Smoke trails of rocket fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza Strip towards Israel. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Israel and Hamas launch online war

Monday, November 19, 2012
6.30 AM

The red-shaded picture of Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari has something of the wild west about it; showing a stoney faced mug-shot of the man himself with the word “eliminated” stamped across the bottom.

Israeli spokespeople have often appeared on television justifying operations in the Palestinian territory, the Gaza Strip. But the Jabari image was not made for television or for a poster.

It was specifically created to be spread on Twitter; the new battle ground for this age old conflict.

Twitter is a website which allows users to post messages of 140 characters to other users; pictures and videos can also be sent out.

In the Arab spring that swept across North Africa and the Middle East recently the website gave the world an unprecedented insight, with those protesting against authoritarian governments using it to give their side of the story from the streets.

But the Gaza conflict which escalated this week with the Israeli air strike that killed Jabari has seen something new; the emergence of the military Twitter feed.

Dr Johan Franzen, an expert in Middle Eastern politics based at the University of East Anglia, said: “The establishment side is catching up.

“They were a bit unaware when Twitter exploded on to the scene a few years ago. But the Arab Spring has forced those in authority to look to see how they can use this medium.

“For them the thing with Twitter is that you are kind of preaching to the converted, someone has to choose to follow another person to see their tweets. So it’s about reinforcing the message they are putting out.”

Israel has long complained that western media coverage is biased against it. So the Twitter feed from the Israel Defence Force (IDF), @IDFSpokesperson, seeks to redress the perceived imbalance.

“What they are hoping to do is win the hearts and minds. They realise the need to try and keep up with social media and I suspect there are quite a lot of tweets on the Palestinian side that try to sway opinion to their side.

“This is the IDF trying to counter that,” said Dr Franzen.

The feed gives regular updates of the number of Palestinian rockets being fired into Israel, lays out IDF efforts to reduce Palestinian civilian casualties and tries to paint Israeli civilians as the innocent victims; a role in this conflict which is often reserved for Palestinians.

One picture Tweeted by the IDF shows the different Palestinian weapons used to attack Israel and the Israeli settlements that fall within their range.

Meanwhile the feed also promotes Israeli victories and progress, showing videos of Palestinian weaponry being blown up and of Israeli defences shooting down incoming rockets.

Dr Franzen explained: “The medium of Twitter is new, but this sort of thing was previously done through ordinary media; with spokespeople showing pictures of destroyed targets on TV with a view to intimidating opposition and also to reassure their own side.

“For those that are already sympathetic to Israel, the IDF Twitter feed could be very reassuring; you get updates every ten minutes of what is happening directly from the army.”

Meanwhile the military wing of Hamas, the Al Qassam Brigade, has also tagged on, setting up @AlqassamBrigade to counter @IDFSpokesperson.

The Palestinian page highlights civilian casualties on the Palestinian side, showing sometimes gruesome pictures including one earlier this week of a baby’s charred remains.

But it too seeks to claim victories on the battlefield. One tweet reads “00.30 Al Qassam Brigades shelling Nahal Oz military site with 6 projectiles”, and another “Al Qassam hit military jeep with one anti tank guided missile east of Al Buriej.”

What is clear is that whether it is protesters, rebel armies, militant groups or conventional government forces, Twitter is now established as the weapon of choice when it comes to the online propaganda war.