How Israelis live intimately with the military occupation in their digital lives.
In the summer of 2014 we watched the bloody Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip unfold in real time on our social media feeds. As Israeli bombs fell, as civilian fatalities inside Gaza mounted, Palestinians live-tweeted updates from the ground, providing minute-by-minute images and accounts of the growing devastation. Many Palestinian social media users watched their international followers grow exponentially during the course of the Israeli assault. Among international anti-occupation activists and critics of the bloody operation, there was a prevailing sense of optimism, a sense that these viral jpegs of dead bodies and destroyed neighborhoods, circulating widely on social media, might make new kinds of international witnessing and accountability possible where Israel’s occupation was concerned.
A very different conversation was unfolding concurrently on Israeli social media. Here, the images of dead Palestinian bodies and destroyed neighborhoods captivating global audiences were largely missing—as they were from national television news broadcasts and popular newspapers. Indeed, the mere mention of the names of the Palestinian dead was, in the eyes of the mainstream Israeli public, tantamount to treason (a charge mounted publicly against leftists). Many Israelis used social media to support the war efforts. As bombs decimated Gazan homes, Israeli Instagram photo streams and Facebook status-updates celebrated the “righteous” victory. And many used their social media feeds to laud the mounting Palestinian death toll in very explicit terms, egging the military on.
What we watched play out on Israeli social media last summer was yet another instance of what we term “digital militarism.” Our book, of the same name, explores the ways that social media tools, technologies, and practices can be employed in the service of militant projects by state and civilian users. While this is a global phenomenon, we focus on digital militarism in the context of Israel’s occupation, with an emphasis on the forms of ordinary militarism emerging in the hands of everyday Israeli social media users—the ways that violent, racist nationalism takes shape through mundane networking practices and modes of online engagement.
This is not the kind of militarism we typically associate with Israel’s repressive rule in the Palestinian territories. This militarism takes shape through Facebook status updates, through ‘likes’ and shares, in the hues of the Instagram retro-filter and the visual language of the selfie—the latter being a particularly popular genre amongst Israeli soldiers and civilians.
From the Twitter feed of Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, IDF.
Last summer, in the lead-up to the 2014 Gaza incursion, we watched a mass campaign of digital militarism emerge following the murder of three settler youth in the West Bank. Using Facebook as their platform, thousands of Israelis shared selfies and other intimate snapshots calling for bloody revenge against Palestinians—a call that would culminate in an Israeli revenge killing of a Palestinian youth. This interplay between militant nationalist violence and ordinary social media conventions is increasingly common in Israel today.
When we began researching this book in 2009, “digital militarism” was in its infancy, in both Israeli and broader global contexts. But over the course of our research, we watched it grow and spread—a measure of both the growing right-wing tendencies of the Israeli public, and the increasing proliferation of mobile technologies and social media literacy in Israel.
We have become accustomed to the integration of social networking into military arsenals.
Today, digital militarism has become commonplace, both in Israel and in political theaters across the globe. We have become accustomed to the integration of social networking into military arsenals, to calls for war issued en masse on social media platforms, to the presence of smartphones in military zones and battlefields, to social networking from scenes of atrocity. In the Israeli context, we are now accustomed to damning Instagram images from soldiers, or to YouTube videos of violent confrontation between Israelis soldiers and Palestinians in the territories. Once, such events and media exposures surprised Israeli and international publics. Today, we have come to expect them. Digital Militarism is a chronicle of such trends—tracking the early years of the emergence of social media militarism in Israel, to its eventual normalization as a social form.
At the core of our analysis is an attempt to come to terms with the ways Israelis live intimately with the occupation in the course of their everyday digital lives—an occupation that shows no signs of abating. One can read the sphere of Israeli social media as yet another site of such intimacy. But herein lies something of a tension: Since the collapse of the Oslo Process at the end of the 1990s, and increasingly so following the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000 and then the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, one has witnessed an Israeli public increasingly unwilling to place Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians on the top of their political agenda, unwilling to assimilate Israel’s enduring military rule into their political self-understanding.
Over the course of this decade, then, the military occupation was increasingly receding from Israeli political agendas and sensibilities. But and at the same time, its presence was growing on Israeli social media through modes of militarized engagement. Thus, while refused in the political sphere, Israeli military rule became increasingly visible on the Facebook feeds and Instagram streams of Israeli citizens. On social media, through forms of digital militarism, the occupation was being incorporated into the digital everyday.
In this respect, our book is first and foremost a story about the very mundane and banal ways in which Israelis live with, and perpetuate, military rule in the Palestinian territories through standard networking practices. Today, we argue, social media functions as a crucial domain of everyday complicity with military rule—complicity evident not only in the actions of the Israeli solider deployed in the West Bank, but also in the networking practices of the Israeli resident of cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, for whom the occupation seems to exist at something of a distance from her comfortable life—a Tel Aviv resident who has at once learned to forget about the occupation, and its daily toll on Palestinian life, even as she perpetuates its continuation through daily and highly personalized acts of militarized social media engagement. As digital militarism is increasingly becoming a national norm, Israel is entering a new stage of living intimately and comfortably with its own violence.