On 9 July at 9:26pm, Allan Sørensen, a correspondent for the Danish newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad, tweeted: “Sderot cinema. Israelis bringing chairs 2 hilltop in sderot 2 watch latest from Gaza. Clapping when blasts are heard.” (sic) The tweet – and its accompanying image of a party atmosphere on Koby Hill in Sderot, an Israeli town on the Gaza border that supposedly bears the brunt of Hamas rockets – was retweeted almost 13 000 times. Those 140 characters almost single-handedly shattered the image that Israel’s spokespeople had been carefully crafting in international media: a terrorized Israeli population cowering in bomb shelters as Hamas rockets rained down on them.
“Witnessed 3 young boys killed by Israeli ordinance on an otherwise empty beach this afternoon in Gaza City,” tweeted Tyler Hicks a week later. Hicks’ tweet, and subsequent images captured by the Pulitzer-Prize winningNew York Times photographer, of what turned out to be four boys of the extended Bakr family killed on that Gazan beach, went viral. One image in particular, showed with painful clarity, the lifeless arm of a Palestinian boy cradled by an adult running across the beach, and a small child lying face down in the sand – dead.
The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) claimed it mistook the boys for Hamas fighters. But Hicks, and other Western journalists staying at a nearby hotel who witnessed the bombing, found the IDF explanation incredulous, and expressed it on Twitter. Not only did Hicks tweet, but he immediately wrote up a first-person account for the Times. In it, he wryly observed: “ Children, maybe four feet tall, dressed in summer clothes, don’t fit the description of Hamas fighters.”
Through Twitter, Sørensen, Hicks, and hundreds of other journalists, are able to tell the world what is in front of them, what they are seeing and feeling – all in real time. They have access to a medium that allows them to speak instantaneously to an unlimited number of people – uncensored. Most of their tweets contain information that would never make it into an article, or get past an editor. “Something that [journalists] might have said to friends at a bar now goes out on Twitter,” David Pollock, an Arab-Israeli relations expert at the neo-conservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy, recently told Mashable. Each tweet is like an urgent telegram straight from the battlefield, allowing us to see an attack through the eyes of the journalist and those being attacked – without the intervention of an IDF or Hamas spokesperson.
While the IDF’s military might will ensure that Israel wins the physical battle in Gaza, the Israeli government is losing the war of public opinion one tweet at a time. Its sponsored social media ‘war rooms’ in Israel are churning out dozens of catchy memes and infographics depicting Israel’s rationale for the war in Gaza as “self-defence”. Primarily spread through paid university students, one of the most popular infographics shows how a house in Gaza allegedly becomes a target. “When is a house a home and when does it become a military target?”, the image reads, in response to accusations that Israel indiscriminately bombs houses in Gaza. Another one compares “what Israel does to protect civilians” vs. “what Hamas does to endanger its civilians.” The graphic urges Internet users to share the image if they think Israel has the right to self-defence. According to Israeli expert Dena Shunra, the aim of this Twitter army is to look like they are just every day people chatting online. However, they specifically target Twitter users expressing Palestinian solidarity and outrage over the killings in Gaza.
But this well-funded, sophisticated pro-Israel social media operation is being out-tweeted by millions of ordinary Twitter users around the world, determined to show their solidarity with Gaza. The hashtag #GazaUnderAttack has been used more than 4 million times over the past month while the hashtag #IsraelUnderFire has been used less than 200 000 times.
Using well-rehearsed lines, these pro-Israel tweeps try hard to explain – with graphics and Youtube videos – that Hamas is firing its rockets from schoolyards and apartment blocks, and that Israel warns Gazan residents to get out of their homes when it is about to strike. But up against real-time reports on your timeline from the war-zone, and graphic pictures of dead women and children, these explanations – and the ones from talking heads on TV – don’t hold much water. As the death toll hits the 1000 mark, we can only hope that Twitter is, in some way, preventing truth from becoming a casualty in Gaza too.
An erratic tweeter, @Suraya_Dadoo prefers to communicate in more than 140 characters, and is the co-author of Why Israel: The Anatomy of Zionist Apartheid: A South African Perspective (Porcupine Press, 2013).
(This piece originally appeared on Page 13 of The Star News and Page 6 of The Mercury on 4 August 2014)