Gaza war also being waged in cyberspace

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 13, 2009 

JERUSALEM — On the day that an Israeli artillery strike hit his neighborhood in Gaza City, sending a hail of shrapnel through his house and his uncle's, Sameh Akram Habeeb went online and filed a bleak report:

"Thanks to God, we all safe but I don't know what will happen next," Habeeb, 23, wrote Saturday on his blog, gazatoday.blogspot.com. Readers responded with a flurry of antiwar comments from Greece, Iran, Tunisia and the United States.

Habeeb, a soft-spoken journalist with a degree in English literature, may not consider himself an activist, but he's on the front lines of the vibrant and at times hostile cyberwar over Gaza, a battle for public opinion that's raged in seemingly every corner of the Internet since the conflict began last month.

An enormous number of people around the world are using blogs, YouTube and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to register their support or opposition to the war. Thousands of images — from Palestinians under siege in Gaza to Israeli neighborhoods that have been hit by Hamas rocket attacks — have filled photo-sharing sites such as Flickr and Picasa.

It doesn't get any simpler than www.israel-vs-palestine.com, where visitors can just pick sides. With nearly 500,000 votes cast, the race is a virtual tie, while the Web site's server is overloaded.

The clearest sign that the Internet has become a propaganda tool, however, is the brand-new YouTube page by the Israeli military, at www.youtube.com/idfnadesk. Created at the start of the war, as of Tuesday the page had been viewed more than 685,000 times, making it one of the most visited on the site.

Since Israel has barred international journalists from the Gaza Strip, its YouTube page features some of the only battlefield footage available, and naturally it shows the military in the best possible light and Hamas in the worst. You can watch the Israeli air force blow up a truck that's supposedly carrying rockets, see how Hamas allegedly rigged a school with explosives and watch Israeli soldiers admit a Palestinian child for medical care.

Israeli officials say that it's part of an effort to win the wartime battle of "hasbara," or public relations, which many think that Israel lost during the 2006 conflict with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

"If I tell you Hamas is shooting rockets at Israel, that's one thing," government spokesman Mark Regev said, "but if I can produce a video that shows them shooting rockets, that makes a very powerful argument."

With its highly wired population and large Jewish communities in the United States and Europe, Israel unquestionably has the upper hand in technology, just as it does on the battlefield with its huge military arsenal. So it's not surprising that Israelis have used the Internet in innovative ways.

On Dec. 30, the Israeli consulate in New York conducted a news conference on the war entirely on Twitter, the social messaging site where users communicate in short, rapid-fire notes, or "tweets."

As a chance to field questions from a world audience, the experiment succeeded, but with questions and answers limited by Twitter to 140 characters, it didn't exactly make for nuanced discussion, even when consulate staffers rewrote the abbreviations. Take, for example, this exchange:

@carrotderek: "What steps are being taken about the humanitarian situation in the Gaza? Is it enough?"

The reply: "Israel does everything in its power to prevent deterioration of situation." The consulate then inserted a link to a story about Israel allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Dan Peguine and Arik Fraimovich, young Internet entrepreneurs in Tel Aviv, created QassamCount — named for the simple rockets that Hamas favors — which aims to give a sense of what it's like for Israelis who live under the threat of rocket fire. The application works with Facebook, which allows users to post brief status messages on any topic, and every time militants fire a rocket into Israel — 20 to 60 times a day — QassamCount updates a user's status with news on where the rocket landed and any casualties.

Some 70,000 Facebook users have subscribed to the application, said Peguine, who's 26.

"As you go through your day, you realize that Qassams are falling every hour, every two hours, just randomly." Peguine said. "You realize that people live under constant threat."

A Facebook group called "I Support the Israel Defense Forces in Preventing Terror Attacks From Gaza" had, as of Tuesday evening, more than 76,000 members. On the other side, a group called "Let's collect 500,000 signatures to support the Palestinians in Gaza" counts more than 531,000 members.

Hamzeh Abu-Abed, a 22-year-old Palestinian who's living in Jordan, created the pro-Palestinian group in August to protest the Israeli blockade of Gaza. The group had only about 500 members when Israel launched the military offensive, she wrote in an e-mail, then suddenly tens of thousands of people a day were signing up for the page and sending messages.

Abu-Abed and Joel Leyden, a 52-year-old marketing executive in Tel Aviv who launched the pro-Israel group, say they've received threats and had opponents hack into their pages. Both discussion boards feature some vitriolic, hateful comments, which seem to proliferate faster than moderators can erase them.

However, Leyden, a native New Yorker and former Israeli soldier and reservist, said that he'd generally been pleased by the level of thoughtful debate on the page.

"I've gone from being very pessimistic . . . to being optimistic by seeing an abundance of both Arabs and Jews communicating with one another," Leyden said.

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