While the Israel Defense Forces batter the Gaza Strip with missile attacks and ground battles, another arm of the military is waging a war online -- using social media in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of an often hostile or indifferent international community.
Along with boasting 335,000 Twitter followers and posting frequent YouTube videos of Israeli military action, the IDF has turned its Facebook page into a haven for supporters from across the world. Dramatic images of Israeli soldiers and Gaza rocket launchers have attracted thousands of likes and comments (“You are the real hero in this world Israel” and “Pray for Israel,” for instance), but the social media activity is part of a much larger global propaganda campaign.
In naming its military operations, the IDF draws on the shared political and cultural values that Israelis have in common (using a page from the American playbook, with the Department of Defense not choosing “Operation Iraqi Freedom” or “Operation Enduring Freedom” by accident). And the names selected by the IDF have different meanings in English and Hebrew.
Operation Protective Edge, to English-speakers, conveys a sense of self-preservation, a message reiterated when world leaders like President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu underscore Israeli’s right to defend itself. But “Operation Protective Edge,” to Israelis, means “strong cliff,” a reference to nature that also has Biblical connotations for the Hebrew-speaking Israeli population. Operation Pillar of Defense (2012), translates to “pillar of clouds” (another Biblical reference) and Operation Cast Lead (December 2008-January 2009) is meant to remind Israelis of a children’s song about Hanukkah lead, according to Dr. Dalia Gavriely-Nuri from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“I think that using terms from natural resources removes the responsibility of leaders. Nobody is responsible when you are sitting on a volcano, for example, or when you are taking part in a military operation,” she told Slate’s podcast, The Gist. “I think this is kind of a psychological process.”
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The concerted government effort, which works to combat an overwhelming stream of pro-Palestinian propaganda on Twitter, also relies on a team of dozens of Israeli university students who are given scholarships and grant money if they agree to comb the Internet on the government’s behalf, patrolling for anti-Israeli sentiment.
If the number of imitators is any indication, it’s clear that the campaign has been a success. The IDF has a single verified Facebook page, although the social media conversation around the conflict has spawned dozens of community pages on both sides.
One crowd-sourced Facebook page, “Standing With IDF,” for instance, features images uploaded by dozens of young women who strip down to their underwear to write supportive messages for Israeli troops on themselves. Created Wednesday night, the page had attracted thousands of likes within 24 hours, with creator Gavriel Beyo explaining that he was motivated to start the page by a sincere concern over the welfare of military personnel in Gaza.
“We have two bountiful resources in Israel that are impossible to compete with, Israeli minds and the most beautiful women in the world,” he wrote. “Remember what you’re fighting for and what is waiting for you back home.”
Similarly, the more family-friendly community page “Girls Love IDF” features hundreds of pictures from toddlers to grandparents holding signs advertising messages like “Thank you IDF, we love you.”
It’s easy why so many Israelis have been inspired to post messages of support, with the videos the IDF posts on YouTube often taking on a cinematic quality. Attached below is a short video on the life of paratrooper Louis Miller, just one entry in the “IDF Stories” series: