The current Israeli onslaught against Gaza contains many echoes of the assault four years ago. In one regard, however, it is clear that Israel learned some lessons from its experience with “Operation Cast Lead” and is applying it to “Operation Pillar of Defense.” Those lessons are reflected in Israel’s use of social media to spread its “hasbara” (Hebrew for propaganda).
The spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has been tweeting for years a consistent stream of reports of thwarted terrorist attacks, pictures of sexualized female IDF soldiers, reports of the many tons of goods allowed into Gaza and almost daily reports of the million or more Israelis living under constant threat of Hamas rockets. Now, Facebook and the IDF blog have been shifted into overdrive, with some rather shocking new features.
There have been, for some time, various programs offering tourists to Israel the opportunity to play as an IDF soldier at various sites in the country. Now, there’s a new game to help urge people to promote IDF hasbara, IDF Ranks. The idea is that you go to various pages, you like them on Facebook or you tweet a page and you help the IDF get its message out. In essence, a virtual army of supporters on the internet.
Here’s how the game is described: “IDF Ranks is an interactive game, directly implemented into all of the IDF’s social platforms allowing YOU to be a virtual part of the IDF.” It’s participants are told that: “Your every action — commenting, liking, sharing and even just visiting — rewards your efforts, as well as helps spread the truth about the Israeli army all over the world.”
The light-hearted air emanating from the game stands in stark contrast to the news reports, even those from the IDF Spokesperson herself, about the fighting.
The IDF Twitter feed has been an opportunity for tough talk, such as this:
@IDFSpokesperson We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.
And it warns away journalists like this:
@IDFSpokesperson Warning to reporters in Gaza: Stay away from Hamas operatives & facilities. Hamas, a terrorist group, will use you as human shields.
One might wonder how a reporter is supposed to report from Gaza if they don’t encounter any governmental officials or facilities.
The IDF blog has a “rocket counter” to enumerate the number of rockets launched at Israel and a graphic as to where they have hit. It also has a very telling page about how the IDF avoids harm to civilians.
What is revealing about this page is that it is an almost verbatim repetition of what Israel put out during Operation Cast Lead four years ago. Indeed, it generally references practices used in that attack, including dropping leaflets, pinpoint targeting, tapping rooftops (a low level bomb dropped on a roof that would cause minimal damage and warn those inside that a real bomb was coming), and automated phone calls. As anyone with knowledge of Gaza pointed out at the time, the densely populated Strip offered nowhere for civilians to run when attacks came. Israel is of course well aware of this, which indicates that most of these methods are meant to provide deniability more than protect civilians.
But the online blitz doesn’t stop with the IDF. The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a large international organization with a $100 million budget, circulated the following picture on Facebook:
This picture is given the following description: “This awesome photo shows the true strength of the Israeli Army! This soldier’s right hand connects him to his commander, his left to his Creator. “For it is the Lord your God, Who goes with you to battle your enemies for you to save you.”
Might we stop to wonder how most westerners would react if this was an obviously devout Muslim holding a Koran and a rifle? And how chilling would those words feel to most Western Christians and Jews if it was describing a Muslim with a quote from the Koran, instead of an Orthodox Jew and a quote from the Torah?
All of this comes as a reaction to what Israel realizes was an absolute disaster for their standing in many US citizen and non-Israeli Jews’ eyes: Operation Cast Lead. Despite US scuttling, the Goldstone Report — commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council — severely criticized Israel (Hamas as well, though the wide disparity in the capacity to damage resulted in a spotlight on Israeli actions), and the massive devastation of the onslaught sat poorly with many.
This time around, Israeli leaders met with foreign officials beforehand and laid out plans for communicating their view. Thus far, as well, the devastation of Gaza, bad as it has been, has not yet approached the levels of Cast Lead, especially in terms of loss of life.
Yet media mogul Rupert Murdoch, a staunch right-wing supporter of extreme Israeli policies, lamented in a tweet (since deleted and retracted) “Why Is Jewish owned press so consistently anti-Israel in every crisis?” And the ever repugnant Alan Dershowitz, who will misrepresent the law as far as he can to defend any and all Israeli actions bemoans the “…media and international community’s failure to distinguish between the Israeli military and Hamas terrorists.”
As of now, it looks like Israel is reluctant to engage in a ground offensive this time around. The latest calculation by the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, confirms 41 civilian deaths out of 105 in Gaza at the time they issued their statement yesterday. That is a much lower total and a slightly better ratio than Cast Lead, where B’Tselem catalogued 1,390 dead in Gaza, of whom 759 were civilians. Perhaps this, as much as the greater attention to Israeli hasbara, can be attributed to the world watching these events in a way it could not before.
But it is hard to get past the gaming and the fiery rhetoric we see across social media supporting Israeli action today. It is further evidence, though, of Israel’s alienation from the liberal values that motivate much of the international community, as well as the international Jewish community. In the long term, that may help, despite the fact that political obfuscation and powerful lobbying continue to allow the bombing of a besieged population in Gaza.
– Mitchell Plitnick is the former Co-Director of Jewish Voice for Peace and former Director of the US Office of B’Tselem. You can follow him on Twitter at @MitchellPlit or at his blog, The Third Way