World News

07.26.14

Israel, Hamas, WhatsApp and Hacked Phones in the Gaza Psy-War

The digital battlefield is full of surprises as efforts to terrify turn ludicrous, Israelis discover Palestinian friends, and gag orders crumble.

TEL AVIV, Israel — Call it psychological warfare gone wrong. Really, really wrong.

When Hamas posted a threatening message on its newly minted Hebrew-language Twitter account, @QassamHebrew, the intent was to scare the living daylights out of Israelis. Instead, one of the most feared terrorist groups in the world got its ass kicked by a woman using less than 140 characters. 

Rather than shaking in her sandals, Elizabeth Tsurkov, a 27-year-old relief worker from Tel Aviv, decided to pen a quick response, in which she very politely corrected the tweet’s grammatical errors, giving Hamas a free lesson in Hebrew 101. 

“It just bugs me when I see mistakes like that,” said Tsurkov, as though she’d just revised a first grader’s exam. “Also, I thought I’d have some fun with them.” 

You’d expect Hamas would be angry or pissed, or simply ignore her response. But this is the Middle East, after all, where nothing is that simple or predictable. So instead, Hamas thanked her, not once but twice. And, in an oddly gracious tone, even explained why it made the mistake. 

“I’m not one of those who believe all Palestinians hate me,” said Tsurkov. “But I did think everyone in Hamas did. Here was a guy who wrote me back and said thank you. I couldn’t help but feel that even he had a human side to him.”

In an increasingly inhumane confrontation, with Hamas doing its best to slaughter Israelis, to little avail, and the Israeli counterattack costing hundreds of Palestinian lives, most of them civilian, these flashes of humanity are one of the strange twists in the psy-ops that both sides consider an important part of the battlefield. The problem for Hamas is that its digital campaign is as ineffective as its rocketry.  

When word got out about the unlikely exchange between Tsurkov and Hamas, many more Israelis began following Hamas on Twitter. The account (which has since been suspended) went from a little more than 2,000 followers to about 6,500 almost overnight.

The technological warfare between Israel and Gaza took yet another weird turn when, a couple of weeks ago, Hamas (again in an effort to provoke fear), hacked into more than half a million Israeli smart phones, sending several hostile text messages. 

Last week, the terrorist organization took to Facebook to warn Israelis it was about to hit Tel Aviv at 9 P.M. sharp, again with spectacularly poor results. The rockets did fall, albeit a few minutes late. But rather than scare people out of their wits, they served as a moment of much-needed comic relief for many. 

Shalom Asayag, a well-known Israeli comedian responded: “Nine is not really good for me, I’m rather busy. Is there any way you can reschedule?” His comment got 50,000 likes and was seen by more than 1.5 million Israelis.

As technology and social media permeate every aspect of our lives, they’ve also become potential game-changers on the battlefield. While Facebook and Twitter have been around for years, they’ve never been quite as prevalent, or handy, as they are today. 

But as Operation Protective Edge enters continues into its third week, the psychological operations of Hamas are getting more ghoulish.

The technological warfare between Israel and Gaza took yet another weird turn when Hamas hacked into more than half a million Israeli smart phones.

On Tuesday morning Israelis woke up to a frightening reality when Channel 2, the country’s most watched network, reported Hamas had announced it captured an Israeli soldier by the name of Oron Shaul.

Adding insult to injury, the terrorist organization set up an especially morbid Facebook page, complete with the soldier’s picture and a carefully crafted message to Israelis: "We've taken a second Shalit,” one of the posts said, referring to former POW Gilad Shalit, who spent more than five arduous years in a Hamas prison. This time, they claimed to have captured “a young, blond-haired boy. Congratulations on this Ramadan victory. This is the most beautiful holiday gift.”

Turns out they did not get the prize they’d claimed. Shaul was declared missing after an anti-tank missile hit his armored personnel carrier days earlier. All six of his fellow soldiers were killed and he was presumed dead, but not until Friday did the IDF shift him from the category missing in action to killed in action. The claim by Hamas was just another tasteless tactic in the never-ending psychological war on Israel.

“It’s disgusting,” said Nisan Zeevi, a leading Israeli crisis management consultant. “They’ve reached a new low even for them.”

Israelis have also waged a psy-war on Hamas, albeit more informal and spontaneous. If you check out the Hamas Twitter pages you’re likely to find pictures of their captured operatives being lead into an interrogation room… all posted by Israelis looking to stick it to the enemy.  

“We call it the cellular war,” says Gal Uchovsky, who writes a weekly column for one of Israel’s most popular news sites, Mako. “Last time Israel went into Gaza, in 2008, the number of smart phones in both Gaza and Israel was nowhere near where it is today. And that’s had some interesting side effects on this war.” 

But while there are many cases when Facebook and Twitter have been hijacked to increase anger and fear, in other instances they’ve been able to do the exact opposite.

Liron Shamam, a popular anchor on Israel’s most-watched morning news show, was sitting in her apartment in Tel Aviv, wondering what it must be like for those living in Gaza. So she embarked on a quest to find her Palestinian doppelganger. “I was so sad and depressed,” she said. “I couldn’t help but think there must be someone in Gaza, sitting in their apartment wondering the same thing about me.” 

Minutes after posting a message on Facebook, she was talking to a Palestinian journalist in Gaza. But the conversation was cut short when the man on the other end of the line had to run to the shelter. “Before he hung up, I told him, ‘be safe!’ and he wished me the same.” 

Ironically, rockets began flying over Shamam’s apartment in Tel Aviv that very moment. The symmetry of their experiences only made her more determined to continue her journey. “I remember thinking, this is fucked up.” 

She then connected with a Palestinian woman, a known and respected journalist. But instead of love and understanding, all she got was anger and hate from someone who clearly wasn’t having it. “It was a bit heartbreaking, actually,” she said.

But her story has a happy ending. “I finally found a lovely man, a journalist and documentary filmmaker, who was kind and loving.” When she told him she was scared of leaving her house because of all the rockets, the man (who asked us not to reveal his identity or exact location in fear of retribution by Hamas) answered, “Don’t worry, kid.” It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. 

“New media has made the world smaller,” said her newfound buddy from his office in Gaza. “We can share what’s going on, what we eat, drink, feel. It’s a way to cross the border.” He said although these last days have been rough, it was nice getting a call from a concerned Israeli. “Not all Israelis hate Palestinians,” he said. “There are some who want peace and want us all to get along.”

Some say it’s technology, not diplomacy that will bring about peace in the Middle East. “Sixty percent of all Palestinians living in Gaza are 18 or younger,” said Hans Shakur, an Arab-Israeli communications expert and founder of Games For Peace, an organization that promotes video gaming among people living in conflict zones. “This new generation of people is much more connected to the world. They’re much more sophisticated.”

Shakur says while Gaza is nowhere near its neighbor to the north when it comes to technology, it’s made tremendous progress over the last few years. “In 2008, few Arabs had Facebook. It was a new thing in the Arab world. Now we’re holding startup weekends in Gaza.”

According to Shakur, the percentage of Palestinian Internet users jumped from 46 to 58 percent in just the last year.

But not everyone is going gaga over the gigabyte guerillas.

“The problem is no one is vetting this info,” said Zeevi. “People are taking it at face value.” He said a perfect example is a gruesome image of a teenage girl whose head has been blown off. The caption reads: “Israeli Air Force Kills Children In Gaza.” Actually, it’s from the movie “Final Destination 4.” An analysis by the BBC of pictures with the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack showed many of them dated back to 2009 and some weren’t even from Gaza, but from Syria and Iraq. Of course, the flow of false images tends to discredit real ones, which are grim enough.

Perhaps the biggest change since the last time Israel went into Gaza in the 2008 Operation Cast Lead is WhatsApp. The messaging service application, which made headlines earlier this year after Facebook bought it for an eye-popping $19 billion, has become so ubiquitous in Israel it’s now one of the leading sources of news in the country. “Everyone here has WhatsApp,” said Uchovsky. “News travels so fast on this app, it’s making new media look like snail mail.” 

The service allows users to sign up to groups, not unlike Facebook, and share information. “I belong to at least 20 groups,” said Amit Slonim, an editor and writer at Mako. “WhatsApp was just starting out the last time we were at war with Gaza,” he said referring to 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense. “Now it’s everywhere.”  

But while the app has been great in helping disseminate information, it’s also created some major problems for the Israel Defense Forces. While IDF’s strict gag orders cover all news outlets, they do not include person-to-person conversations. And since WhatsApp is considered a form of texting, people are not obliged to comply. This can thwart the Israeli government’s efforts to spin or cover up information, but it can also infringe on the privacy of those injured or killed in the war.

“It created a situation where people are passing along numbers and names of casualties before the army has the chance to notify the families,” said Slonim. “Imagine your son has been deployed in Gaza, and you get an impersonal text with the names of those who died in action, and one of them is your son. There are protocols in place for a reason. People who mention the names of locations while the operation is still ongoing could be putting people’s lives at risk,” he said. 

Not to mention, the information on those groups is often inaccurate. “We had a case yesterday, where parents got a WhatsApp text saying their son had died when, in fact, he was very much alive. Injured, but alive. Can you imagine what those parents must have gone through?” 

Slonim said people don’t necessarily post those rumors out of malice. “We all have that urge to show others we’re in the know, that we’re connected, but what people don’t realize is they can cause tremendous damage and heartache.” 

It will be interesting to see what lessons will be learned once Operation Protective Edge is over. “I suspect news organizations as well as the military will have to sit long and hard and reexamine their policies and figure out how to move forward from here,” says Uchovsky. “It’s a different world now.”