Israel and Gaza Battle Twitter War Over Rocket Attacks

As rockets fly between Israel and Hamas, the battle for public opinion heats up on social media. Mike Giglio reports.

11.17.12 9:45 AM ET

After a series of rocket attacks last weekend, Jerusalem mounted an air strike on Gaza and assassinated a senior military leader of Hamas, the Islamist group that has ruled over the isolated enclave since 2007. In retaliation, furious Hamas members aimed rockets for the first time at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, to show that they could strike at the heart of the Israeli state, while Israeli troops started to mass on the Gaza border.

Even as the conflict heats up in the real world, a frenzied battle is taking place online, where activists from both sides are scrambling to win over public perception and wield social media influence. The web-based exchange has been punctuated with widely circulated Twitter spats, like one in which the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) warned Hamas’ military wing to lay low: “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead,” the IDF tweeted.

To which the handle @Alqassam Brigade—a reference to the military wing of Hamas—replied: [email protected] Spokesperson Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves).”

Pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian hashtags have proliferated wildly, while photos and videos of the attacks have swamped cyberspace. An interested party can now view the Israeli rocket attack that killed Hamas leader Ahmed al-Ja’abari on YouTube; watch a video of worldwide protests in support of Gaza on the Twitter feed of the Jerusalem Post; and scroll through the Facebook trash-talking going on in both camps.

The frenetic online activity prompted an article from Forbes to crown the conflict “the first war declared via Twitter,” while the Washington Post analyzed which side was winning “the Twitter war.”

But the social media battle, analysts say, is just the latest iteration of the information war that has long been central to the Israel-Palestine fight—and it’s one that both sides think they can win. “This is a kind of war in itself,” says Mohammed Suliman, a young blogger and activist in Gaza. “Everyone is trying to prove their point that one is the aggressor and one is the victim.”

Israel sees social media as an effective means to amplify its message, and the IDF has placed a considerable emphasis on putting together a well-oiled digital machine. The tiny nation has long felt outnumbered in the Middle East, surrounded by Arab states that have variously been enemies or, at best, uneasy allies, notes Yossi Mekelberg of the Middle East program at Chatham House in London. Israel is thinking, “we are outnumbered,” Mekelberg says—but social media could help level the playing field. “You can send as many messages as you like,” Mekelberg says. “You can be in touch with as many people as you like, regardless of how many people you have on the ground.”

Mekelberg adds that the IDF has long been known as a youthful army with a savvy technological bent.  “It’s staffed with a lot of young people with young ideas, and these [social media] ideas come to them naturally,” he says.

Over the past week, Israel has been proactive in trying to define the conflict as one in which Hamas is the aggressor—mainly, by focusing official social media output on the issue of rockets. It has promoted the hashtag #stoptherockets and Tweeted an imaginary picture of rockets raining down on New York City, with the question “What would you do if rockets were striking your country? RT if you agree that #Israel has the right to self-defense.”

“They do realize that a lot of this is a psychological war and a war of international perception,” says Natan Sachs of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. “It’s an important adaptation.”

Sachs points out that in the last two major Israeli-Palestinian flare-ups—the Gaza flotilla fiasco and Operation Cast Lead, the 2008 offensive in which more than 1,000 Palestinians died—Israel’s reputation took a heavy beating in the international media.  Since then, “there has been a shift in the way the IDF operates,” says Sachs. “They feel that if they sold their case better, they would fare better.”

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He adds that the information war is also crucial to a primary Israeli goal in the conflict—getting the rocket attacks to stop. To that end, bombarding the Internet with a show of Israeli force complements the military’s powerful and sophisticated air attacks.  “What they’re trying to do is to make Hamas prefer not to fight,” Sachs says. “The psychological aspect of the war is the whole point.”

Israel has targeted its social media message to people inside Gaza too, complementing long-standing efforts to present their case to Palestinians—as well as to issue warnings of impending attacks—using mass text messages, leaflets, radio transmissions and even Arabic-language Israeli TV.

Though these efforts may be unlikely to win over many Palestinians, Richard Kemp, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London, notes that the Israelis have long sought to utilize every available channel in getting their message across. “The IDF will use any means at their disposal in terms of both getting information into Gaza and also explaining themselves to the world,” Kemp says. “I think the Israelis now recognize they come under very heavy criticism in conflicts of this sort, and they understand the need to explain their position to the world.”

But Kemp notes the potential pitfalls of responding too rapidly on social media to a conflict’s fluid and chaotic events. Some critics claimed that the IDF sounded the wrong note with its now-infamous Hamas tweet, for example, while others simply mocked it. ([email protected] won’t that make it harder for you to kill them,” one tweeter asked.) And this past week, even as tanks rumbled toward Gaza, Israeli soldiers were scorned for posting goofy Instagram shots of themselves and their pals mugging kissy faces for the cameras, texting on their iPhones and modeling their olive green uniforms. 

At the same time, Palestinian activists say they’re certain the social media advantage lies in their corner, contending that the grassroots tool fits their underdog struggle—and that it bolsters the numbers that are already on their side. “The Palestinians will always win a social media war,” says Suliman, the blogger from Gaza. “At the grassroots level, the Palestinians always win against the Israelis.”

While Hamas’ social media efforts have been clumsy, independent activists have driven the narrative on the Palestinian side, as young Gaza residents rush to hospitals to take and upload photos and video of the carnage. They’ve been able to effectively disseminate disturbing pictures of violence, such as shots of small children wounded by shrapnel, allegedly from Israel’s air strikes.

Mohamed Omer, a journalist based in Gaza, complains that he has spent much of his time chasing down or disproving the flood of news and information from the conflict that has inundated social media. “You end up spending half of your time investigating what these guys are saying on Twitter, and a lot of times it’s false,” Omer says.

But he says social media has allowed the Palestinian side of the story to gain an important foothold in the international dialogue. “That’s the only thing I like about social media,” he says. “Before you used to hear only the Israeli narrative. Nowadays the Palestinian narrative is also present. We see all these kids running around with iPhone cameras in the morgues and hospitals, and then posting everything on social media sites. They are contributing to the story.”