Mashable reported that Twitter, back then a startup, had registered a staggering growth of 752 percent.
Midway through Israel’s 22-day “Cast Lead” offensive on Gaza in late 2008 and into 2009 – which cost the lives of 1,400 Palestinians, according to think-tank Global Research – Mashable reported that Twitter, back then a startup, had registered a staggering growth of 752 percent. A few months earlier, Facebook had officially outstripped MySpace in unique monthly worldwide visitors (116.4 million), as per Comscore – Instagram would be created two years later in 2010, and YouTube was yet to become the hub of conspiracy theory videos and live battlefield feeds. At the time, few drew tangible connections between the growth of online media and that of citizen journalism, and even less were audacious enough to thread death toll with social media numbers. None, however, foresaw online media’s clout on public opinion around the historically debated Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Back in 2001, Electronicintifada.net (EI), a self-described “independent online news publication and educational resource focusing on Palestine, its people, politics, culture and place in the world”, was relatively unknown to the wider public, its core followership consisting of hardcore activists for the Palestinian cause. Even when Israel waged the 34-day July War on Lebanon in 2006, following its claim that Lebanese paramilitary movement Hezbollah kidnapped two of its soldiers, there was very little online awareness around what was really going on, says Qassem Qassem, a journalist at Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar and an active reporter of the Palestine-Israel conflict. At large, international public opinion remained unaffected by gruesome pictures of the war’s ‘civilian casualties’ that circulated online, partly reassured by Israel’s “right to self-defense” claim, and very simple rhetoric behind its disproportionate reactions to enemy actions: “they asked for it”. It is on that premise that Israel launched “Cast Lead” in 2008 to counter rocket fire from Palestinian resistance movement Hamas, and to block passageways for smuggling weapons into the Gaza strip. During the three-week armed conflict, online reactions empathized with innocent victims of the operation, yet blamed them for supporting Hamas and its provocative standing vis-à-vis Israel, explains Qassem.
In 2011, EI claimed on its portal that it raised $192,000 – $56,000 in direct donations from individuals and $36,000 from private foundations – while its expenses for the same year reached $202,000. Certainly, EI’s 2011 investments have not single-handedly helped reshape public perception of the Palestine-Israel conflict; but for the least part, they were reflective of the portal’s growing online readership, and the latter’s need to dig deeper into the conflict. “In 2012, things started changing,” says Qassem. He’s referring to Israel’s “Pillar of Defense” operation – another response to rocket fire out of the Gaza strip – that, this time, was supported by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)’s heavy campaign of anti-terror and defensive messaging on its official Twitter handle. “The IDF has begun a widespread campaign on terror sites & operatives in the #Gaza Strip, chief among them #Hamas & Islamic Jihad targets,” it announced on Twitter on November 14, 2012. The IDF had been pretty vocal about its operations in Gaza ever since it created its Twitter handle in 2009, and quite successful at garnering support for that.
— Anonymous (@AnonymousGlobo) August 13, 2014
Yet, in 2012, its propagandist efforts on social media were disrupted by its own supporters; among them was none other than socialite Kim Kardashian who, as reported by the DailyMail UK portal, tweeted: “Praying for everyone in Israel” three days into “Pillar of Defense”, offending many pro-Palestine followers. She would later tweet “Praying for everyone in Palestine across the world!”, offending pro-Israel followers. A few days later, Anonymous, a worldwide group of hacktivists, declared cyber war against Israel, claiming that it had hacked 650 Israeli websites – while Israel’s finance minister only admitted to 60 million hacking attempts, and no successful ones at that – in response to Israel’s threat to block internet access to Palestinians. Still, in impact, Kardashian and Anonymous public displays of attention paled in comparison with those official sources that had begun defaming Israel’s online image. One particular incident in February 2013, where an IDF soldier posted an Instagram photo of “what appears to be a Palestinian boy in the crosshairs of a sniper’s rifle”, reported Israeli news portal Haaretz – in one of its first and few articles doing disservice to Israel, rather than defending it – went viral. “This is what military control over a civilian population looks like,” commented Breaking the Silence, a group of ex-IDF soldiers who “have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the routine situations of everyday life in the Occupied Territories,” according to its Facebook page.
It is in this hostile online environment that Israel and Palestine entered the “Operation Protective Edge” in July 2014, launched by Israel after it claimed that Hamas kidnapped three Israeli teenage students whose bodies were later found in the West Bank. Israel’s claims were never fully substantiated with facts, but worked in favor of yet another conflict of epic disproportions. This time, however, the Palestinian death toll, live eyewitness accounts from international media, and celebrity endorsement of the Palestinian cause, did Israel no favor. “This time, every action had an immediate reaction. The empathy on social media with Palestine was bigger and more successful than Israel’s campaigns advocating its right to self-defense,” says Qassem. He refers to “#dontburnourboys”, a Twitter campaign waged by Palestinian activists in response to “#bringbackourboys”, which Israel launched when the students were first kidnapped; shortly before, in retaliation to the kidnappings and murders, 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir was burned alive and killed in the Jerusalem Forest. Abu Khdeir’s murder would receive an outpouring of support to Palestine.
“Celebrities and influential figures had to empathize with the cause – although many who tweeted in support of Palestine later removed their tweets. But this at least pushed people to enquire more about the state of affairs in Gaza, and highlighted Israeli brutality,” adds Qassem. Within a few days of “Operation Protective Edge”, NBA player Dwight Howard and pop singer Rihanna were among the few celebrities that tweeted “#FreePalestine” before deleting the tweets under public – and publicist – scrutiny and backlash. Soon after they signed an open letter to Israel condemning its “genocide”, actors Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz were also labeled anti-semitic by the pro-Israeli public and many Hollywood insiders, quickly backtracking on their strong views on the conflict; so much so that Independent wrote an article questioning the fate of their careers, and Hollywood actor Jon Voight – peace activist and actress Angelina Jolie’s father – asked the duo to hang their “heads in shame”. But it was the back-and-forth battle of words between eccentric British actor Russell Brand and Fox News presenter Sean Hannity that truly polarized online opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; when Hannity asked an American-Palestinian guest on his show if he was “thick in the head” for not considering Hamas to be a terrorist organization, Brand called Hannity a terrorist in a filmed video. Hannity retorted with another video, and Brand with a fourth.
But, “it’s not just celebrities who expressed their discontent with what was happening in Gaza, but also international media outlets,” says Qassem, referring to several incidents in this regard: like CNN pulling reporter Diana Magnay out of the Israel-Palestine border after she called Israeli citizens who were cheering for the bombing of Gaza and threatening her “scum” on Twitter; NBC News relocating Egyptian-American journalist Ahmed Mohyeldin from Gaza for ‘security concerns’; and BBC Arabic reporter Firas El Khatib’s infamous on-air attack by an angry Israeli citizen.
But perhaps the most impactful of all was English journalist Jon Snow’s heartbreaking YouTube account of his stay in Gaza, where he described the state of children who were severely hit and injured by Israeli bombings. Of course, Snow’s video never made it past YouTube, but that of four Palestinian children who were killed on a Gaza beach, did. “Fifty days [time period for “Operation Protective Edge”] is a long period of time. Those that hadn’t paid attention to the conflict before did not have the choice but to this time. It just so happened that there were cameras to capture the massacres committed by Israelis. It just so happened that TF1 was there to record the beach massacre,” says Qassem.
Beyond media and Hollywood, a major turning point for the 2014 Israeli-Palestinian conflict was – now previous – UK foreign office minister Sayeeda Warsi’s resignation on August 5 over the UK’s “morally indefensible” position toward Gaza, as she mentioned in a letter. Naturally, Warsi also shared her decision in a tweet. It read: “With deep regret I have this morning written to the Prime Minister & tendered my resignation. I can no longer support Govt policy on #Gaza”, and was retweeted 33,527 times and favorited 17,106 times.
With deep regret I have this morning written to the Prime Minister & tendered my resignation. I can no longer support Govt policy on #Gaza
— Sayeeda Warsi (@SayeedaWarsi) August 5, 2014
That is not to say that the IDF’s Twitter presence has not grown in both influence and popularity among pro-Israeli supporters. “Today was the first day of school in Israel. School is a place for education & fun. If only Hamas felt the same way,” said a recent tweet by the @IDFSpokesperson Twitter handle. Moreover, the #Israelunderfire hashtag trended for quite a while – even though it was used in the reverse by pro-Palestine tweeps.
Today was the first day of school in Israel. School is a place for education & fun. If only Hamas felt the same way. pic.twitter.com/1AwP5vd6ph
— IDF (@IDFSpokesperson) September 1, 2014
All in all, “there were a lot of worldwide happenings that were distracting people away from what was going on in Gaza: the World Cup, Ramadan, the Mosul massacre in Iraq, the Ebola disease… At some point, people got sick of hearing about Gaza,” says Qassem. In fact, when the “Ice Bucket Challenge” took the online realm by storm, few still actively shared news and updates about Gaza on social media. This in fact, leaves many to wonder if this year, Gaza simply happened to be the cause-du-jour. But then again, “the Ice Bucket Challenge was countered by the Dirt Bucket Challenge, to show people what Gaza residents are feeling [when their houses crumble on top of their heads]. In that sense, it might have actually helped the cause,” says Qassem. Only the next operation will tell.