Gaza: Weapons for the Besieged

Social media is giving unprecedented personal insights into conflicts but does it just degenerate into propaganda?

Social media is playing a huge role in shaping the global perspective on conflict. More than anything it provides visual proof of violence. However, while this type of truth spreading is laudable, there are some very real issues.

Take the situation in Gaza. This has been very one sided, with mass casualties of the Gaza people and minimal damages to Israeli forces. The Israeli operation to bomb Gaza started after missing Jewish boys were found dead in July, and the blame was put on the Palestinian terrorist organisation Hamas. Though the claim has yet to be substantiated.

With most deaths being civilians, it seems that the only weapon these people have is their voice. The social media response to the on-going Israel-Palestine conflict has given a whole new meaning to the phrase, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’. But is it really?  

Social media in Gaza

Paul Mason reported for the Guardian in August that even with everything that was happening, bombs falling and power cut-outs, Wi-Fi was something that people tried their best to keep going. He describes:

“Locals in Rafah appealing for help, tweeting photographs of the dead in refrigerators. Doctors at Shifa hospital, recounting the night's toll of maimed and burned. Bloggers from Israel disputing everything, convinced the hospital itself is just the lid of a vast tunnel complex for Hamas, my social networks followed me into the war.”

Since launching Operation Protective Edge, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) has posted dozens of updates each day on its Twitter account. The IDF provides updates on rocket fire from Gaza and the activity of Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system, with tweets such as: “BREAKING: Iron Dome just intercepted 7 rockets above Ashkelon”.

The Twitter account [at print account is suspended], of Hamas' military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, also provides updates on casualties, mirroring the IDF's account. The Qassam Brigades have several Twitter accounts in different languages, including Arabic and Hebrew. Using the hashtags #GazaUnderAttack, #Gaza, #StopIsrael, and #PrayForGaza, they emphasize the plight of Palestinian civilians. Additionally both sides use graphics and death toll counters to prove and disprove claims.

When a 16-year old Palestinian, Farah Baker, began tweeting about the bombs falling around her, in the space of a few weeks, her followers on Twitter jumped from 800 to 207,000. This is not the first case of such information sharing. In 2011 a man in Abbottabad in Pakistan live tweeted what he saw from his window of the US operation to capture and kill Osama Bin Laden. People are hungry for information, and want it to be as current as possible.

Does social media matter?

Laila Shereen Sakr, social media expert from the University of Southern California, saw that in July when the crisis started, Instagram, the photo and video sharing platform, was the most active social platform in relation to Gaza. She is of the view that social sentiments about Gaza were changing due to social media:

“We are witnessing a shift in the discourse on Palestinians. There's a movement to humanize them a little bit more and to recognize that they are being victimized."

But there are other experts who disagree. Anand Varghese at the United States Institute for Peace, a neutral federal institution funded by the US congress, said, “I don't think social media users are making any great difference on the discourse on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The conversation is just as polarized and, on the margins, just as hate filled.”

Thus social media is just an extension of traditional media, which is helping to humanize the issue. It can’t really change political realities. “Real-time information from the field at such a granular level, that is something that has completely changed,” he said.

Popular opinion is a powerful resource and the social media war on the issue makes sense. In a very real way, losing popular opinion can be a liability. Palestinians and Israelis have been struggling for outside support for their cause, for more than half a century. The darker side of this is that social media is increasing ethnic tensions and polarization between the two peoples. A lot of posts and comments are just about expressing hate.

Winning the social media war

Palestine might be winning the social media war, with regards to how popular opinion has been turning to sympathy for the Palestinians. But this is a hollow victory for the citizens of Gaza. One of the major reasons Palestinians are gaining so much sympathy is the staggering death toll of unarmed civilians, especially children.

In response, Israel is quickly trying to build a social media audience to tell its side of the conflict. The Israel Defense Force now has 335,000 followers on its English twitter account.

What the social media war is not doing is creating empathy on both sides. “I want to survive, and if I don’t, remember that I was not a Hamas man or a fighter. I wasn’t used as a human shield, either. I was home.” This was a tweet from a young Gaza resident on July 23, as the Israeli air force was bombing Gaza.

Orit Perlov, a researcher at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, and an expert on Arab societies and social media, write that the Israeli responses were not empathetic. One of the responses suggested that the man organize his friends and launch an Arab Spring against Hamas.

Despite widespread devastation and with a death toll of 2,000 deaths, Palestinians on social media appear to be putting on a brave face. Constantly on social media the message is perpetuated that Hamas, or Palestine, or Gaza, has been victorious over Israel two months since Israel started Operation Protective Edge on July 8.

Qatar is one of Hamas’ most significant backers and a caricature in the Qatari newspaper Al Watan depicts Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s hand being chopped off by the word “Gaza.” Thus one has to see through the rhetoric and sentiments.

In numbers, the Gazans are being slaughtered, hardly something that can be called a victory. Social media connects people in the warzone to the outside world. But we will always need truly independent journalism to independently verify facts.


Saadia Gardezi is a Political Scientist based in Pakistan