The Gaza-based interior ministry advises its supporters in a YouTube video that whenever talking about the dead, “always add ‘an innocent citizen.’ ” In Israel, the message is quite different: Those same victims are described as “human shields” sacrificed by the “heartless” Hamas “terrorists” that rule Gaza.
Recently, thousands of Israeli mobile phone users received a text message that bragged: “We forced you to hide in shelters like mice,” while Israelis trade cartoons and satirical videos — one intersperses an Arab political speech with a slobbering goat, another replaces the heads of Palestinian fighters with Angry Birds characters. And Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces are circulating remarkably similar video clips of exploding buildings with thundering soundtracks that evoke Hollywood thrillers.
“Time for revenge has arrived,” warns one Hamas video, in Hebrew. An Israeli one, making fun of Palestinian accents, says, “Balestine, listen, this is a message to Gaza, we are killing Gaza,” adding, “The I.D.F. is strong! Gaza is weak!”
The ground war between Israel and Hamas intensified again Sunday with many more civilians and soldiers dying. But that is only one battlefield. Another, the clash of narratives, the struggle for domestic and international opinion, is seen by both sides to have long-term stakes as high and perhaps even more lasting than combat on the ground.
Propaganda wars have unfolded alongside the battlefield for generations. But analysts said the latest flare-up between Israel and the Gaza Strip has brought a new level of dehumanizing, hateful language and a muddying of official talking points with incendiary threats, as social media broadcast an explosion of voices, an onslaught of unreliable information, and creative mash-ups of pop-culture icons with war imagery.
The abduction and murder of teenagers that helped set the stage for the latest escalation had also shown a devolution from a political struggle to a kind of personal blood feud that both fuels and is fueled by the mocking, hateful comments flying in both directions, analysts said.
Etgar Keret, an Israeli novelist, said he had been troubled by some of the terms favored by journalists, politicians and even friends in Tel Aviv. There is no Hebrew word for “assassination,” Mr. Keret said, so killings of Hamas operatives are described with a phrase meaning “focused obstruction.” Instead of “civilians,” he said, slain children and women are sometimes called “uninvolved.”
“There’s something about this ‘uninvolved,’ there’s something passive about it,” Mr. Keret said. “You admit that he is not somebody who is trying to destroy you, but you don’t give him any other identification. It was not a child who wanted to learn how to play the piano,” he said, adding, “it was just somebody who didn’t shoot at us.”
There is a long history here of such euphemisms. The journalist Amos Elon called it “word laundry,” and David Grossman explored the phenomenon in “The Yellow Wind,” his 1987 study of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation. “A society in crisis forges for itself a new vocabulary,” he wrote, using “words that no longer describe reality, but attempt, instead, to conceal it.”
Dalia Gavriely-Nuri, an expert in the discourse of war who is affiliated with universities in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, noted that the Hebrew name for the current operation translates as “strong cliff” — a reference to nature, like the names of 35 percent of Israeli military campaigns since the state’s establishment in 1948, according to her research.
“Using natural forces, it removes the responsibility of leaders, of citizens,” she said. “Nobody is responsible when you are sitting under, let’s say, a tsunami or earthquake. This is a psychological process that helps the people that are involved in a conflict or an operation to survive the situation.”
Social media has put the propaganda war on steroids.
“You’re seeing anger and frustration, you’re seeing sorrow and empathy, and you’re also seeing a wide currency of videos, photos, infographics, emergent hashtags, memes,” said William Youmans, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University who specializes in the Middle East. “You read over-triumphalist accounts. It can almost sound like they’re rooting for different sports teams, and cheering their side on. That’s very different from the actual suffering that’s going on.”
Palestinian supporters traced to Israeli teenagers countless posts on Twitter demanding death to all Arabs. Israel backers collect comparisons of their leadership to Nazis. The medium gives a megaphone to radical extremists, and also pushes officialdom to casual shorthand that can be cutting.
Both sides are organized and active, though the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack has been used in nearly four million Twitter posts, compared with 170,000 for #IsraelUnderFire, according to Topsy, a social-media search engine. Mr. Youmans attributed that to broader sympathy for Palestinians, but also said Israel has a more coherent campaign that is powered by institutions.
It was during Israel’s last ground invasion of Gaza, in 2009, that a soldier in the military’s public-affairs unit, Aliza Landes, paid for a WordPress account on her own credit card and started posting battle footage on YouTube because she realized, “if you’re not going to put it out there, you’re not going to be part of the conversation.”
Now, there are 40 people in the interactive unit of the Israel Defense Forces, including videographers, animators, graphic artists and computer programmers, pumping out missives in six languages, on many platforms, in a tone much punchier than the typical news release. “Israel uses the Iron Dome to protect its civilians,” it said on Twitter over the weekend. “Hamas uses civilians to protect its rockets.”
Hamas has also tried to harness social media, though its categorization as a terror group by the United States and other Western countries has led Facebook and Twitter to block some official accounts. The Hebrew Twitter feed of its military wing had a polite, amusing exchange the other day with Israelis correcting its grammar.
A “Dos and Don’ts” YouTube video produced by Hamas, which The Times of Israel news site wrote about earlier this month, shed some light on the Palestinian strategy. Don’t post footage of rockets being launched from cities, it warned, lest Israel use it to justify strikes on populated areas. Don’t publish close-ups of masked gunmen, or your page can be shut down for inciting violence. Do start with “in response to the cruel Israeli assault,” it advised. “No harm in publishing the pictures of casualties.”
Palestinian activists have complained about dehumanizing language used by Israeli leaders. The night the bodies of three kidnapped Israeli teenagers were found, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called their killers “beasts.” Ayelet Shaked, a right-wing member of Parliament, posted to Facebook a 2002 article that called the whole Palestinian people “the enemy,” and described so-called martyrs as “snakes” and suggested their mothers should be murdered.
“In the past when people said racist things, we found that many officials denounced that. This time we found silence,” said Hassan Jabareen, director of Adalah, a legal center for Arab rights in Israel. Calls to “kill all Arabs” used to come from extremist groups defined by Israeli law as terrorist, Mr. Jabareen said, but “today you hear it everywhere.”
“Many, many Arabs feel that it’s not safe today to walk freely in Jewish cities or in a mixed city because of this phenomenon,” he added.
On Israeli news programs, discussion of the dead is often in a diplomatic context — how many casualties before the world demands a halt to hostilities — rather than a more human, moral one.
“I don’t want to call it dehumanization, because that’s a very loaded word — it’s a benumbing: People are just, they don’t show it, but they’re in a daze,” said Michael B. Oren, a historian and former Israeli ambassador to Washington who has spent several hours daily on Israeli and international television.
“In classic dehumanization scenarios, whether in Nazi Germany or in Rwanda before the genocide, you refer to the enemy as rats and cockroaches, and that enables you to kill them on a large scale,” Mr. Oren said. “We’re not calling Palestinians cockroaches.” Still, he added, “It’s very difficult to feel compassion for the other when you have rockets aimed at your family.”