Israel uses social media to push cause

YOU don't see the missile coming, no matter how many times you watch the attack on YouTube. The grey car glides along a Gaza street at night, filmed from above the monochrome rooftops and circled in bright yellow by the Israeli military to aid the viewer. Six seconds into the 10-second clip it explodes, spraying smoke and flames, metal and burnt rubber on camera.

The Israel Defence Forces live-blogged and tweeted video of the deadly assault on the Gaza Strip early on Thursday morning, alongside a movie-style poster of Ahmed Said Khalil al-Jabari with the word ''eliminated''.

Two hours later it proudly retweeted the video of its fatal strike on the Hamas military leader ''in case you missed it''. By last night more than 640,000 people had watched the video online.

In so doing, in fewer than 140 characters, Israel opened an aggressive new social media front in a long war, sparking fears of an escalation of conflict in the Middle East. Already, at 2am Sydney time, Israel had become perhaps the first country to announce a military operation via Twitter, on ''terror sites and operatives in the #Gaza Strip''.

The Israel Defence Forces also promoted ''Operation Pillar of Defence'' on Facebook and Flickr. After killing al-Jabari it tweeted a warning to his comrades not to ''show their faces above ground in the days ahead''.

The al-Qassam Brigade, the military wing of Hamas, responded by tweeting: ''You opened hell gates on yourselves.''

Each side in the conflict has increasingly enlisted social media to promote its cause. Classic war-time propaganda posters are no match for the multiple channels of modern communication. ''We're entering a new dimension of warfare,'' said the Australian defence intelligence specialist Clive Williams.

''I think in the future other countries will do the same thing because they have so many different options these days of putting out the message. All countries want to control the media. It's the whole point of embedding journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is a lot more effective if you can put a message out to people directly and not be reliant on the media.''

Waging the war of opinion online was ''a shot across the bows not only for Hamas but also the Syrians and Egyptians to remind them that Israel is a player in the Middle East'', said Professor Williams of Macquarie University.

Ironically, al-Qaeda was the first to exploit the power of social media's unmediated message.

The US typically withholds footage of strikes on suspected militants. The only live tweets of the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound last year were from a bystander in Abbottabad who heard the helicopters landing. A public outcry followed the release of video by WikiLeaks in 2010 of a US helicopter crew launching an air strike that killed a dozen people in Baghdad in 2007.

Responses on social media to Israel's strikes on the Gaza Strip were mixed. Some revelled in the opportunity to watch al-Jabari's final moments, like tricoteuse knitting before the guillotine. ''Now that's precision! Sorry mate, no appeal process,'' tweeted one.

Others compared the Israel Defence Forces' website, where users can earn army badges by ''liking'' its material on Facebook to a ''cut-rate video game advertisement''.

The executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, Colin Rubenstein, defended the decision to post video of the air strike online.

''I think it's very important to explain to all and sundry the incessant rocket attacks on Israel over weeks and months and years,'' he said.

''I think Israeli authorities are concerned that the international community should be effectively informed what they are up against and why they have acted this way.''

The story Israel uses social media to push cause first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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