This article was originally published in Foreign Policy yesterday, and I am reposting it here.
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.