With the uneasy ceasefire in Gaza holding (for now), there is opportunity to reflect on the controversial and closely scrutinized Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) social media campaign which accompanied Operation Pillar of Defense. The IDF has used Twitter prolifically in the days since November 14th, when an Israeli airstrike killed senior Hamas military wing commander Ahmed al-Jaabari. It has garnered a good deal of attention for these efforts, much of it negative:
In Wired Magazine, Noah Shachtman and Robert Beckhusen referred to it as Israel’s “hyper-pugnacious social media push,” while Atlantic writer and blogger Jeffrey Goldberg lamented that the social media campaign was reminiscent of the kind of rhetoric that he would expect from Hamas: “It used to be that Israel would keep silent about its military activities, or at most it would issue terse statements confirming, with as few adjectives as possible, an action that had already taken place,” wrote Goldberg. “Groups like Hamas, on the other hand, were the ones that would brag constantly about their bloody triumphs (real and imagined).”
We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.
— IDF (@IDFSpokesperson) November 14, 2012
The early photoshop efforts were equally provocative, including the “Eliminated” poster (pictured top left), which celebrated the assassination of al-Jaabari, and looked like something the New York Post might have considered publishing but ultimately shelved after concluding that it was a bit tasteless. It was especially galling to see such enthusiastic celebration of a so-called “pinpoint” strike, when civilians were being killed in similar attacks which had gone awry. Notable examples included the strike which killed 11 Palestinian civilians in Gaza City, (four young children among them) on November 18th, and the the one which hit the Hijazi family’s house in Jabaliya refugee camp, killing three and wounding five more.
But while @IDFSpokesperson did temper the rhetoric slightly after its early efforts resulted in widespread criticism, the goal of the campaign was never to remake the IDF’s image in a kinder, gentler mold. On the contrary, it is an essential element of Israeli strategy that its enemies know it will act decisively when threatened. It is important that the IDF maintain an aura of hardened resolve, so creating the impression that it had gone soft and would not respond to provocations would be considered far worse than appearing overly aggressive.
So what was the purpose of the social media campaign?
There was certainly an element of playing to the base and disseminating propaganda for use by those already firmly in the “pro-Israel” camp, but more importantly the campaign was about reframing the narrative of Defensive Pillar. For Israel, the clear objective was to simplify the message by presenting the conflict as a binary choice between supporting Israel and supporting Hamas. This allowed it to marginalize critics who condemned Hamas rocket attacks, human shield tactics, and reprehensible executions of suspected “collaborators”, but still did not view Israeli action as justified. This version of the narrative presented opposition to Israeli action during Defensive Pillar as ipso facto support for Hamas.
Presenting Pillar of Defense as a regrettable but necessary battle of good versus evil allowed Benjamin Netanyahu to offer a simple and unequivocal account of the situation when addressing the international community: this was a matter of Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorists. Who could argue with that?
This simplified narrative was for the most part propagated successfully. The fundamental questions surrounding the operation quickly became muddled as the days wore on. How did the conflict start? Who was to blame? Could the number of civilian casualties in Gaza be justified? Was the operation necessary at all? Did it serve any strategic purpose? These questions seemed to be a peripheral part of the international discourse.
Of course Israel has the right to defend itself, but boiling down a messy and complicated conflict to this question is disingenuous. The psychological effect of living under the constant threat of rocket fire should not be trivialized, but the Economist’s Gaza Abacus does not exactly paint a picture of Israel in total crisis in early 2011, and other options were on the table but never given a chance to succeed. Pillar of Defense was not a necessary defensive action without alternative.
Gershon Baskin, for example, was working to broker a long-term ceasefire with Hamas in the days leading up to November 16th. On the morning that al-Jaabari was killed, he had been sent a draft proposal laying out the terms for an extended ceasefire with Israel — a draft which had already been agreed by Baskin and Ghazi Hamad, the deputy foreign minister of Hamas.
On balance, the Ministry of Public Information and Diaspora Affairs officials who have ultimate oversight of the IDF’s messaging will probably be very satisfied with their cadre of 20-somethings who work in the social media department. Negative attention over callous use of social media was a small price to pay for greater control over the narrative of the conflict. International reverberations from Defensive Pillar have been relatively minor compared to the fallout from Cast Lead in 2008-09. Granted, there were a far greater number of casualties then and Defensive Pillar did not include a ground war, but the IDF will still feel it has learned lessons about how to handle the public relations side of what tragically seems like it may turn into a conflict which recurs every few years, costing more innocent lives and destroying anew Gaza’s already devastated infrastructure.