Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age

(Stanford University Press)

Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age by Rebecca Stein (Duke University) and Adi Kuntsman (Manchester Metropolitan University) documents the rise of rightist, nationalist, and militant expressions on social media platforms in Israeli society; online postings that often depict Israeli perpetrator violence against Palestinians.

The 21st century transformation of Israel’s economy into the “Start-Up Nation” of tech innovators overlaps with the collapse of the so-called “Peace Camp” and the rise of an ever more intransigent right-wing in Israeli politics. As Israeli society has become more digitally literate, it has also grown more militant. There is no direct causation, of course, but the widespread proliferation of social media has afforded right-wing Israelis the opportunity to promote Israeli militancy.

There is nothing exceptional about social media’s utility in promoting hatred and violence. Many in Lebanon, for instance, were recently repelled by the sight of supporters of the Syrian regime taunting besieged Syrians facing starvation with Twitter and Facebook postings of packed refrigerators and tables of food.

Stein and Kuntsman bring to light the Israeli context, which is a necessary correction to Israeli governments propaganda that often implies a Palestinians monopoly on “digital militarism.” Moreover, by surveying the Israeli digital sphere, so to speak, the authors document both the rise of online militarism and, conversely, the digital archive of Israeli violence against Palestinians (often also photographed and shared by Israelis). The former might be more salient in the Netanyahu era of haughty disregard for international law, but the latter may portend some measure of justice for the Palestinians. As Stein told Palestine Square, “While no one doubts where the power lies, social media is one domain the Israeli state cannot control. Perhaps this archive, rich in images and videos of [Israeli] perpetrators, might be a future means for holding the state accountable.”

Palestine Square recently spoke to Prof. Stein on Digital Militarism:

Your book is a study of what you and Adi Kuntsman term “digital militarism.” Can you define that term?

The phrase refers to the ways that social media tools, technologies, and practices can be employed in the service of militant projects across the globe, both by state and civilian users. While a global phenomenon, we focus on the ordinary forms of digital militarism that we see enacted by Jewish Israeli users of social media. This book is interested in how the ordinary social media practices of Israelis are being employed to support and sustain the military occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Over the course of the last few months, the Israeli state has repeatedly charged Palestinian with “incitement” on social media. How do you respond to this charge?

This narrative became an Israeli state talking point in the fall of 2015 – and it’s facile and misleading. To understand the root causes of the recent uptick in Palestinian violence, one has to consider the effects of 48 years of military occupation and the increasing desperation of the Palestinian population – desperation that stems from both discontent with Palestinian leadership after two decades of a failed Oslo “peace process,” and the desperation born of living under decades of Israeli military rule.

But let’s return to the social media dimension of this Israeli state narrative. There’s no doubt that Palestinian social media have become more militarized in the last few years. But let’s not confuse the instrument with the cause . This is also a highly selective narrative, one that points to Palestinian online “incitement” while ignoring the import of social media for right-wing and often militant Israeli publics.

The rise of social media in Israel dovetails with the right-wing swift of the Israeli public. How does this manifest itself in “digital militarism”?

Let’s take, for example, the 2010 case of the Facebook account of former Israeli soldier Eden Abergil. Abergil had posted images of herself posed with bound and blinded-folded Palestinian detainees in the Gaza Strip. Once discovered by a left-wing Israeli blogger, her account quickly went viral, and the army had to work hard to contain the bad coverage.

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Now, this 2010 incident was the first viral incident involving an Israeli soldier who used social media to self-document her aggression in the occupied territories – arguably, employing an early kind of “selfie” to document herself as a perpetrator. Needless to say, much has changed since then. Today, self-documentation by Israeli military perpetrators in the occupied territories is quiet common. The smartphone camera is now an everyday accomplice of Israeli military aggression.

Many social media images posted by conscripts have been cause for headaches among IDF officers, but, at the same time, the alluring image of the “tough and sexy” IDF soldier serves “Brand Israel.” How does the IDF measure the trade-off?

Over the last few years, I’ve paid close attention to the IDF’s changing regulations regarding the use of social media. The broader social context is crucial, here: namely, a conscription army with high degrees of digital literacy. The everyday lives of young Israeli soldiers are deeply enmeshed with social media. Israeli military policy makers are well aware of this, and they are not inclined to cut access to these vital digital resources – especially given declining interest in military service among Israeli youth more generally. This is one of the reasons that the military regulations pertaining to social media usage have been relatively lax and slow to develop.

There is no doubt that the military suffers when images of soldier-perpetrators go viral – such as the infamous image of a Palestinian boy in the crosshair of an Israeli sniper.

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But it’s my hypothesis that military laxity around social media policy is also about the value-added of social media in soldiers’ hands. By giving soldiers the capacity to self-publish on the Internet, the military has helped to humanize its own image. And they believe this is a crucial means of countering their perpetual dehumanization by the global media. For the last few years, the military’s social media unit has foregrounded the personal stories of their soldiers – stories that they believe have powerful rebranding potential.

IDF-produced video announcing the military’s Facebook page on 1 August 2011:

Israel has acquired a reputation as “The State-Up Nation.” And, yet, the IDF initially fumbled at its efforts to effectively harness digital tools. How has the IDF grown more skilled?

The history of this fumbling is important. In the early days of the IDF’s adoption of social media, during its 2008-9 incursion in the Gaza Strip, an ad-hoc decision was taken by the military’s spokespersons unit to employ YouTube for PR purposes. If you look back at the IDF YouTube videos of that moment, particularly the video-blogs (or, vlogs) from IDF spokesmen, you’ll see that these initial efforts were both improvisational and faltering. And all of this early content was also highly didactic – evidence of the state’s initial failure to grasp the everyday terms and idiom of social media. The military’s social media team would work very hard in subsequent years to adopt the social media vernacular as a means of effectively communicating with the young population that was using these platforms. This shift in idiom was key to their relative success –in addition to a massive state investment in the social media unit, which would grow considerably after the 2008-09 operation.

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(IDF YouTube)

One part of digital militarism you document is the phenomenon termed by pro-Israel advocates as “Pallywood,” the alleged Palestinian falsification of images and videos to indict Israel. What is the origin of this idea?

The “Pallywood” claim emerged in the aftermath of the IDF’s September 2000 killing of Muhammad al-Durrah, an event filmed by a France 2 crew. These images would go viral, becoming the most circulated images of the second intifada, and many Israelis, along with their international supporters, deemed them dangerous in the extreme. Their danger was managed with the “Pallywood” narrative, a narrative born and nurtured in the US. The term is a neologism meant to refer to the “Palestinian Hollywood” – namely, the idea that Palestinians are strategically playing dead or feigning injury for the camera in order to realize public relation victories.

Initially, the “Pallywood” discourse lived on the fringes of the internet. But over the course of the next two decades, this claim gradually moved center-stage. Today, a version of the “Pallywood” argument is embraced by the Israeli state itself, although not always under this header. One saw an instance of this at work during the 2014 Gaza incursion when [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu referred to Palestinians as “telegenically dead.” The story of the Palestinian lie has become an important means of managing images of Israeli violence against Palestinians that might be bad for Israel’s international reputation.

Israel is also home to dissident online activism: B’Tselem’s video cameras to Palestinians, for instance. A YouTube video by Israeli activist Guy Davidi (below) shows Israeli high schoolers watching Five Broken Cameras and reacting with sympathy toward Palestinians.

Our book focuses on militant and extreme-nationalist publics in Israel, and the ways they employ social media as political tools. But this is not to deny the central role that social media has played for anti-occupation activists in Israel and internationally. Indeed, progressive activists were some of the earliest Israeli adopters of these tools as part of a political strategy. For these actors, who live on the margins of Israeli society and are often targeted alongside Palestinians at moments of perceived security crisis, social media has long held the promise of housing an archive of military violence – an archive that would eventually, many hoped, hold the state accountable.

But how likely is it that Israelis will come into contact with dissident social media? Do you see a method by which the occupation could be made front-and-center in the Israeli psyche and convince most Israelis that its continuation lies at the heart of their insecurity?

This is an important issue. Dissident media is widely available, of course, as are images of images of Israeli violence in the occupied territories – images that often have a viral life on social media. The issue is not the availability of such media or images, but the ways they are perceived by the mainstream Jewish Israeli public. Over the course of the last two decades, this public has grown weary of the dissident left; they have also grown weary of images of suffering Palestinians on the one hand, and Israeli perpetrators on the other.

There was never much public tolerance for such images, but in the last two decades, commensurate with the rightward shift of the public, this tolerance declined precipitously. Today, as we know, the Israeli left is coming under fire as never before. And images of Israeli perpetrators and Palestinian victims, still widely available, must be either disregarded or explained away – such as through the “Pallywood” storyline.
There’s something complicated at work here. Today, mobile photographic technologies are proliferating. Today, all actors in the occupation context employ smartphone cameras as political tools. And as a result, there are more images of Israeli violence in the territories than ever before – images and video that are often made available on social media in real time. But alongside this proliferation of images is declining Jewish Israeli investment in acknowledging such violence – or even the existence of a repressive military occupation. These two things are happening together.

One can put it this way: there have never been more cameras in the Palestinian territories, and never less Israeli desire to see the military occupation. Many international anti-occupation activists have an enduring investment in these cameras: “if only Israelis could see the violence then something would change.” In the current Israeli political climate, I think we need to rethink that hypothesis.

In the scholarly world, there has been a disproportionate investment in the capacity of social media and digital communications technologies to bring about [positive] change – what some call cyber-utopianism. But I believe that the job of the activist academic, working in the Israeli context, is to think more critically about the ways that Israeli power works. In abandoning cyber-utopianism, we can begin to account for the way in which the occupation is sustained by Jewish Israelis everyday – such as through their social media practices.

Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age may be purchased at Standard University Press.