Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age
“When you think cyber, think of Israel.”
—Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Cybertech 2014 Conference1
“Israelis are addicted to all forms of communicating and the very latest technology. Indeed, many of the world’s instant messaging and communication systems were invented in Israel.”
—Israeli Ministry of Tourism, promotional website2
“Israel is addicted to occupation.”
—Gideon Levy, 20143
In November 2012, during the Israeli aerial assault on the Gaza Strip of that year, many Israeli soldiers went into service with smartphones in their pockets, checking and updating their social media accounts from army installations as they awaited the start of the ground invasion.4 The social networking field of the wartime moment was crowded and diverse, including users from a range of geographical locations and political standpoints. Official military spokespersons from Israel and Hamas joined thousands of civilian users from Israel, the Palestinian territories, and the international arena, anti-occupation activists numbering heavy among them, all of whom employed popular apps as political tools in what the global media called Israel’s “first social media war.”5 The mobile uploads from individual soldiers differed markedly from the official output of the Israeli military, with its emphasis on PR didacticism and the production of an institutional record. And they contrasted sharply with the viral content from Gaza’s Palestinian residents that saturated global social networks, amateur documentation of the unfolding Israeli military devastation that was delivered to global users in the familiar staccato of digital real time. Israeli soldiers, for their part, chiefly employed social media to personalize the military campaign, to share images of mundane military scenes and army ephemera as they waited for the onset of the ground incursion (which would, in fact, never occur).
During these days of waiting, Israeli soldiers uploaded a series of selfies to their personal Instagram accounts.6 In most respects, it was a standard catalogue of smartphone self-portraiture, including casual snapshots of uniformed young men and women smiling for the camera in compliance with Instagram’s investment in the beauty of the ordinary, featuring everyday moments of military life in uniform: riding on a bus, posing for an elevator self-portrait, embracing a friend, all framed by the extended temporality of waiting, waiting to deploy (see Figures 1.1–1.4).7 With the aid of retro filters, and their familiar aesthetics of the out of time and place, these mobile snapshots produced an exquisite and highly sanitized visual archive of soldiering. As such, they offered a digital twist on the long history of Israeli nationalist sentimentality and associated iconography, in which war is simultaneously heroized and aestheticized while disassociated from resultant violence.8 Through the genre of the selfie, this iconography was mobilized to serve the needs of self-branding, with war configured as meme and employed as a tool of micro-celebrity.9 These were images of militarism but not of battle, beautified bodies free of dirt or blood, at a considerable remove from the carnage of the concurrent military operation. The accompanying hashtag strings gestured toward the violence that the visual field had cleansed: #kill#sexy#nevergiveup#sleep#m16#instalove#happy and #war#army#soldier#artillery#fire#friends#cool#sad#israel#idf#instamood. Read together, the selfies and their hashtags generated unsettling intersections between the patriotic and the intimate, the lethal and the playful, the army and the algorithm.10
This book explores such intersections between social media and militarism: between ordinary networking practices and wartime violence, between the pleasure of commonplace digital acts and the brutality of Israel’s military occupation.11 We term this phenomenon digital militarism. In our rendering, digital militarism describes the process by which digital communication platforms and consumer practices have, over the course of the first two decades of the twenty-first century, become militarized tools in the hands of state and nonstate actors, both in the field of military operations and in civilian frameworks. In the broadest terms, the digital of digital militarism is a highly varied domain of new technologies and technological aptitudes, including high-tech weaponry and cyberwarfare—a field in which the Israeli military proudly excels. Our investigation focuses chiefly on the role of social media and enabling mobile technologies within this framework, with attention to how they have been mobilized by Israeli state and civilian “networked publics” as tools, sites, and languages of militarist engagement.12 Hence, we use digital militarism to refer to the extension of militarized culture into social media domains often deemed beyond the reach of state violence, and to the impact of militarization on everyday Israeli social networking. We are proposing, then, that both terms in this equation shape the other: namely, that the evolving terms of social media usage impact the field of Israeli militarism, just as shifts in Israeli militarization are altering the social media field. Digital militarism allows us to think beyond the paradigm of the repressive Israeli military state in an effort to make visible the varied and often ordinary ways in which Israel’s military regime and pervasive culture of militarism are perpetuated and sustained.
FIGURE 1.1. ISRAELI SOLDIER SELFIES I, INSTAGRAM, 2012. Israeli soldiers pose for selfies while awaiting their deployment for a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. SOURCE: http://www.buzzfeed.com
FIGURE 1.2. ISRAELI SOLDIER SELFIES II, INSTAGRAM, 2012. SOURCE: http://www.buzzfeed.com
FIGURE 1.3. ISRAELI SOLDIER SELFIES III, INSTAGRAM, 2012. SOURCE: http://www.buzzfeed.com
FIGURE 1.4. ISRAELI SOLDIER SELFIES IV, INSTAGRAM, 2012. SOURCE: http://www.buzzfeed.com
The militarization of social media is by no means unique to the Israeli context. Rather, as is by now something of a truism, social media have been integrated into military operations in contexts across the globe, with platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube employed for wartime PR, as tools of surveillance and counter-insurgency, and as archives of perpetrator violence. In the social media age, contemporary warfare and armed conflicts have increasingly encompassed digital communication platforms—a process that has enlarged theaters of military operation and changed our understanding of the political function and political ends of digital technologies.13 In recent years we have seen the increasing incorporation of social media into the military toolboxes of Western states, employed to win hearts and minds and conduct counter-terrorism. Today, violent conflicts between states, or with stateless groups, take shape on social networks—digital battlefields deemed vital to the success of conventional military operations on the ground. Today, we expect the presence of smartphones, computers, and video-enabled cameras on the battlefield; the integration of social networking into military arsenals; the real-time Twitter and Facebook updates from war zones; the violent footage filmed and shared by the perpetrators themselves. Digital militarism was once an aberration, located on the periphery of the Internet and its associated social worlds. By 2014, it had become commonplace.14
Although digital militarism has diverse geopolitical coordinates, this book studies the ways it takes shape in the contemporary Israeli context and the history of its emergence.15 We argue that within a global culture of mobile capture and viral circulation, Israeli militarism is being reframed and recruited by ordinary Israeli users and their international supporters as part of the social media everyday. In Israel today, mainstream militarized politics are being interwoven with global networking protocols: their grammars, aesthetic norms, structures of feeling, and modes of consumer engagement. On platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, the classic terms and aesthetics of Zionist settler-nationalism are being reshaped in compliance with networking norms. Like any global phenomenon, this interplay between militarism and social media necessarily takes highly localized forms, a process by which global protocols are retooled to articulate national needs. It is precisely this process of localization that concerns us here.
While broader histories of Israeli militarism inform this book, we focus on how digital militarism functions in the context of Israel’s ongoing military occupation of the Palestinian territories. In particular, we are interested in the ways that social networking practices are mediating the everyday Israeli relationship to military rule. Our objects of analysis, then, include the Israeli soldier in the occupied West Bank or Gaza Strip with a smartphone in his or her pocket for whom routine army operations have been rebranded as a potential “share.” They include official Israeli military bodies endeavoring to incorporate social media into the state’s toolbox. And they include ordinary Jewish Israeli civilians and pro-Israeli supporters outside the nation-state who consume and circulate digital images of Israel’s occupation from the comfort of their mobile devices, often while the military operation is unfolding. In all of these instances, ordinary social media practices and users are being conscripted into the state’s military project. And in the process, state violence is being practiced through other means—through acts of “liking” and “sharing,” through the visual syntax of the selfie, through the structures of feeling that social networking make uniquely possible.16
A central tension lies at the core of digital militarism: namely, the ways it renders the Israeli occupation at once palpable and out of reach, both visible and invisible. On the one hand, mobile technologies have made the spectacle of state violence instantly available, often in real time, in the palm of the hand on smartphone screens. As such, digital militarism has the potential to extend Israel’s occupation into the most private Israeli spaces and times, the most mundane networking contexts, zones of Internet activity typically deemed beyond the purview of Israel’s military projects. At the same time, the patina of the digital everyday can minimize and banalize this violence, obscuring its visibility and mitigating its impact. Such tensions undergird this study.
The Innovation Nation and Its Vanishing Occupation
Our analysis concentrates on a particular historical period of Israeli digital militarism: 2008–2014, the years of its development, consolidation, and eventual normalization. These were years of growing social media literacy in political arenas across the globe, years in which mobile digital technologies were becoming more affordable and more pervasive. During this short span of time, digital militarism moved from the margins of Israeli society to its center. Initially, the interplay between social networking and militarized projects of various kinds took Israelis by surprise, alternately lauded by the Israeli media in the language of digital pioneering (as when the Israeli military began to experiment with networking tools) or condemned by pundits as scandalous aberrations (as when the private Facebook posts of soldiers, depicting military abuse, became widely exposed). By the end of the period in question, militarism had been fully incorporated into Israeli digital culture.
Israelis have long been celebrated for their technological literacy and have long enjoyed high per-capita penetration of information and communication technologies.17 During these years, this literacy was extending to new digital communication tools, aesthetics, and grammar. In 2011, Israel was deemed one of “the world’s biggest users of social networks.”18 In 2014, Israelis were said to spend the most per-capita time engaged in social networking, celebrated as a global leader in digital technology adoption.19 At the same time, Israel’s much-touted high-tech sector continued its growth as an international leader in technological innovation, representing what some have called the most important technology incubator next to Silicon Valley—its growth fueled by the sector’s close ties to the military industrial complex, with technologies honed in militarized contexts frequently reengineered for civilian ones.20 It was during these years that Israel was famously dubbed the “Start Up Nation” and later the “innovation nation,” a branded concept installed to retell a classic Zionist modernizing narrative, a formulation that some have termed “High-Tech Zionism.”21 For the state’s “Brand Israel” campaign, the discourse of technological innovation could be effectively mobilized to supplant the deleterious global story of military occupation and conflict. Technology, in this rendering, functioned as the occupation’s surrogate.
The growth of the Israeli high-tech economy, and the spread of social media within the Israeli populace, was coterminous with a very particular chapter in the history of the military occupation and Israeli militarism more generally. In the mid-to-late 2000s, while Israelis were learning the art of social media, mainstream Israeli political agendas were changing. In prior decades, the so-called “Arab-Israeli conflict” (or, euphemistically, the “situation,” hamatzav [in Hebrew]) had dominated the national political agenda.22 But in these years, the perceived importance of the conflict began to wane, as mainstream Jewish Israeli society began to lose interest in the “peace process” and matters of occupation.23 Such disinterest was enabled by the strong Israeli economy of this period, and the spatial fiction advanced by the separation barrier—a structure that enabled Israelis to live as if at a remove from Palestinians under occupation.24 It was also bolstered by Israel’s unilateral withdrawal or “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip in 2005, a political euphemism that obscured the continuation of military occupation over the Gaza Strip, albeit in new forms.25 In the years following disengagement, many Jewish Israelis would insist that “there is no occupation in Gaza,” the language of “war” replacing and obfuscating that of “military occupation” during Israel’s successive incursions into the Gaza Strip (2008–2009, 2012, 2014).
As Jewish Israelis turned away from the military occupation, domestic issues began to figure more centrally in the national political agenda, chiefly matters of economy and “lifestyle” that had been thought to exist at a remove from matters of military rule (a formula that framed the mass Israeli social protests of 2011).26 The national elections of 2012, for their part, were conducted in the absence of a robust public discussion about Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. In the same year, a judiciary panel convened by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu would “reject the claim that Israel’s presence in the territory is that of an occupying force,” an opinion that aimed to pave the way for widespread settlement in the West Bank.27 In the Israeli media, images and discussion of Israel’s military rule were receding, relegated to the domain of “non-news” (in the words of one Israeli blogger).28 In broader political discourse, Palestinians rarely appeared, save in the language of “terrorism” and “security threat.” In some centrist and right-wing discourse, Israeli pundits went further by disavowing Israel’s occupation altogether, referring to the term only in quotation marks.29
And yet, Israeli military rule in the Palestinian territories continued and flourished during these years, as did the Jewish settlement population in the West Bank, supported by an ever-expanding road network.30 And even as the occupation was receding from political discourse, Jewish Israelis were progressively embracing a politics of militant patriotism. Racist anti-Palestinian sentiment once relegated to Israeli right-wing margins moved to the center of mainstream political discourse, the evolution of a set of rightward shifts that began in 2000, growing in force and magnitude during the periodic military assaults on Gaza.31 During such operations, many Jewish Israelis would support a politics of militant security in the name of “Israel’s right to self-defense,” usually with little regard for mounting Palestinian civilian casualties. The chorus of militancy would grow markedly during Israel’s 2014 Gaza offensive. As the Palestinian death toll from Israeli military actions grew, enabled by widespread popular Israeli support for the operation, left-wing pundits spoke with new candor about the Israeli “culture of hate[. . .]and vengeance,” about “an environment where casual racism is a norm.”32 The Israeli public of the wartime period had little patience for a discussion of Palestinian dead and wounded. Even recitation of their names was considered a slanderous act. The Israeli appetite for militancy, on the other hand, had never been stronger.
Our discussion of digital militarism focuses on the intersection of these historical and social processes: increasing digital literacy among Jewish Israeli populations and an Israeli political landscape characterized by growing patriotic militarism and denial of occupation. These coterminous developments are typically viewed as separate phenomena. Instead, we suggest that they are mutually productive, that they function together and through each other.
1. Netanyahu made this comment during a keynote address to the CyberTech 2014 Conference, Tel Aviv, on January 28, 2014. The speech can be viewed at “PM Netanyahu’s Keynote Speech at CyberTech 2014 Conference, 2014.”
2. Israeli Ministry of Tourism, “Communications in Israel.”
3. Mehmood, “‘Israel Is Addicted to Occupation’—Gideon Levy.”
4. This was the first war in which Israeli soldiers deployed in large numbers with smartphones. We discuss the history of soldier mobile and smartphone usage, and military policy governing this usage, in Chapter 2. In 2014, the Israeli military unveiled new plans for “military grade” encrypted smartphones for soldier use. See Ziv, “Israel’s Defense Ministry Signs Deal for Military-Grade Smartphones.”
5. Peled, “The First Social Media War Between Israel and Gaza.”
6. The Oxford English Dictionary defines selfie as “A photographic self-portrait; esp. one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media” (“Selfie, N.”). However, there is considerable disagreement among scholars regarding the parameters of the selfie genre. In our rendering, we include portraits taken by others but shared by the subject in question on their social networks. The growing popularity in Israel of so-called selfie sticks, enabling mobile self-portraiture from arm’s length, has further complicated the genre. We discuss Israeli soldier selfies in Chapter 5. This particular Instagram archive can be found at Notopoulos, “Surreal Instagrams from Israel Defense Forces Soldiers.” For discussion of the broader history and use of cameras by soldiers within larger geopolitical contexts, see Struk, Private Pictures.
7. According to 2013 public statements from the Israel military, this Instagram archive was in violation of the army’s emerging social media policy; historically, this policy has been rarely enforced. For a recent articulation of such policy as it pertains to Facebook, see Cohen, “A New Directive Will Impose Restrictions IDF Soldiers’ Use of Facebook.”
8. For further discussion of iconographies of Israeli soldiering, see Brownfield-Stein, Fantasy of the State; Brownfield-Stein, “Visual Representations of IDF Women Soldiers and ‘Civil-Militarism’ in Israel”; and Yosef, Beyond Flesh. On the longer legacy of Israeli soldiering as a project of self-making, see Sasson-Levy, “Individual Bodies, Collective State Interests.”
9. The me-centered character of such mobile self-portrait images is part of the broader trend of micro-celebrity and self-branding that increasingly characterizes social media usage among young people. See Senft, “Microcelebrity and the Branded Self.” For an excellent analysis of the Israeli military’s embrace of branding culture, see Lemmey, “Devastation in Meatspace.”
10. The U.S. blogger responsible for the widespread circulation of these images would call them “surreal.” Notopoulos, “Surreal Instagrams from Defense Forces Soldiers.”
11. Our analysis is informed by recent and foundational scholarship on the Israeli military occupation, particularly scholarship attentive to the role of cultural technologies, discursive formations, and modes of governmentality in the workings of military rule. See, for example, Azoulay and Ophir, The One-State Condition; Gordon, Israel’s Occupation; Weizman, Hollow Land; and Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils. We also draw on literature on the interplay between militarism and the entertainment industry and on the mediated aesthetics of war. New and foundational writings include Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography; Derian, Virtuous War; Dyer-Witheford and De Peuter, Games of Empire; Mirzoeff, Watching Babylon; Morris, Believing Is Seeing; Stahl, Militainment, Inc.; and Virilio, War and Cinema. For a fuller genealogy of the existing scholarship on Israeli militarism, see note 37, p. 110.
12. We borrow the phrase “networked publics,” which we employ throughout this book, from social media scholar danah boyd. She defines it thusly: “Networked publics are publics that are restructured by networked technologies. As such, they are simultaneously (1) the space constructed through networked technologies and (2) the imagined community that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology and practice.” boyd, It’s Complicated, 8. For a broader discussion of Internet cultures and digital communications in Israel, including the use of such tools by the Israeli left activist community, see Ashuri, “(Web)sites of Memory and the Rise of Moral Mnemonic Agents”; Doron and Lev-On, New Media, Politics and Society in Israel; Hijazi-Omari and Ribak, “Playing with Fire”; and Schejter and Tirosh, “Social Media New and Old in the Al-’Arakeeb Conflict.” During the years chronicled in this book, the Israeli left, veterans of Internet use for political ends, relied heavily on social media, their ability to self-publish providing a means by which to circumvent the constrained ideological terms of the national media, with social media increasingly functioning as a counter-archive of the military occupation.
13. Karatzogianni, The Politics of Cyberconflict; Karatzogianni, “Introduction”; Kozaryn, “Tactical Internet Key to Digital Battlefield.”
14. Recent scholarly research on the militarization of social media includes Alper, “War on Instagram”; Chancey, “New Media”; Hjorth and Pink, “New Visualities and the Digital Wayfarer”; Kaplan, “The Biopolitics of Technoculture in the Mumbai Attacks”; Lawson, “The US Military’s Social Media Civil War”; Lynch, Freelon, and Aday, Syria’s Socially Mediated Civil War; Morozov, The Net Delusion; Pötzsch, “The Emergence of iWar”; and Susca, “Why We Still Fight.” Recent popular writings on this topic are also extensive, including Berkman, “Russia Blocks Pro-Ukraine Groups on Social Media”; Gregory, “Inside Putin’s Campaign of Social Media Trolling and Faked Ukrainian Crimes”; “How Researchers Use Social Media to Map the Conflict in Syria”; Kantrowitz, “The United States’ Social Media Plan to Keep Syria’s Chemical Weapons Safe”; and McBain, “In Syria, the Internet Has Become Just Another Battleground”; “Military Announces New Social Media Policy”; “The Role of Social Media in the Syrian Civil War.”
15. This book does not address the use of digital media by Palestinians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Israel, or the Palestinian Diaspora, although our work is informed by scholarship on these matters. See, for example, Abu-Zayyad, “Human Rights, the Internet and Social Media”; Aouragh, “Confined Offline”; Aouragh, Palestine Online; Aouragh, “Virtual Intifada”; Asthana and Havandjian, “Youth Media Imaginaries in Palestine”; Cook, “Palestinian Social Media Campaigns Unlike Egyptian, Tunisian Counterparts”; Junka-Aikio, “Late Modern Subjects of Colonial Occupation”; Khalili, “Virtual Nation”; Sienkiewicz, “Out of Control”; and Tawil-Souri, “Digital Occupation.” For a broader discussion of Internet culture in the context of the Arab Israeli conflict, see Marmura, Hegemony in the Digital Age; Sucharov and Sasley, “Blogging Identities on Israel/Palestine”; and Alsaafin, “Palestinians Turn to Facebook in Fight Against Occupation.” On the state of the Palestinian ITC sector in general, see Alsaafin, “Palestinians Turn to Facebook in Fight Against Occupation”; Musleh, “Maath Musleh on Social Media and Palestine”; Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) Reviews the Current Use of Technology in the Palestinian Territory on the Occasion of World Information Society Day; and Palestinian ICT Sector 2.0.
16. On militarism by other means, see Clough, “War by Other Means.”
17. For example, Israel has long had large per-capita mobile phone adoption. In 2009, 91.8 percent of Israeli households possessed mobile phones. Central Bureau of Statistics, quoted in Schejter and Cohen, “Mobile Phone Usage as an Indicator of Solidarity.” In 2013, Israel was said to lead Europe and the United States in smartphone use; see Hoffman, “57% of Israelis Have Smartphones,” and Schejter and Cohen, “Mobile Phone Usage as an Indicator of Solidarity.” For a study of the role of mobile phones within Israeli national culture, see Cohen, Lemish, and Schejter, The Wonder Phone in the Land of Miracles.
18. Russell, “Israelis Are Now the World’s Biggest Social Network Addicts, Says New Report.”
19. Acar, “Culture, Corruption, Suicide, Happiness and Global Social Media Use.” Recent statistics on Israeli social media usage can be found at Fiske, “Israelis Love Their Touch Screens”; “Israel Ranks 7 in Global Broadband Penetration”; “The World Bank DataBank: Israel”; and Economist Intelligence Unit, Digital Economy Rankings 2010.
20. Many high-tech startups in Israel have been incubated in military environments or for Israeli military purposes. For discussion of linkages between the Israeli military and the high-tech sector, see Gordon, “Israel’s Emergence as a Homeland Security Capital”; Gordon, The Political Economy of Israel’s Homeland Security Industry; and Swed and Butler, “Military Capital in the Israeli Hi-Tech Industry.”
21. The phrase “Start Up Nation” is the title of this celebrated volume about Israel: Senor, Council on Foreign Relations, and Singer, Start-up Nation. The notion of “high-tech Zionism” was articulated by net artist and media designer Tsila Hassine, interview by Rebecca L. Stein, May 2013. For broader discussion of such issues, see Latham, Bombs and Bandwidth.
22. Israeli commentator Noam Sheizaf, writing in 2014, has proposed that Israel is a “country whose politics had been dominated by the conflict for a century.” See Sheizaf, “Film Review.” On this use of this euphemistic slang by Israeli citizens, see Steinberg, “The ‘Matzav,’” and Brumer, “Conversations.”
23. On growing disinterest in the so-called peace process, see Levy, “Israel Does Not Want Peace.”
24. This cartographic fiction was anticipated in the 1992 political slogan of the Israeli Labor party, which framed Israel’s ideal relationship to the Palestinians this way: “Us here, them there.” Blecher, “Living on the Edge.”
25. For a discussion of the prevailing Israeli fiction that Gaza is not occupied, see Derfner, “Ceasefire Tells the World,” and Hajjar, “Is Gaza Still Occupied and Why Does It Matter?” According to the United Nations, the Gaza Strip remains occupied—an argument with which Israelis are in fierce opposition. See Neuer, “Hamas Says Gaza ‘Not Occupied’; UN Disagrees,” and Samson, “Is Gaza Occupied?” For a review of the legal debates on this issue, see Darcy and Reynolds, “‘Otherwise Occupied.’”
26. For discussion of the Israeli 2011 summer protests, particularly their sidelining of questions of military occupation, see Grinberg, “The J14 Resistance Mo(ve)ment,” and Monterescu and Shaindlinger, “Situational Radicalism.”
27. See Levinson and Zarchin, “Netanyahu-Appointed Panel,” and Sheizaf, “Panel Appointed by Netanyahu Concludes: There Is No Occupation.”
28. Matar, “Bit by Bit, Coverage of Occupation Disappears from Israeli News.”
29. For an example of occupation in question marks, see “Israeli-Arab Party Blames ‘Occupation’ for Violence After Kidnapped Teens Found Dead.” For a corrective to such fictions, written by the former head of the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem and aimed at Israeli and Jewish American audiences, see “Op-Ed: The West Bank Is Under Military Occupation, and That’s a Fact.”
30. For background on the West Bank settlement infrastructure, see “47 Years of Temporary Occupation.”
31. For discussion of the Jewish Israeli public’s rightward shift in the prior decade, see Beinin and Stein, “Histories and Futures of a Failed Peace.”
32. Cook, “Cultures of Hate”; and Lapide, “‘Jewish Nationalism’ Behind Young Palestinian’s Death—Asia News.” See also Beinin, “Racism Is the Foundation of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge,” and Sokatch, “Not Only in Gaza.”