in Israel rather than on occupied land -- would win a hot-air balloon ride. [22] In response, the Association of Palestinian Journalists called on Palestinian institutions to edit Wikipedia entries with Palestinian interests in mind, arguing for the need to respond digitally to the latest phase of Israel’s “public relations war.”  

It is now nearly a truism to note that digital media is fundamentally changing the terrain of politics, due to its reach and speed, and its function in the lives of civilian populations and states alike. In the early years of the Internet, many journalists and scholars celebrated its emancipatory promise, such as the opportunities for “digital democracy” and the ways cyber-activism might assist in destabilizing and even toppling authoritarian regimes. Social media enjoyed particular political prominence amidst the Twitter-fueled tumult in Tehran following Iran’s contested 2009 presidential election. Yet as digital technologies have spread, and their user base has broadened, states and non-state actors have appropriated them for purposes that Internet boosters never envisioned. The emerging forms of digital warfare -- the stealth bombings of hackers, the passionate arguments in talkbacks and on Facebook, the visual battlefield of videos and photographs -- can be seen as mirroring or even intensifying warfare on the ground, fueling hatred and reaffirming state power. But they can also be understood and employed as a powerful alternative to repressive military violence.

Since the mid-2000s, the Israeli state has demonstrated its increasing investment in the value of digital media. Activists opposing the Israeli state’s projects, meanwhile, have fine-tuned their usage of new media tools as well. And while assessments of who lost and who won the successive engagements may vary, it is clear that digital communications technologies have altered the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. Web 2.0 has lent the Israeli state new means of control over Palestinian populations, on and off the battlefield, while also giving local populations -- in Israel, Palestine and elsewhere -- new ways of backing and agitating against Israeli policies.  

What is also clear is the necessarily polyvocal nature of the conflict’s digital field -- a field that is constantly shifting and subject to political reinscription, belying Israeli state efforts to control its contours through the production of a single, visually verifiable truth. Such is the mantra of Web 2.0 guru Clay Shirky, who advises the State Department on employing new media technologies in diplomacy: “You do not actually control the message, and if you believe you control the message, it merely means that you no longer understand what’s going on.” [23]

Endnotes

[1] Amir Mizroch, “How Free Explains Israel’s Flotilla Fail,” Wired, June 2, 2010.
[2] See William B. Caldwell, Dennis M. Murphy and Anton Menning, “Learning to Leverage New Media: The Israeli Defense Forces in Recent Conflict,” Military Review (2009); and Marvin Kalb and Carol Saivetz, “The Israeli-Hezbollah War of 2006: The Media as a Weapon in Asymmetrical Conflict,” Press/Politics 12/3 (2007).
[3] Jerusalem Post, December 31, 2008.
[4] This clip, uploaded on January 1, 1009, is accessible at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hV6l4CSwL6c. The library of IDF clips from Cast Lead is at: http://www.youtube.com/user/idfnadesk.
[5] Times (London), December 31, 2008.
[6] Noah Shachtman, “Israel’s Accidental YouTube War,” Wired, January 21, 2009.
[7] Ha’aretz, June 17, 2009.
[8] Oren Persico, “The IDF Announces,” The Seventh Eye, January 8, 2009. [Hebrew]
[9] Charles Krauthammer, “Moral Clarity in Gaza,” Washington Post, January 2, 2009.
[10] Eyal Weizman, “Lawfare in Gaza: Legislative Attack,” Open Democracy, May 1, 2009.
[11] Breaking the Silence, Soldiers’ Testimonies from Operation Cast Lead (Jerusalem, 2009), p. 79.
[12] Jonathan Cook, “Israel’s Internet War,” Counterpunch, July 21, 2009.
[13] Ynet, October 2, 2009.
[14] See the post at: http://community.livejournal.com/nasha_pravda_il/profile. [Russian]
[15] This post, dated December 28, 2008, is available at: http://community.livejournal.com/gaza2009/10717.html?nc=36. [Russian]
[16] See the blog post by Nadine Moawad, “What Else Is #Israel to Do?” at: http://www.nadinemoawad.com/2010/05/what-else-is-israel-to-do/.
[17] Ha’aretz, June 3, 2010.
[18] David Horowitz, “A Scandalous Saga of Withheld Film,” Jerusalem Post, June 2, 2010.
[19] See Blumenthal’s reporting at: http://maxblumenthal.com/2010/06/idf-releases-apparently-doctored-audio-....
[20] Ynet, June 1, 2010.
[21] Amir Mizroch, “#FreeHasbara,” Jerusalem Post, May 31, 2010.
[22] Ha’aretz, August 18, 2010.
[23] Jesse Lichtenstein, “Digital Democracy,” New York Times, July 10, 2010.

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