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March 16, 2009

The Israeli-Arab War Online

by Ethan Pack

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 rhetoric.

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 with incitement.

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.

Contested History

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 news 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 fear."

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, al-Jazeera admitted 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 in Focus.

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Ethan Pack's Bio

Ethan Pack is an independent journalist and contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus.

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