War during the social media era: Israel-Hamas war’s toxic tweets

This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

A photograph of a wounded Israeli soldier lying on a gurney appeared on a Facebook page above the comment reading, “I hope all Israeli soldiers come back this way if not at all,” followed by a smiley face computer symbol.

As disturbing as the apparent message was, the subtext was equally troubling. The post came from a student at Jerusalem’s Hadassah College, an institution that boasts a student body that is 20% Arab-Israeli or Palestinian and a history of positive relations between its varied ethnicities.

Students responded with posters affixed to walls throughout the campus declaring, “Racism. Not in our School!” Hadassah College administration reacted swiftly with a summons to the office of the president who expelled the student and rescinded her scholarship.

To many familiar with the incident, more troubling than its occurrence is the growing belief that it symbolizes something far more insidious: a rapidly increasing toxicity of the environment shared by Jews and Muslims; Israelis and Palestinians facilitated by a potent weapon new to the theater of war: social media.

Gershon Baskin of the Israeli Palestinian Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) rues “the level of hatred by Israelis and Palestinians in social media and those who support them.” Baskin says, “The pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian movements have reached a level [of hatred] I haven’t ever seen before in my life…I've done things I have never done in my life and removed people from my Facebook and twitter. I posted instructions on my wall stating my Facebook wall is my home; you should respect my home and each other. We can argue here but respectfully, but if you can't follow those rules, you are out of here.”

Senior Israeli journalist Danny Rubinstein agrees that newfound angst is spreading at an alarming speed. “An outcome of the war has been a dangerous sense of hatred, where meetings between Israelis and Palestinians are being cancelled. I also do not see either side interviewing the other. You barely see an Arab on Israeli television,” he said.

Before Israel launched its current military incursion into the Gaza Strip, Facebook was, as advertised, “social” media. It was used by Palestinians primarily as a means to inform about engagements, weddings and baby arrivals. But in 2014, social media is arguably the weapon of choice with which to defend the respective narratives of both Israelis and Palestinians.  Since the outbreak of the latest hostilities in Gaza, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are as important to the flow of information and opinion as are newspapers, radio and television.

“In the old days, media used to feed the public with news. In today's world of advanced technology, the people, through social networks, feed the media with news,” said Elias Zananiri, vice chairman of The Palestinian Committee for Interaction with the Israeli Society.  The organization was founded in 2012 to convey the Palestinian message to Israelis, in ways that includes bringing Israelis on visits to Ramallah to meet with the Palestinian leadership.

“Obviously after the war on Gaza, things have changed a little bit because every side is busy with its own problems,” he told The Media Line. Despite this, he says the message of the committee has not changed as they “try to emphasize to our Israeli interlocutors that at the end of the day, there has to be a political solution to the current war and nothing else because no military force can solve the Arab Israeli conflict,” he said.

Karmel Khaled is also trying to get what she sees as the Palestinian message out, and uses social media to do so. She says she was “inspired by the pain” to create a YouTube video about Gaza to not only “spread the message of what’s really going on, but to get someone to do something about it.”  

In Khaled’s online video, “Believe it or Not: Gaza”, Palestinians hold up signs which read, “Gaza Under Attack”; “Children Have a Right to Live”; “Injustice”; “Protect Gaza” and “West Bank and Gaza are One” before displaying still photos of men, women and children in Gaza.   

“What is important now is to tell others in the West that there is a Palestine since most of them are not familiar with Palestine and think it is Pakistan,” said Khaled, a fourth-year  media student at Al-Quds Bard Honors College for Liberal Arts and Sciences. She told The Media Line that she wants Israelis and Jews who see her video “to believe in our rights to live and have freedom.”

Anger characterizes many debates between Israeli and Palestinian partisans that fill Facebook pages. A Palestinian recently posted on a photograph of Israeli soldiers crying at a funeral for one of their fallen, adding a caption reading, “Good to see the love being shared for a change. May your tears and pain never stop.”

While the social network was created to allow friends to connect with one another, the recent violence in Gaza has put many friendships on the fringe.

Ibtesam Humiedan  is not usually an active Facebook member, “but with what is happening today in Gaza, I find myself always checking my Facebook for updates, news, and  sharing and creating posts,” the Bethlehem resident told The Media Line, saying “it has become a duty to speak up and tell the truth.”  One of her Facebook friends is an Israeli, who also happens to be a former colleague. She explains that “under better circumstances, we would never comment on each other’s posts. Now, we do when it has to do with Gaza.”  And it’s not pleasant.  “Conversations become very heated very fast. What started out as comments quickly become attacks.” Describing the phenomenon as “unbearable” and “senseless,” Humiedan said that all of her friends have urged her to remove her Israeli colleague from her Facebook page, or to at least stop responding to his comments. “But I keep him on my list because I want to know how average Israelis like him think and how they can justify their government’s action.”

@tweet_palestine is a pro-Palestinian on-line activist who says she “can relate.” Out of fear, she gave The Media Line only her Twitter name, explaining that she’s “been attacked by the Palestinian Authority; the Israeli army spokesman; and right-wing politicians,” and sees herself in danger. She’s been told things like, “We hope you’ll get bombed along with the Palestinians”; and “You should be one of the people killed in Gaza.”  She says it’s crucial that Palestinians use all of the technology available to them in order to show the truth. Using the Hebrew word for public awareness, @tweet_palestine says, “This means posting images to ‘fight the Israeli propaganda machine and Israeli ‘hasbara.”’

Professor Mohammad S. Dajani Daoudi says that, “sending creative but truthful messages through the social media enhance the effectiveness of the Palestinian cause; while cursing the other and sending death threats only backfires and alienates those searching for the truth.” Daoudi recently made the news when he resigned from the faculty of Al-Quds University after coming under criticism for taking Palestinian students and faculty to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps earlier this year.

In an email, he wrote The Media Line that, “In these dark hours we need to keep our eyes on the ball and do not let hate and enmity blind us. Moderation, peace, and reconciliation are our only option and are the only path we should take if not for our own welfare then for the security and prosperity for our children and grandchildren.”

Shireen Yassin agrees.  When she was 16 years, she, along with other Palestinians, went to a camp with Israelis where the main principle taught was peace. “I still believe that there should be a solution,” she told The Media Line, saying that she has Israeli friends who post pro-Palestinian messages on social media.

Meanwhile, rejecting call to join the boycott of Israeli goods, supermarket owner Omar Salah says his store’s inventory includes 30% Israeli products and he has no intention of take them off the shelves because of what’s happening in Gaza. “Boycotts are not for people who are under occupation,” he told The Media Line.  Nevertheless, he says the amount of Israeli goods has declined since the onset of violence [second Intifada] in 2000. “Violence always makes things worse for everybody,” Salah lamented.

Zananiri agrees. “Whether today or tomorrow, the war will end,” he says. “The main question is the day after the war is over, where are we going? What are we going to do? Both Palestinians and Israelis, every leader who has a brain in his or her head should think of a political solution.”

Memoir highlights unlikely role in Gilad Shalit saga

Less than one year before Gilad Shalit’s 2006 abduction-heard-round-the-world, another, less infamous tragedy set events in motion that ultimately aided in the Israeli soldier’s release.

In September 2005, a relative of Gershon Baskin, founder and then-co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), was kidnapped during a business trip in the West Bank. Despite Baskin’s efforts to track him down using his Palestinian contacts, the family member turned up dead six days later. 

On the day of the funeral, Baskin vowed that he would save the next person who was kidnapped. 

“I stood over his grave not only feeling terrible because my wife’s first cousin had been murdered, but because the family asked me to do something. I’d been working with Palestinians for two decades, and I couldn’t save his life,” Baskin told a small crowd at the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (PJTC) on Nov. 21. “And I swore to myself that night if ever again I was in a situation where someone approached me and asked me to help save a human life, I would do everything humanly possible.” 

Since 1988, Baskin has been working to bring peace to the Israelis and Palestinians through the IPCRI, a joint Israeli-Palestinian public policy think tank. In summer 2006, contacts from his profession came in handy — and he got his chance to live up to the promise he made to himself — when then-19-year-old Shalit was kidnapped by militants from the Gaza Strip.

Baskin had been attempting to organize dialogues between academics from Israeli universities and academics from Islamic University of Gaza, with which Hamas leaders were affiliated, and found himself in a position to try and help Shalit.

From successfully obtaining a sign of life of Shalit in the form of a personal handwritten letter, to convincing the soldier’s parents to contact the head of Hamas in Damascus, to venturing precariously into the Gaza Strip to meet with Hamas leaders in person, Baskin described his quest to save Shalit as all-in. 

As explained in his recently released book recounting his efforts, “The Negotiator,” Baskin, acting in an unofficial capacity — after years of trying to convince the Israeli government to let him do so — established secret, back-channel negotiations with Shalit’s kidnappers in the Islamist group Hamas. This helped pave the way for the deal that won the soldier his freedom, Baskin said. After five years of captivity, Shalit was released in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinians who were being held in Israeli jails for carrying out attacks against Israelis.

That’s not to say he didn’t irritate many along the way, even in Israel. Several investigators, including official appointees of the Israeli prime minister’s office, were grateful for Baskin’s commitment but asked him to stay out of the case. Still, his dissatisfaction with how long it was taking to rescue the young boy in captivity kept him motivated, he said.

While Baskin’s presentation left out some of the juicer details — he was there to move copies of his new book, after all — there was another reason for his appearance, according to PJTC Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, who extended the invitation to Baskin.

“It was one person who established a relationship and who built trust and who was not willing to give up, and that to me is kind of a metaphor for how we are going to bring peace in the world … one person at a time.”