The hostilities between Israel and Hamas this week are just another sad exchange of munitions of no benefit for anyone, least of all the impoverished residents of Gaza. Rockets go one way, Hellfire missiles go the other. Targeted killing, random strikes, claim and counter claim of who is a terrorist and who is acting in self defence.
Of far more novelty though is the Twitter war that broke out between the Israel Defense Forces and their opponents. Taking their fight to the micro-blogging world, the Israeli military and the al-Qassam Brigades resembled nothing more than two drunk blokes at a football barbecue “sword fighting” with their streams of urine.
On one side you had the IDF making releases and claims about their operations, playing the self-defence and indignation line: “Reminder of Hamas’ strategy: Fire rockets & mortars from Palestinian schools & hope they land on Israeli schools”.
On the other side, Al Qassam was responding with talk about martyrdom and the fires of hell. “Assassination of the great leader Ahmed al Jabari is the beginning of liberation war and ominous harbinger on sons of Zion”.
As usual in the Twitterverse the flame war between the two was soon overwhelmed by the zerging forces of the supporters and re-tweeters. The “GO ISRAEL!!” pack versus the “IDF ARE THE REAL TERRORISTS” mob. It makes it harder to watch the sword play when all that chaff is in the way.
Crowded hashtags are certainly a first world problem, but in the meantime of course, people are dying in far less than the time it takes to bang off a tweet.
It wasn’t just Twitter that the Israelis turned to as part of the social media operation. They used YouTube to show footage of their hit on Ahmed al-Jabari, the commander of the military wing of Hamas. They also posted aerial footage of Palestinians allegedly unloading rockets from a truck.
@idfspokesperson Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves)
— Alqassam Brigades (@AlqassamBrigade) November 14, 2012
This clip was accompanied by a wholly implausible sub-titled dialogue with the IDF ground controller thanking the aircraft commander for uncovering this evidence and detailing the specifics of the rockets and where they could hit.
The use of such media for publicising Middle East conflict is not new. Both (or should that be “many”?) sides of the Syrian catastrophe have taken to social media to plump their messages. Grainy cell-phone footage and unverifiable shots of massacre victims hit the Internet and become the news story of the day. The full range of media is used to engage the world and spin the desired message.
Damascus also has the support of the “Syrian Electronic Army”, a group of cyber-activists adept at hacking opposition and media sites or swarming Facebook pages and news comments with pro-Assad messages. The Iranians have a similar “Cyber Army” who target opposition web material and Twitter accounts. (Even Monash University fell victim to pro-Iranian hacking this year.)
Such is the nature of the Internet and these global causes, these electronic warriors may not even be officially part of the regime they support, but just sympathisers located anywhere in the world.
Fighting the other corner you have civilian and military programs to defeat such efforts. Israel this week graduated its first class from a new Cyber Defence Division. The aim is to protect Israel from cyber attacks on either military or economic targets.
A hacking war broke out between Israeli and Saudi nerds early in 2012, with three Israeli banks falling victim to security breaches on credit card data.
All of this digital conflict makes an interesting sideline to the various bushfires of the Middle East, but the question arises as to how compressed the nuances become. If the Israel-Palestine conflict is being reduced to less than 140 characters, how much understanding is being lost?
Recent research suggests that young people in the West have a shallow grasp of political news, even when it occurs in their own country. So what hope do they have of appreciating the complexities of Gaza when the debate is rendered into a school yard trading of one-liners?
Or perhaps that is the aim of both sides? By dumbing down the message to “You’re mean! No, YOU are!”, they avoid explanation. The supporters fall into line behind their chosen team and the whole tragic cycle plays out again.
Mat Hardy is a lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.