How Not to Wage War on the Internet

Ever since the Israel Defense Forces launched Operation Pillar of Cloud on Wednesday with the killing of Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jabari, the official IDF Twitter feed has been working overtime to publicize Israeli military exploits.

As of this writing, the feed has published 88 tweets since Wednesday. It began with the announcement over Twitter that Israel had launched a military campaign against Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza, continued with posting video footage of Jabari's car being blown up by an IDF missile, and then moved on to taunting Hamas fighters not to "show their faces above ground in the days ahead."

This prompted a response from Hamas over Twitter that Israel had "Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves" and that Israeli leaders and soldiers would be targeted no matter where they were, lending new meaning to the term cyberwarfare. The IDF's utilization of Twitter became such a big story that there were rumors, which turned out to be uncorroborated, that Twitter had suspended the IDF's account over terms of service violations for posting the Jabari assassination video. All in all, it is clear that using Twitter to encourage its supporters and drive media coverage is a purposeful component of the Israel's public diplomacy strategy while it is fighting Palestinian terror groups in Gaza. The strategy certainly has its supporters, as it has been described as an effective way to explain "the morality of the war it [the IDF] is fighting" and as "the most meaningful change in our consumption of war in over 20 years."

But the IDF's barrage of tweets indicates that it has not learned some important lessons from its last major incursion into Gaza. Operation Cast Lead, carried out in December 2008 and January 2009, was a tactical military victory that came at a costly price. The large numbers of Palestinian civilian casualties and images of destruction led to a renewed and vigorous effort to isolate Israel in the international community. The highest-profile example was the United Nations' Goldstone Report, conducted by South African judge Richard Goldstone, which damaged Israel immeasurably. The report was such a disaster for Israel that in 2009 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it one of the three biggest threats Israel was facing, alongside a nuclear Iran and Palestinian rockets. The aftermath of Cast Lead also brought a renewed fervor to the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, which seeks to isolate and delegitimize Israel, and generally placed a harsher spotlight on Israeli efforts to deal with Hamas. In all, Israel beat Hamas on the battlefield but lost the war of public opinion, which in some ways was the more important one. And while Israel always faces an uphill battle in winning the world's approval for reasons that are beyond its control, there are some lessons it has not absorbed.

The IDF is doing two things through its Twitter campaign that are replicating the same public relations mistakes it made the last time around. The first is a strategy of playing to its own base. In posting a video of Jabari's car exploding in a fireball or issuing blustery warnings to Hamas to stay hidden, the IDF is trying to galvanize its supporters and mobilize the pro-Israel community into retweeting and posting messages on Facebook that bolster Israel's case and create the impression that Israel will be able to rout Hamas and eliminate the rocket fire coming from Gaza. This is an effective way to rally those who are already with you, but it is unlikely to win any new supporters. People inclined to criticize Israeli military action are not going to be swayed by such appeals, and the evidence suggests that Israel is not trying very hard to target this demographic. Mobilizing your own supporters is great, but ultimately widening your circle rather than deepening it is going to be needed in order to blunt some of the criticism that is bound to come once Operation Pillar of Cloud has concluded.

Second, and more saliently, the reason Israel suffered so badly in the court of public opinion following Cast Lead is because there was a perception that Israel was callous about the loss of Palestinian life that occurred during that operation. Partly this was fueled by the sheer number of casualties -- a number that was deeply tragic but also unsurprising given Hamas's strategy of purposely embedding itself in the civilian population -- but partly it was fueled by things like T-shirts depicting Palestinians in crosshairs, suggesting disgustingly poor taste at best and a disregard for the terrible consequences of war at worst.

Publicizing posters of Jabari with the word "Eliminated" do not rise to the same level, but do not send the message that Israel should be sending. The IDF in this case is trumpeting the killing of an unapologetic terrorist leader, and nobody should shed a tear for Jabari for even a moment, but the fact remains that many people, particularly among the crowd that Israel needs to be courting, are deeply skeptical of Israeli intentions generally and tend not to give Israel the benefit of the doubt. They cast a wary eye on Israeli militarism and martial behavior, and crowing about killing anyone or glorifying Israeli operations in Gaza is a bad public relations strategy insofar as it feeds directly into the fear of Israel run amok with no regard for the collateral damage being caused. Rather than convey a sense that Israel is doing a job that it did not want to have to do as quickly and efficiently as possible, the IDF's Twitter outreach conveys a sense of braggadocio that is going to lead to a host of problems afterward.

Israel is proud of its ability to hit Hamas where it most hurts, and understandably wants to make Hamas leaders think twice before escalating rocket attacks against civilian population centers. Nevertheless, the IDF Twitter feed over the past two days is going to great lengths to inadvertently ensure that Israel once again wins a tactical military victory but loses the overall battle, further contributing to its own international isolation and a fresh round of vociferous condemnations once the dust has cleared.


The Peace Process Isn't Dead

The brewing war in Gaza shows why the United States must make a renewed effort to bring Israelis and Palestinians together.

In Jerusalem last week with my Princeton University students, I hailed a taxi one day from my hotel to the Israeli Foreign Ministry. The driver asked whether I would need him for the rest of the day. "If you can take me to Ramallah," I replied, "that would be great. Otherwise, no thanks."

My driver's reaction was symptomatic of what I was hearing from many Israelis. "Ramallah!" he gasped. "Why would you go there? They're all rich and spoiled and hate us. They build big houses and then complain that we don't treat them well. You shouldn't go there."

The current spasm of violence in Gaza had not yet begun -- his concern was not due to current events, but a general disapproval of ever venturing into the West Bank. I tried to explain the poverty rampant in Palestinian society and especially the dismal conditions in the refugee camps, one of which my students and I had visited the previous day. Yes, there are some wealthy Palestinians, but most do not live all that well under occupation. Settlements are a particular problem. We rode the rest of the blessedly short trip in silence.

Later that week, my students and I took two taxis from the hotel to Abu Dis, a West Bank village just outside the security barrier that surrounds Jerusalem. What should have been a 15-minute ride took about 40 minutes, as the taxis had to travel in a wide loop to circumnavigate the wall. As we approached the office of the Palestinian official we were to meet, the driver in my taxi started to laugh. "My friend [the second driver] is in a panic. He doesn't want to be here. He's scared and doesn't want to go further."

Indeed, when we reached our destination, the second driver took off in a flash, clearly feeling imperiled to be driving in a Palestinian village, even one just minutes from downtown Jerusalem.

The ongoing conflict in Gaza, of course, is only going to deepen such fears. As Israel and Hamas pummel each other in yet another sadly predictable spasm of violence, their political visions seem as irreconcilable as ever. It is the story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: The two sides live so near each other, yet can seem so far away.

But while achieving a lasting peace may seem impossible at the moment, the Gaza conflict drives home once more why the United States cannot walk away from this part of the world. Gaza will be a periodic war zone unless a way is found to move Israelis and Palestinians toward reconciliation and peace.

My trip was part of a study being conducted by my students on whether the two-state solution is still viable and whether there are alternative ways of achieving peace. It is increasingly vital to detail not only what happened during the past 20 years of Arab-Israeli negotiations, but also to look ahead and argue why an ambitious peace policy is important for the United States. It seems so logical in Jerusalem and Ramallah to think this way; not so in Washington.

As analysts and pundits suggest what the U.S. president's priorities should be in the months and years ahead, the Middle East peace process figures on few lists. The arguments range from "it's too hard" to the familiar "we can't want peace more than the parties." The assumption is that the status quo will hold while incremental steps are taken -- steps designed to smooth the roughest edges off the occupation's restrictions on mobility, economic activity, or institution-building. These critics direct a blind eye at Israeli settlement activity and rocket fire from Gaza, as though these ongoing, chronic behaviors can be ignored or managed. As the recent outbreak of violence proves, this is mistaken. The status quo is not sustainable.

Those counseling a hands-off approach are also equally blind toward history, which proves time and again that inactivity by the United States allows the situation on the ground to heat up until it boils over -- and that active, agile, and persistent diplomacy by the United States actually has a chance of making things better.

The current escalation in Gaza illustrates the point. The course of this conflict is actually fairly clear: Israel and Hamas will pound each other, and when the fighting stops each side will declare "victory." Israel will have degraded Hamas's military capacity, and Hamas will have killed some Israeli civilians, disrupted life in southern Israel, and lived to fight another day. There will be a lull in the violence, and the clock will start ticking until the next confrontation. The idea of making peace -- real, lasting peace -- will not occur to the leaders in the region.

It is time for a fresh American initiative. There is no need for fancy plans or gaudy conferences, but rather a well-structured, fair, and balanced policy aimed at driving the peace process toward resolution. Failure to do so will handicap everything else Barack Obama's administration tries to accomplish in the Middle East. If the United States is willing to put in the effort, it may actually yield surprising and positive results.