Israel's military campaign into the Gaza Strip last January proved that the new battlefield in the Middle East is not on the ground, but on the expanding new media social networks.
"The blogosphere and new media are another war zone. We have to be relevant there," The Jerusalem Post quotes Israel's Foreign Press Branch head Maj. Avital Leibovich on the Israeli Defense Force's use of the YouTube channel.
"In addition to the Twitter press conference and the YouTube channel, Israeli officials have delivered multiple private briefings to bloggers around the world, and several officials have started video blogs to share their point of view," he said.
Battle with Blogs
A blog called Help Us Win was one of the first to use the Internet to address the Israeli side of the conflict. The blog's title reads, "The war in Gaza is not only on the ground, but also in the international media." It was started by the non-sectarian educational institute Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.
Within hours of the Gaza incursion, a full-fledged Internet propaganda machine was set in motion to ensure the world could hear Israel's side. The IDF posted a blog and an IDF YouTube channel. The two sites received millions of visitors from around the world.
The Israeli Consulate in New York also held a citizen press conference on Twitter to discuss the war. The forum was calledIsrael Politik blog. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took full advantage of the new media, regularly sharing his insight on Twitter and YouTube. Netanyahu continues to use Twitter in Hebrew and English. Click here to see.
The purpose of the IDF YouTube channel was to show that Israel's incursion was an act of self-defense. YouTube removed four of the videos after viewers marked them as objectionable. However, within days the videos were put back up after bloggers voiced their protests. But please don't let those love-the-sound-of-their-own-voice-bloggers know!
Israel is investing a lot of effort to improve her image over the web. Log on to the Web site of the Israeli Consulate of New York at www.israelfm.org and you will find links to Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and Isrealli prominently displayed on the homepage of the new "blog of Israel."
Internet social networks are now at the forefront of the public information campaign to change Israel's image.
This campaign stands in marked contrast to the 2006 Israeli scramble to explain the bombing of Hezbollah targets in south Lebanon. This time, Israel managed to reduce some of the international pressure.
Journalist and blogger John Cole questioned the effectiveness of the IDF's Internet campaign. He claimed the videos were not proving anything beyond the fact that "the IDF is in fact blowing up buildings in Gaza."
Others also criticized the Israeli Internet "propaganda," claiming that Israel's image was in fact greatly damaged by the war in Gaza.
On the Palestinian side of the conflict, there has not been much sign of any sustained effort to use the new media. Hamas tried unsuccessfully to use the new social networks. But YouTube censored Hamas video posts, which forced the terrorist group to open an alternative video-sharing site called Aqsa Tube. The site, however, was soon abandoned and the channel is now an Arabic entertainment link.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations sent out a call to American Muslims to speak out against Israel on the social network Web sites. However, the Gaza-related discussions coming from Muslims and Palestinian supporters did not stir much participation. Most of the discussions on Twitter and other social networks provided very little useful news.
There were, however, a number of attempts by pro-Gaza groups to get their message across on Facebook. The three main ones, "Lets collect 500000 signatures to support the Palestinians in Gaza," "Prevent a new genocide; save Gaza" and "Sympathise with Gaza" all focused on sharing photos and videos to support their side of the conflict. None of these forums offered any serious debate or discussion on the issues.
Pro-Palestinian groups used the new media mainly to express extreme anti-Israel sentiments. There was very little serious journalism. Sadly, the voices of the residents who were affected most by the conflict were not heard on any of the social networks.
It is possible that Gaza is too technically primitive or too politically controlled to permit independent, journalistic, or citizen blogging. Without freedom for third-party reporters and practically no local journalists, very little unbiased or balanced coverage of the conflict came from the Gaza Strip.
Al Jazeera did open a citizen journalism Web site called The War on Gaza. Using SMS or Twitter, the site allowed users to report incidents resulting from the conflict in Gaza. In this innovative attempt at citizen journalism Al Jazeera tried to map reports and create serious statistical data on the conflict. However, very few citizen texts were received, and the majority of the content consists of Al Jazeera news reports.
Both Israel and Hamas used mobile telephone technology during the conflict. Hamas sent threatening text messages to Israeli mobile phones, such as "the Palestinian resistance missiles will reach you wherever you are and your government won't be able to protect you."
Hamas also reported jamming radio stations. However, none of these activities could be confirmed in the Israeli or international press.
Israel air-dropped plane loads of pamphlets into Gaza warning citizens to evacuate areas that were about to be bombed. The IDF also sent SMS warning messages to all Palestinian mobile phone owners. According to Israeli reports, the strategy did prevent some loss of lives. Opponents claimed that it was only Israel's way of trying to appease the international community.
"Israel didn't intend to save Palestinian lives" a Hamas spokesman said.
Another great resource on the use of the Internet in the Israel-Gaza conflict can be found on Darren Krape's Gaza Public Diplomacy Wiki.
Overall, it appears to some degree that Israel won this most recent propaganda battle by taking full advantage of the Internet's far-reaching capabilities. (Whether it won the battle in the arena of the foreign media is another question.) The Palestinian side seems to have suffered some losses being unprepared or unable to make their case in the new media.
These powerful new mobile communications and social-networking platforms have become the new battlefields for the hearts and minds of the Middle East and around the globe.