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Daniel Chardell: Protest in unity

By Daniel Chardell, Columnist
Published November 18, 2012

My eyes have been glued to the computer screen for days. The Israel Defense Forces is live-tweeting its offensive, “Operation Pillar of Defense,” in the Gaza Strip. Al-Qassam Brigades — the military wing of Hamas — responds in turn. And in an interactive map feature, Al Jazeera tracks, aggregates and categorizes social media posts coming from both sides of the Gaza conflict.

The pace of escalating warfare is fast, but the Internet is faster.

The ongoing conflict in Gaza has spilled over into a new realm: social media. As Yonah Lieberman wrote in a column last Thursday, Facebook was suddenly abuzz with posts decrying or lauding Israel’s operation in the Gaza Strip as the military confrontation escalated. “Am Yisrael chai,” commonly translated as “The nation of Israel lives,” flooded my newsfeed as friends sought to express their enduring solidarity with Israel. Meanwhile, others drew attention to the growing number of Palestinian civilian casualties and injuries.

But that wasn’t all. In addition to civilians caught in the crossfire, the combatants themselves — the IDF and Hamas — have taken to Twitter, YouTube and Facebook in their official capacities to simultaneously propagate their respective narratives while rallying support for their military campaigns.

I read news reports of skirmishes along the Israeli-Gaza border early last week, but the gravity of the situation was only brought to my attention on Wednesday, when one of my Facebook friends shared a link to the IDF YouTube account. There, the IDF had posted a video of the “pinpoint strike” on Ahmed al-Jabari, the top military commander of Hamas. Only 10 seconds long, the video gives a bird’s-eye view of the bombing of Jabari’s car. One moment, the car is there. The next, it’s replaced with an explosion and a cloud of smoke.

Some argue that the video violates the YouTube terms of service because it depicts violence and disturbing imagery. Indeed, after enough users flagged the video as inappropriate, it was removed for a short time on Thursday morning. But hours later, YouTube put the video back up. When I last checked, the video had more than 4 million views.

That same day, the IDF posted the following Tweet: “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.” But the exploitation of social media is not limited to the IDF alone. In response, al-Qassam Brigades responded: “Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves).”

The role of social media in this intensifying conflict has garnered perhaps as much attention as the conflict itself. “There have long been the tools of warfare associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: warplanes, mortars, Qassam rockets,” writes Gerry Shih of Reuters. “Now that list includes Twitter, Facebook, YouTube.”

In the short time since this conflict began, news websites and blogs have published untold numbers of articles deliberating the moral and free speech implications of this newborn phenomenon, war by way of social media. Is it the responsibility of tech giants like Google — which owns Youtube — Facebook and Twitter to restrict the flow of threats and violent images? That would be a good question, but given the fact that the Jabari video still stands, it seems that these companies have already demonstrated their unwillingness to implicate themselves in the messy business of distinguishing “appropriate” violence from “inappropriate” bloodshed. (Slippery slope? You betcha.)

Beside, I’m less interested in that question. More important, I think, is this: Does broadcasting warfare on social media make it easier for us to ignore, perhaps even dehumanize, the other side? Let me put it more bluntly: If you don’t see photos of Palestinian or Israeli corpses, are you more easily able to escape the very real human cost of conflict?

Dehumanization — the unwillingness of either side to recognize the existence of the other — is a hallmark of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The enforced physical separation of Israelis from Palestinians, Palestinians from Israelis, enables this. Social media platforms minimize human-to-human contact and maximize the speed with which information flows. When it comes to war, that’s a dangerous formula. In the safety of your home, thanks to the Internet, you can choose which stories to read, which videos to watch. Thousands of miles away from the actual conflict, you can share this information even more widely among your circle of like-minded friends — support more violence with only a click of the mouse. I don’t care what your political beliefs are. That’s morally repugnant.

Due to fear, hatred, politics or all of the above, Israelis and Palestinians cannot interact. Unfortunately, I see that same dynamic at play on our campus. I was thrilled, for example, to see students protesting on the Diag on Thursday in response to the escalating violence. But I was less thrilled that these protests were literally divided along political lines. Pro-Israel students stood on one end of the Diag, while pro-Palestine students stood on the other.

I have strong feelings on this conflict, but that’s not the subject of this column. For our current purposes, my only opinion worth sharing is that civilians, Israeli and Palestinian, are the true victims. It’s necessary to distinguish combatant from non-combatant. Under these circumstances, both are threatened. That means we should protest not against one another, but together.

I’d like to see interfaith events held immediately to promote dialogue on these latest developments. In the meantime, before you “like” a post you see online, let’s try to remember that you’re “liking” the death of a real human.

Daniel Chardell can be reached at chardell@umich.edu.