The most unrelenting battlefield in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today is the Internet. Hours, days, and weeks can pass between terror attacks, demonstrations, riots, or missile launches, but there are no breaks in the virtual world as angry graphics and violent videos fly back and forth every second of the day.
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Back in the infancy of 24-hour world of cable news and the Internet, the Israeli government was regularly slammed by critics for holding its cards too close to its chest during times of conflict. The Israeli army was blasted for trying to wall off the international media from its operations - most infamously during the 2002 events in the West Bank city of Jenin, keeping them in the dark between cautious official briefings that were spare on the details. Meanwhile, spokesmen for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office did their best to remain “governmental” and dignified, leaving the hard-core mud-wrestling to advocacy groups. It was unthinkable then to release photographs or videos of terror attacks to the press, when such documentation existed. The government’s job was to protect the privacy and dignity of the victims, and it was thought that showing Arabs murdering Jews would lower morale and show weakness, when staying strong was a priority.
To say that times have changed would be an extreme understatement. The pendulum has now swung radically in the direction of the Israeli government using any means necessary to state its case, across any available platform.
On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held the virtual world largely responsible for inspiring the pack of lone wolf terrorists that Israel has been contending with. He told a Likud Party gathering that “What we are seeing here is a combination of the radical Islam and the Internet. Osama Bin Laden meets Mark Zuckerberg. The incitement in the social networks is moving the murders.”
But, over the past week, it has become clear that Netanyahu’s government is fighting fire with fire - battling what Matthew Kalman a colleague of mine has dubbed the “Instafada” - with unprecedented hard-hitting material from official government channels.
The opening scene of this 45-second video released on the official Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs Facebook feed on October 14 wouldn’t feel out of place in a horror movie. The clip, “What Palestinian Terror and ISIS Have in Common” leaves no room for subtlety, with rapid cuts between between scenes from videos released by radical Palestinian groups and ISIS beheading propaganda footage, complete with knives, corpses, and blood. Imposed on the images, in bright red capital letters, reads the message “ISIS and PALESTINIAN TERRORISTS. CAN YOU TELL THE DIFFERENCE?” The video ends with extensive real-life footage of one of the ramming and stabbing attacks that took place in Jerusalem the previous day.
The fatal Palestinian knife killers use the very same methods used by ISIS' notorious terrorists. You won't be able to tell any difference between them.
Netanyahu himself posted this one-minute segment on his own official Facebook feed on October 16.
As dramatic music plays in the background, the viewer is told that “Mahmoud Abbas LIES” in a blazing red headline. Following the footage of the Palestinian president declaring that Israel “executed” 13-year-old Ahmed Manasra, the video then features the now-famous hospital photos proving, as the video says that “Ahmed Manasra is ALIVE.” After the video of a bandaged Manasra being fed jello, the video transitions into a stream of footage of the stabbings, or, as the video puts it “a KILLING spree searching for Jewish victims.” After showing Manasra roam the streets of Jerusalem and hunting his victims with his 15-year-old cousin, who was shot dead while lunging at police with a knife, the video concludes with the message that “LIES KILL. Incitement kills.”
Lies kill. Incitement kills. Share this and help make sure the world knows the truth.
This kind of imagery isn’t new to followers of the Israel Defense Forces social media feeds on Facebook and Twitter. On October 14, a video was posted to both platforms, charging the Palestinians with “incitement to murder” featuring a collection of violent video greatest hits. On the same day, the IDF also separately posted the graphic footage of the ramming and stabbing attack that occured the day previously, the horror clearly shown to all.
WARNING: Graphic-Yesterday, a terrorist went on a rampage with a car & butcher's knife killing one & injuring two. pic.twitter.com/GuezC60pv4
It is clear what stands behind decision to release publicly such upsetting footage. Israeli authorities have come to believe that if they don’t provide a full video narrative of the terror attack that precedes the killing of a terrorist, carefully edited videos, like the initial viral clips of Manasra bleeding on the ground, would become the version of the story told to the world. And it is likely, they reason, that these pictures have already circulated on social media and mainstream media channels, so what’s the difference if they post them as well?
But we are playing with fire. Israelis are already fearful and jittery, and vigilantism is clearly in the air, barely reigned in by the lip service of the country’s leaders following disturbing events in Be’er Sheva on Sunday evening. While Israel’s leaders are certainly not urging citizens to commit murder, the fact that our government’s social media channels have jumped on the “snuff film” bandwagon, becoming second-hand distributors of Palestinian propaganda goes beyond being inappropriately tasteless - it’s downright dangerous.
It is also truly depressing for those of us who once believed that the Internet in general, and social media in particular, held the potential to help reach across the Israeli-Palestinian divide and encourage dialogue between leaders and people, leading the way to a better future. Instead, it only seems to be supplying more tools that fuel hate, distrust, and violence.