The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has consumed the Middle East for decades, yet the most recent flare up of this discord has expanded it in a way that is as unique as the generation fighting it. A few months ago, Israel and Hamas extended their battle into the cybersphere, utilizing social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram in order to win the hearts and minds of on-lookers and bring an immediacy to the coverage of the hostilities. Although violence is nothing new to the region, it seems that a convincing social media campaign has become as strategically imperative as a military one.
On the 14th of November Ahmed Al-Jabari, the Operational Commander of Hamas and the organization’s second in command, was killed in his car by an airstrike executed by an Israeli jet. Dubbed ‘Operation Pillar of Defense,’ the Israelis claimed the operation was in response to rocket fire from Gaza-based militants. Forgoing a traditional press release, the Israeli Defense Forces used Twitter to announce the successful military operation. Using the handle @IDFspokesperson, the IDF tweeted a photo of Jabari with the word ‘Eliminated’ printed across his face along with a list of his alleged crimes against Israel, and later uploaded a video of the lethal attack to YouTube. Hamas’ military arm retaliated with both rockets and tweets: @AlqassamBrigade declared: “Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves).”
Marketing has become an essential weapon in modern warfare; most modern military engagements are coupled with a persuasive PR campaign. In 2005, the Israeli government consulted with American marketing executives in order to change the public image of Israel from a ‘militaristic and religious’ nation to an image that was ‘relevant and modern’. The use of social media during these conflicts is an essential part of the government’s plan to ‘re-brand’ Israel. According to Captain Eytan Buchman of the IDF’s Spokesperson’s Unit, the IDF obtains a critical advantage when they are the first to tweet about activities,
We’re operating on almost every single account we can to make sure that we can get out our message as fast as possible to as many different audiences as possible. This is to both increase our legitimacy, to be transparent, and almost as importantly, to combat misinformation that’s being flooded out from inside Gaza.
Captain Buchman insists that this medium promotes a level of truth in their actions, and when questioned about the appropriateness of sharing a targeted killing on YouTube, he asserted, ‘ the video shows that we hit him when he was in the middle of the intersection to minimize collateral damage.’ The Israelis’ desire to portray accuracy has been interpreted by some as shameless and inconsiderate. The IDF contend that outlets like Twitter are an essential part of its public diplomacy strategy in order to gain supporters and increase media coverage. Hamas has followed suit by ramping up its social media presence, but their proclamations of ‘hell gates’ makes their message less tangible for the broader international community.
A collection of Instagram pictures portraying young Israeli soldiers in a more relaxed setting has also surfaced. Photographs documenting the military traditionally tend to illustrate a regimented, formal unit whose strict professionalism reflects military readiness and strength. These photos, however, show images that are familiar and jovial. Instead of jeans and t-shirts, the subjects are sporting guns and uniforms. These images typify the paradoxes of the presence of social media in these conflicts: are these pictures a ploy to show a softer, more humane side of a military force? Are we meant to sympathize with these young adults who are selflessly fighting for a cause they believe in, or are these photos a reflection of a cavalier attitude, filtering the devastation of war through the lens of Instagram, disregarding the gravity of the lives lost in the conflict?
The use of social media in the past few years shows that despite being an informal medium for information sharing, social media has the power to propel agendas other than daily interaction. The IDF’s use of social media is a reflection of its time: the millennial generation is interacting, and thus fighting, within the context of the communication with which they grew up. However, the incorporation of social media into a military agenda seems contradictory. The institution of the military is inherently disciplined, strict and secretive. The colloquial nature of social media platforms would appear to be incongruent with this method of operation. As this new generation engenders world leaders from its own ranks, will social media become a feature of future warfare?
Since the advent of television and other advances in technology, the way in which we observe war has dramatically changed. During conflicts such as the Vietnam War and the first Persian Gulf War, the increased access to the battlefield and broadcasted images of carnage brought into question the morality of warfare. Has the bombardment of social media during these conflicts desensitized us to the atrocities of war? The overexposure to war through social media in the 21st century may bring greater awareness to unfolding conflicts, but not necessarily greater understanding.