The Israeli Left may be the latest casualty of
last month's war in Gaza. The fighting appears to have scuttled what remains
of the Israeli-Arab peace process, as a nationalist bloc of parties opposing
territorial compromise with the Palestinians now occupies the majority of Israel's
parliament. The right-wing Likud Party will lead the governing coalition, to
which they have pledged to invite parties that openly traffic in anti-Arab
Shadowing the animosity on the ground, partisans continue to trade salvos
on the wireless frontiers of battle. Yet alongside the digitally reinforced
hostilities, traces of common interest are breaking through Arab and Israeli
new media. On YouTube, blogs, and social networking sites, the extreme terms
of the ongoing violence are at once documented, exchanged, and translated for
each side in turn. In this medium at least, Arabs and Israelis are way ahead
of their political representatives.
Covering the War
At first glance, the Internet's Israeli-Arab
border resembles a combat zone, a place for explosive blogs and talkbacks along
polemical lines, Zionist and anti-Zionist hacking, and partisan camps promoting
their accounts of the "facts." During the war in Gaza, the Israeli Foreign
Ministry and al-Jazeera, among others,
updated popular profiles on the micro-blogging site Twitter with talking points
and links to like-minded video clips. Facebook groups mushroomed around every
conceivable political statement, with users "donating" their personal status
bar to applications that alternatively counted the number of Qassam rockets
launched by Hamas or the number of civilians killed by Israel.
During the first week of air strikes, Israel barred reporters from entering
the Gaza Strip, making news outlets worldwide dependent on videos taken by the
Israel Defense Forces (IDF). With convenient labels in English denoting Hamas
militants and rockets, Israel posted footage on YouTube, where hundreds of thousands
of users not only witnessed images of combat but also Israel's efforts to define
the facts of its conflict and influence their interpretation.
Until the mid-January cease-fire, Western reporters only saw Gaza when embedded
with IDF ground troops. News services scoffed at these restrictions, which
contravened an Israeli Supreme Court ruling. Meanwhile, al-Jazeera and al-Aqsa,
Hamas' satellite channel, were among the few outlets capable of broadcasting
directly from Gaza. Their footage of corpses, overcrowded hospitals, and destroyed
property fed accusations from Israel-supporters, who charged the Arab media
Al-Jazeera benefited most from the large audience drawn from Twitter links
and Facebook groups. The Qatar-based network reported a 600-percent hike in
hits from its online video stream during the fighting. Al-Jazeera's English
station, while unavailable to most cable subscribers in the U.S., drew significantly
more viewers through the Internet: in January, visitors to YouTube watched
more clips from al-Jazeera English than from any other English news station.
Trying to stay on message online, the Israeli
Foreign Ministry faces competition from a new order of journalists, bloggers,
and consumers whose activities bypass (and subvert) government policy. The
battle over perception in Gaza erupted a month before the recent violence.
In November, the Foreign Ministry announced that their Arabic-language Web
site, Altawasul.net, would become a
platform for YouTube videos that present Israel's case to Arab Internet users.
An initial video consisted of a bland talking head explaining that Israel's
blockade of Gaza was the fault of Hamas and imploring Palestinians to hold
the Islamist movement responsible for their suffering. The site's most recent
clip ups the ante, showing footage of Hamas gunmen forcibly using children
as human shields.
Back in 2007, before the Foreign Ministry's Arabic channel went online, the
Israeli human rights group B'tselem
began posting videos of Jewish settler violence against Palestinian civilians
on YouTube. Last summer, B'tselem widened the scope of their campaign by handing
out digital cameras to Palestinians during olive harvest season, when settler
assaults were rampant.
The international news media picked up some of these graphic videos, sparking
an uproar in the Israeli political establishment. In November, an IDF force
removed settlers from a disputed house in the predominantly Palestinian city
of Hebron, sparking a riot that B'tselem also filmed. Scenes of settlers torching
Palestinian homes proliferated through the Internet, leading Prime Minister
Ehud Olmert to use the highly charged word "pogrom" to condemn the violence.
The open-source politics active on YouTube serve to extend a relatively new
space of Israeli-Arab dialogue. With the arrival of independent pan-Arab satellites
a decade ago, Israeli guests gained access to Arab media that has only widened
online. Their appearance on Arab screens, after decades of absence, has elicited
an ambivalent mix of curiosity and intolerance. For an audience saturated with
daily footage of occupation and bloodshed, the Israeli party line – even in
Arabic – is further fodder for outrage on behalf of the Palestinians. Yet prevailing
interest and the chance to corner the enemy in tough interviews have sustained
the Israeli presence on Arabic networks.
Live From Israel
In a war over the representation of a war, interest
in Israeli consumption of events comes from unexpected corners. On Palutube.com,
Hamas posts YouTube clips that they believe will inflame an audience already
sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. One of the most-watched videos on the
site, with over 100,000 hits in Arabic, Hebrew, and English versions, is a
broadcast from al-Jazeera in which correspondent Elias Karram reports live
from the Israeli city of Nahariyya. Earlier, rockets fired from Lebanon landed
on the town, where a crowd had gathered to protest al-Jazeera: "We are not
afraid!" they chant. Karram reprimands them, but he also passes his microphone
around, eventually debating an Arabic-speaking Israeli on the merits of al-Jazeera's
Gaza coverage. Karram even allows Israeli flags to fill the frame of his newscast.
He insists that despite harassment, his network shows the Israeli side, "within
the framework of substantive coverage, without fear, without fear, without
In al-Jazeera's second life online, its broadcasts serve as both provocation
and platform for the Israeli public. In an unusual incident last summer, al-Jazeera's
network general apologized to Israel for a program that celebrated the release
of Samir Kuntar, a convicted murderer whom Israel exchanged for the bodies
of two kidnapped Israeli soldiers. In order to avoid a boycott by Israeli guests,
a birthday party they threw for a sword-wielding, fatigues-clad Kuntar was
"unethical." In response, Israel's Foreign Ministry produced a hit video on
YouTube that details Kuntar's crimes – including bludgeoning a 4-year-old to
death – and asks, "Was that your hero?"
Despite a repetitive cycle of belligerence, the online Israeli-Arab border
continues to be built upon reciprocal interest. The political turbulence among
the Israeli and Palestinian national leadership bodes ill for the diplomatic
process. But while the victors at the polls boast of their unwillingness to
compromise, the online give-and-take may suggest a wider capacity for mediation
in real time. The mutual buy-in required to negotiate has stirred up cyberspace,
reflecting a popular interest in listening to what the other side has to say.
Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy