Sounds of war in Israel, overhead and on my Twitter feed

When the first air-raid siren of summer 2014 screeched through Tel Aviv, my blood turned to ash. I was sitting in a coffee shop near my apartment, typing out a news piece on the disturbing increase in anti-Arab and anti-Jewish attacks throughout Israel, when the sound came — distinctly deeper than an ambulance, and guttural, with a metallic edge. War stuff. 

Wordlessly, a mother and father next to me, Tel Aviv-chic in pastels and eyeglasses, grabbed their two young girls by the hands and followed the baristas to the back. This particular coffee shop didn’t have a shelter, so we all just sort of squished into a utility closet to wait for the boom of the rocket we knew was flying toward us — either the boom of it hitting the ground or the smaller boom of its interception in the sky by Israel’s heroic Iron Dome defense system.

The kids squirmed, watching their parents’ faces for signs they should be afraid.

My mind was back in Gaza, December 2012, having tiny cups of coffee with three generations of the Al Kurdi family. I had just moved from Los Angeles to Israel to write freelance, and they had just lived through another war together: Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense, which killed more than 150 Palestinians. For the Al Kurdis, that meant saying goodbye to a baby cousin, their son’s Arabic teacher and dozens of friends. “They didn’t do any bad things to make Israel kill them,” Muhammad Al Kurdi, a skinny 16-year-old, told me, his eyes unfocused and his knee jiggling uncontrollably.

When I got home from the coffee shop last week, I scattered old pads of paper all over my living room, trying to find my notes from Gaza and the Israeli border communities I’d visited that winter. They were gone.

Gaza is only a one-hour drive south of Tel Aviv, but feels like a trip to the moon. And for the past year, since I’ve been writing for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, I haven’t been able to get permission from Hamas, Gaza’s ruling government party, to enter the strip. 

I messaged Khader, the Al Kurdi family’s second eldest, on Facebook. He would be around 23 years old now. On a still night on his patio two winters ago, Khader had told me he wanted to be a graphic designer, but that all his dreams stopped at the Gaza border fence.

“Are you OK?” I asked him in the Facebook message, not knowing what else to say. A rocket attack on Tel Aviv, Israel’s metropolitan center, would mean unparalleled wrath on Gaza City, where the Al Kurdis live.

Two full days later, Khader responded. “How can I be?” he asked.

“People are killed everywhere, homes are destroyed in hundreds, innocent people died under these homes. I didn’t sleep for the last 30 hours,” he wrote. “My neighbors’ house is totally destroyed. I can’t have peace cause I’m afraid that my house will be next, since some houses were destroyed randomly without warning people living in it.”

My gratitude to Israel for shooting down the rockets hurtling toward my apartment cannot be overstated. But it can screw with your head, clinging to the same army for protection that another people is praying for protection against.

Gaza, a caged plot of land half the size of San Francisco, has taken around 800 tons of explosives from Israel so far, in response to more than 1,000 rockets launched at Israel by Hamas from densely populated areas. As of press time, 188 Palestinians had been killed and more than 1,100 wounded, the majority of them reportedly civilians.

Thanks to the Internet, millions around the world have been watching this new F-16 assault on Gaza — called Operation Protective Edge — in real time. Images from the ground are as horrific as any in the history of modern warfare.

One video from a hospital room shows 4-year-old Sahir Abu Namous with the back of his head blown off, being shaken by his father: “Wake up son, I got you a toy,” the boy’s father tells the toddler, sobbing. Another photo shows a young woman cradling her dead 4-day-old baby, a hellish kind of sorrow rippling across her forehead. In the opening scene of a Vice News dispatch, first responders stumble out of the rubble waving newly detached limbs. A New York Times journalist shares a photo of 15 crude graves dug into the dirt, all designated for family members of Hamas police chief Tayseer Al-Batsh. They were killed in a single strike.

“There were eight people there launching rockets,” Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman Peter Lerner tells me of the Al-Batsh family home. “That incident is being investigated.”

I’m frozen in front of my Twitter feed. I can’t sleep. Maybe I’m afraid that if I miss a name, or another photo of a “martyr” and his or her survivors, I might forget about Gaza again.

Lerner tells me the army does everything it can to avoid civilian casualties: It calls residents to warn them five to 10 minutes before their home will be bombed, he says, then strikes the building with a non-explosive warning missile.

Many Gazans say they’ve witnessed this system go wrong, or not happen at all. “Yasser receives a call from IDF. Evacuate in ten minutes,” Tweets human-rights worker Mohammed Suliman, 24, from Gaza City. “He wasn’t home though. His family was. Hysterically, he phoned home. No one picked.” 

Israel finally joins the online arms race

Mere hours after the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) took down their first Hamas official at the start of Operation Pillar of Defense, an army of young Israelis took to the Internet. Not to be out-tweeted by the people of Gaza and their supporters around the world, as has been the case in Israel-Palestinian conflicts past, hundreds of college-aged millenials uploaded the Israeli perspective onto a Facebook page called “Israel Under Fire.”

The account has since racked up an impressive 27,000-plus followers. And although it was founded by the Ministry of Public Diplomacy in Jerusalem with the help of young volunteers, one of its most vital command centers was located an hour north — in a glass-walled classroom at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), a small private college along the Israeli coast.

Armed exclusively with the password to the “Israel Under Fire” Facebook page, the IDC volunteers created a sort of meme factory in this room adjacent their campus library. One row of computers was devoted to quick Photoshop jobs such as slapping captions onto images of Gaza rocket damage, or depicting the world’s other major cities under siege; another row was staffed by international students who translated these perfect little shareables into more than 20 languages; and yet another row funneled all the material into an online dropbox, which could then be accessed by volunteers and their contacts the world over.

By way of this rapidly growing friend network, the “Israel Under Fire” posts — such as an image of rockets flying over Times Square, with the caption: “Would you be willing to live like this for one day? How about 12 years??” — were viewed by millions, according to the site’s administrators.

At the height of the Gaza conflict last week, lead organizer Yarden Ben Yosef was eager to tell his startup story.

He and some close friends initially reached out to the Israeli government, he said, “because we understood that the Palestinian side was so strong in new media. In my opinion, maybe it’s because government [in Gaza] is less organized — because they don’t have a department for advocacy.”

Indeed. Despite the fact that the Israeli government has been hiring lots of new social-media hands, according to Eddie Yair Fraiman, director of new media for the Ministry of Public Diplomacy, these paid PR experts lack, by definition, the air of sincerity and authenticity — street cred, you could call it — that any image or story needs to go viral.

Fraiman stressed over the phone that it was he who first “decided to go viral with the page.”

However, many student organizers said they felt their work had succeeded in large part because of the distance they’d put between themselves and public officials. Ben Yosef, head organizer at IDC, noted that “when we speak with the government, we see that they don’t understand this medium.”

The Prime Minister’s office knew all too well that if Israel was to avoid being painted as a ruthless baby-killer this time around, Operation Pillar of Defense would need to be narrated by real Israeli citizens caught in the crossfire — through a personalized, relatable feed of instant wartime updates.

And it was Israel’s Gen-Y, speaking social media as an innate second language, who had the peer-to-peer legitimacy to make it happen.

Although the Israeli prime minister and president likewise have huge social-media followings, their Facebook and Twitter posts are impeccably starched. And even further biased (for obvious reasons) is the IDF's official Twitter account, which like its Hamas counterpart has achieved global infamy for framing the conflict like a videogame — complete with Dr. Evil sneers. (For example: “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.”)

Government officials claim to have contributed zero funding to the “Israel Under Fire” effort. Instead, they've showered young volunteers in praise and encouragement; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even called them up last week for a face-to-face video chat, thanking them for their “very important work.”

Netanyahu told the volunteers in Hebrew: “What you are doing greatly strengthens us on the public diplomacy front. We must fight for the truth, for the facts, and your help is worth more than gold.”

The private college where students were stationed also gave up space and resources to support the effort.

Last week, IDC’s Vice President for Student Affairs showed up to the command center with boxes of chocolates. “It’s something very extraordinary, what they’re doing there,” she boasted of her students.

A young man named Tal, who didn’t want to give his last name, sat at the row of computers designated for “data collection,” where volunteers watched what was going viral, and filled comment sections on anti-Israel news stories with pro-Israel arguments.  As his eyes flicked down the screen, Tal explained: “I think there was a lack of awareness on our end [during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and the Gaza flotilla raid in 2010], which is literally a crime. There was a complete misunderstanding that current modern warfare has gone in the direction of social media. The Palestinians understood that.”

It's tough to compete with photos of dead children — a constant stream of which have been uploaded from within the Gaza Strip. But overall, judging by the overwhelming online response to “Israel Under Fire” and photos of support from Los Angeles to Berlin, the Israeli campaign (and other civilian social-media efforts like it) waged a war that the IDF never could.

As one female student, Adi Kadussi, put it: “If we weren't doing this, all the world will see is only the crap about Israel. We want to show the balance.”

IDF takes Operation Pillar of Defense to social media

In addition to Amud Anan (Pillar of Defense), its operation in defense of the Jewish state in response to a barrage of rockets from Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is also taking the operation to Twitter

“The IDF has begun a widespread campaign on terror sites & operatives in the Gaza Strip, chief among them Hamas & Islamic Jihad targets,” said the IDF spokesperson’s unit, according to Globes.

The IDF tweets regularly about the launch and interception of rockets, and it also tweeted the video showing the killing of Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari.

In addition to Twitter, the IDF is posting frequently on Facebook. One post, “Hamas rocket threat,” shows a map of rocket ranges and Israeli cities, and the statement, “Tonight, more than one million Israelis are going to sleep in bomb shelters. This operation will bring a better tomorrow. Share if you believe Israel has the right to defend itself.” Another post states “Palestinian terrorists have fired more than 12,000 rockets against Israel in the last 12 years. Share if you believe Israel has the right to defend itself.”

IDF live-tweeting Gaza offensive