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Propaganda wars: Searching for a narrative in Operation Protective Edge

No amount of Tweeting, tagging, posting or liking will save Gazans from an Israeli ground invasion. So why bother?

By Corey Sherman

Recent political upheavals in the Middle East tend to have a social media subplot, whether it’s how savvy youth use it to subvert harsh authority, or how states manipulate access to it so as to stop such subversion.

There’s the story about how State-Department-Official-cum-Google-Ideas-Chief, Jared Cohen, requested that Twitter delay a scheduled maintenance of their network to enable Iranians to continue to use the platform to organize during the harsh crackdown on post-election protests in 2009. Or how Josh Koster, an American advertising executive, crashed the servers of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Agency to stymie the flow of the Iranian government’s official pronouncements during that same time. And let’s not forget the so-called Twitter Revolutionaries of the so-called Arab Spring.

It may be flippant to attempt to search for the subplot in what the Israeli government calls Operation Protective Edge. The fact is that no amount of Tweeting, tagging, posting or liking will save Gazans from an Israeli ground invasion. So why bother?

Israeli tanks on the border with Gaza. (photo: Activestills)

Israeli tanks on the border with Gaza. (photo: Activestills)

At the same time, the number of people running from bombs in Gaza or into shelters across southern and central Israel pales in comparison to the number of people experiencing this conflict on their mobile phones, their tablets or their computer screens. For most humans, this conflict exists only in the images, sounds and texts that are coming out of Israel/Palestine. The mass mediation of this conflict, both in print and online, is part of its story. How states, media organizations and citizens choose to tell the story of this conflict helps explain how interested parties perceive this current flare-up – and what they believe is at stake.

A Reminder of Resistance

The war in the south is only part of the story here right now. Over the weekend, Gregg Carlstrom (Politico Magazine) and JJ Goldberg (The Forward) contextualized, correctly, the current hostilities into the larger social upheaval occurring here since the kidnappings and killings of Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrah, Naftali Fraenkel, and Muhammed Abu Khdeir. Let’s not forget the 63-day-long hunger strike of Palestinian administrative detainees in Israeli jails, which ended amidst the hunt for Shaar, Yifrah, and Fraenkel’s bodies and their kidnappers.

In the heady days after Khdeir’s body was found charred in the Jerusalem forest, when Palestinians clashed with security services in East Jerusalem and in Palestinian towns and cities across Israel, Israeli and Palestinian media disseminated images that framed the clashes as relating to previous periods of unrest – namely the intifadas.

On July 3, Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronot’s front page contained a small picture of Abu Khdeir, and a larger picture, taking up most of the page, of Palestinians burning tires with the words “Murder and Rage” written in large red letters. The caption beneath the picture read, “Revenge for the murder of the boys or criminal act? The police are still not sure if extremist Jews were the ones who forced the 16-year-old from Shuafat into the car, killed him and burned his body, but Jerusalem began to burn immediately. Angry Palestinians threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the police amid calls for a Third Intifada.”

Yedioth Ahronoth Abu Khdeir

Inside the day’s edition, images and text reinforced the connection to an intifada. Along the border of the pages in the news section, banners reading “Murder and Escalation” were framed by pictures of Shaar, Yifrah and Fraenkel, and a stone-throwing Palestinian with a kuffiyeh wrapped around his head. Khdeir’s picture was, for the most part, absent on Yedioth’s inner pages, leaving the reader to think that the murder of the three Jewish boys was followed by an escalation in violence by Palestinians resorting to the age-old tactic of throwing rocks at Israeli authorities.

Four days later, the day Israel would begin Operation Protective Edge, the faces of the boys disappeared, but the stone-thrower remained, this time with the caption: “stop the bloodshed.”

Yedioth banner

Yedioth Ahronot caption reading: ‘Stop the bloodshed’

Such a framing of events reduces Palestinian action to fits of rage and irrationality. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that, as this publication has pointed out, the occupation and resistance to it occur daily and in both overt and covert ways.

For some in Palestine, though, social media serves as a platform to wrestle this narrative away from those who trivialize resistance to the occupation.

“The drive to resistance,” one Palestinian student activist told me, “is inside every Palestinian – even though the emotions may wane from time to time.”

In the days after Abu Khdeir’s body was found, this student who studies philosophy and political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was one of several friends of mine on Facebook who changed their profile pictures to a drawing of Khdeir. “The execution of Abu Khedir redefined what it means to be a Palestinian, and is making people aware of their role in freeing the Palestinian people from the occupation,” he said.

“The resistance will remain active until the Palestinian people are free, he explained. “The reaction of the street [after the kidnappings] is the natural response of the people under occupation.”

For Yedioth, that same resistance is unpredictable – hidden from view but always lurking. For the student activist, resistance, like the occupation, is a daily fact – which is why Facebook is an apt venue for his activism.

Some good ol’ hasbara

The use of mass media for psychological warfare and propaganda is not new in Israel’s conflicts with the Palestinians and Arab States. Over the last week, however, social media, specifically the popular and playful platforms of Instagram and YouTube, provided a venue for Israelis to present a palatable international image, and to instruct others how to win the war of ideas.

Ron Dermer’s interview on CBS Face the Nation Sunday seemed less like a news interview and more like an advertisement for Israel’s closely linked high-tech industry and military culture. Thirty seconds into the interview, host Bob Shieffer asks the Israeli Ambassador to the US about how he stays informed of rocket attacks from afar. “It’s not just Israel’s Ambassadors [who] can get [rocket alert sirens] on their phone, anyone can get it on their phone,” Dermer beamed with pride. “They can download an app called ‘Red-Alert Israel,’ and what happens is every time a siren goes off in an Israeli city when an incoming rocket is coming in, you’ll get it on your phone and you’ll know exactly what city is being targeted and when it is being targeted.”

Later in the interview, while explaining Israel’s view of the allegations that it targets civilians in Gaza, the phone brings to millions of viewers in the United States the sirens heard in Israeli cities that send frightened parents and screaming children into hiding. What we end up seeing is an Israeli official on live television demonstrating for viewers how they can simulate the genuine fear those sirens evoke in people living here. In so doing he draws people closer to a conflict that they will never experience firsthand.

Hamas, for their part, does more or less the same, though on a much smaller scale. This YouTube video, which has a paltry 2,689 views, instructs Gazans as to how to effectively engage on social media. The Times of Israel Arab Affairs Correspondent, Elhanan Miller, translated the video last week. Hamas instructs Gazans to refrain from posting locations of rocket launchers; to use the terms “innocent civilian” to describe those killed; to explain that the rockets are a natural response to the occupation; and to post pictures of those injured in the attacks.

Such cynical propaganda should call into question the extent to which either side has an interest in annihilating the other or whether they seek only to draw attention to the strife that their populations are feeling at this current time – strife that would decrease if the fighting ceased.


Lee Smith wrote last week in Tablet Magazine that the failure of the American-led peace talks set the region ablaze. An examination of the conflict’s presentation in mass media should call into question such a notion. Forget questions about land swaps and how to divide Jerusalem, Israelis and Palestinians are simply far apart on issues of vital importance, such as what constitutes legitimate resistance to a military occupation, and who is responding to whose rocket fire.

Rather than blame the US for the failure of the peace talks, the question should be why the US even bothered in the first place.

What does Israeli ‘acceptance’ of ceasefire really mean?
Details of Palestinian deaths jeopardize a system of denial
How the public was manipulated into believing the teens were alive

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    1. NIZ

      discourses are great but at the end of the day there is reality. Reality is clear cut simple and upheld at point blank by a gun. The situation is: as Israel continues to settle the west bank, Palestinians understand that there is no solution. They have to live their distopic future, as vanquished slaves, and like them they will revolt. Hope they would have mercy upon you, just as you had mercy upon them.

      Reply to Comment
      • nathan

        that’s a very one sided flat view of the 2 sided conflict.

        it’s also wrong in the extreme.

        the current conflict is with people in the gaza strip, not the west bank. nothing in the west bank has anything to do with it. the idf was in the west bank 2 weeks ago, and the entire operation hardly had any skirmishes. it went on in relative peace.

        that Hamas “has no choice” is just a huge lie, and there’s no other way of looking at it. they can stop firing and negotiate, and i don’t mean now in protective edge, i mean in general. look at the west bank. life there is much better. there are hardly any skrmishes. the palestinians can follow abu-mazen and not hamas. see? a choice that will be more productive to everyone, arabs and jews alike.

        yes, there are those in the israeli government who are cynical and wish to use such momentum as an excuse to build settlements on more land.

        the israeli extremeists don’t have a patch however on the arab extremeists who call on the destruction of israel and encourage murder and kidnappings.

        the fact of the matter is that the west bank arabs are in a much better state, and there’s relative peace and ongoing (though stuttering) negotiations with them.

        if israel was really interested in just slaughtering arabs, it could tens of thousands a day. look at syria, we’re waaaay more advanced. so why almost no skirmishes in the west bank? why a relatively minor (and yeah, less than a casualty per bomb in dense urban areas is VERY minor) number of palestinian casuelties in Gaza?
        because israel’s not trying to kill palestinainas. we’re just trying to stop the ongoing rocket fire, and return to negotiations.

        Reply to Comment
      • just goes to show israel is a democracy and you have multiple opinions. the arabs are allowed to voice their opinions publicly and in the government. is the same true for the many varied arabian dictatorships?

        Reply to Comment
        • Arb

          Dude, that woman is a traitor. They are at war and she’s actually defending a genocidal movement that is launching rockets at Israeli civilians.

          Yes, Israel allows varied opinions but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s a traitor.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Whiplash

      Niz, you said:

      “The situation is: as Israel continues to settle the west bank”

      Tell me what are the new settlements which have been built since 2000? What size are they and how many Jews live there?

      The West Bank consists of some 5640 square km of real estate. Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria outside of East Jerusalem occupy less than 2% of the land. This leaves Palestinian Arabs 98% of the land outside of Jerusalem. the five major settlement blocks, Ariel, Maale Adumim, Modiin Illit, Gush Etzion, and Givat Zeev occupy only 90 square miles of the 5640 km of the West Bank.

      So your myth about Israel continuing to settle the West Bank is just that a myth. The Palestinians could have had a state in the West Bank and Gaza to ameliorate their distopic present but they want to cleanse Jews from East Jerusalem and the little portion of land that they reside upon in Judea and Samaria.

      Reply to Comment
      • Jonny

        News from Ma’an on land confiscation since 1 June 2014

        5 July Taysir Abu Mifreh, head of Tuqu town council, told Ma’an that a group of settlers protected by soldiers took over al-Shaer and al-Umour lands, over 100 dunams, near a settlement in eastern Tuqu.

        3 July Israeli authorities issued confiscation orders for 16 dunams of Palestinian land west of Nablus

        30 June Khalid Maali said that an Israeli court had approved confiscation of 3,000 dunams (750 acres) of private Palestinian land, but that the bulldozers had leveled an area of more than 10,000 dunams (2,500 acres)

        4 June Israeli forces told residents of Um al-Kher village in the southern Hebron hills to evacuate parts of their property on Wednesday, in a move activists say is intended to pave the way for the expansion of a Jewish-only settlement nearby.

        Reply to Comment
    3. shachalnur

      Bennett: “From Iron Dome to Eiserne Faust”.

      Reply to Comment
      • CigarButNoNice

        Enemies of the Jewish nation: From “Jews to Palestine!” (1930s) to “Jews out of Palestine!” (present)

        Reply to Comment
        • shachalnur

          Enemies for sure,but not able to exterminate Am Israel.

          The ones that are able to are:

          From “Jews out of Europe”(1897 Zionism) to “Jews into Palestine”(1897 Zionism) to Samson-option(1897 Zionism).

          Reply to Comment