The IDF’s Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza will go down in the history of the
Arab- Israeli conflict as one of the unexpected victories in the information
wars. At the outset, Pillar of Defense appeared little different from such past
military operations as 2008’s Operation Cast Lead, in which the Palestinians
have been cast as the underdog, and in which the instinctive sympathy of the
Western media for the underdog wrote the media script as soon as the first shot
Yet the information campaign in Pillar of Defense proved
successful. A CNN poll midway through the operation found that 57 percent of
Americans justified the Israeli operation.
Preparing the ground over the
years by exposing foreign correspondents to Sderot and the missile attacks paid
off. Against the background of criticism by the State Comptroller’s Office over
its handling of earlier events including the 2007 Lebanon War, Cast Lead and the
2010 Mavi Marmara incident, the IDF Spokesman’s division had undergone various
These included the creation within the IDF Spokesman’s office of
of a war room for the receipt and release of operational footage military
intelligence and the air force – giving the IDF the information edge as the
first side in the war to give its record of events.
Unmanned drones used
by the IDF to locate missile batteries and launchers were able to send back
footage. Just four hours after Ahmed Jabari, the Hamas chief of staff, was
killed, the surveillance video of his car speeding through Gaza streets and
taking a direct hit was broadcast on YouTube. Other footage released showed the
care the IDF had taken to distinguish between military targets and the civilian
population in Gaza’s highly populated territory.
THE WAY the information
was distributed – rather than waiting for a daily news conference as in earlier
wars – was a tactical decision. While IDF military plans have long contained an
appendix for information handling – a recognition that the information element
has to be taken into account at the policy planning stage – it went further now
with key heads of branches of government involved in hasbara (public diplomacy)
sharing the secret of the plot to assassinate Jabari beforehand. And, had Israel
launched a ground operation, combat soldiers accompanying the forces were
equipped with cameras to film the invasion.
coordination proved itself – not an easy feat with the Prime Minister’s Office,
the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry headed by politicians from three
different parties. The Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs
established its own situation room full of volunteers tweeting and facebooking
in various languages.
Yet, as a State Comptroller’s recent report
remarked, the IDF’s monopoly on operational military information, together with
the media’s appetite for this information, has raised the question of how
agencies like the Foreign Ministry can ensure that the broader diplomatic goals
and messages get projected in public diplomacy.
IN STUDYING the lessons
of Pillar of Defense, much attention will be paid to the application, for the
first time, of social media. The role of social media in warfare raises as many
questions as answers. The impact of public opinion and the mass media upon
military events has long been debated by political scientists and strategic
theorists. In the case of the social media, a distinction is required between
active or interested public opinion, on the one hand, and the wider, passive
public opinion on the other hand.
There is no evidence that the impact of
social media has extended to the broader international public opinion, whose
exposure to international news events is mostly due to such traditional media as
television, the press, or mainsteam internet news websites. Unless public
pressure becomes so strong it overlaps to embrace the wider public opinion in a
country, it is difficult to attribute to public opinion importance as a factor
The most noteworthy case was in Vietnam – “the first television
war” – in which TV pictures of the bodies of returning American soldiers built a
crescendo of public opinion against the continuation of the war and which
decided President Nixon to withdraw.
In the 1982 Lebanon war wide
international public criticism after the Phalangist massacre at Sabra and
Shatilla stopped the war. And, a year later, widespread Israeli public criticism
of 600 military casualties in Lebanon spurred the Begin government to withdraw
Had civilian casualties in Gaza in Pillar of Defense been
more widespread, or collective punishment applied, international public opinion
could have rapidly turned against Israel.
In Pillar of Defense, as in so
many other conflicts beforehand, geopolitical strategic national interests
determined the outcome, and mass media and public opinion were, at best,
secondary factors determining the environment in which policymakers
These national interests included Israel’s, with the
Netanyahu government anxious to avoid the aerial battle expanding to become a
ground operation in the pre-election run-up given the uncertainties and
likelihood of Israeli casualties.
The US, and Egypt under heavy pressure
from Washington, also sought to avoid an Israeli ground war. And Hamas,
notwithstanding the destruction of its military infrastructure, looked to an
easing of the border crossings as tantamount to easing the blockade on
AT BEST, domestic factors like public opinion and mass media limit
the options open to policymakers. More usually, they influence how policy is
presented, including its timing.
But social media is new, untested ground
in international relations.
Social media like Facebook and Twitter have
played a role in connecting such interested audiences as Israeli and Palestinian
activists. It has given Jews in the Diaspora a more direct role to play in wars
involving Israel than they had in the pre-Internet era.
Jews outside of
Israel are no longer dependent on information being filtered by the news media.
They are able to receive undiluted information from Israeli official
By the third day of the operation, the IDF Spokesman‘s Facebook
page had 28,000 friends, and its English Twitter 97,500 followers (10 times more
than followers of Hamas’ Twitter).
By the end of the operation, the
number of followers of IDF’s Twitter had doubled.
Since the development
of Internet in 1995, Jews outside of Israel have also been able to surf Israeli
news media on-line. For example, the number of visits to the Haaretz English
site quadrupled during Pillar of Defense. As a result, Jewish surfers of Israeli
media have benefitted from generally more comprehensive and balanced coverage
than offered by foreign media.
But the extent to which exposure to
IDF-sponsored social media extends to the broader international public is more
questionable. Public relations strategists have failed to crack the enigma of
monitoring and responding to hundreds of thousands of websites on the world wide
web. Even in the age of interactive media, research suggests that many surfers
are satisfied with the use of news websites. If so, Israeli officials should be
able to identify the key news websites.
RATHER, THE new dimension of
social media is to enable, for the first time, the publics of two sides in a
conflict to engage with one another.
Operation Pillar of Defense
illustrated how Hamas and Israel traded blows via Twitter. After the IDF Twitter
that “no Hamas operative should show their head above ground in the days ahead,”
Hamas responded by twittering: “Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and
soldiers wherever they are. You opened hell gates in ourselves.”
have questioned whether Israel as a sovereign state should stoop to trading
barbs with a terrorist group. But this dialogue also reflects the background of
the new IDF Spokesman. An Arabist, Brigadier- General Yoav Mordechai was
formally the IDF Coordinator for Activities in the Territories, and a commanding
officer in the intelligence corps. He favoured a more combative social media
posture to maintain Israel’s quality deterrence edge toward the
An awareness of the other’s goals does give domestic public
opinion a new role in the age of social media in making its voice heard in
government at home. This is particularly important given the strengthened role
of public opinion in the Arab world since the Arab Spring.
But lost is
social media’s original goal of encouraging dialogue – or
The writer, a Professor, lectures in School of
Communication at Ariel University Center, Israel. His book, God, Jews & the
Media: Religion and Israel’s media, was recently published by Routledge.