The digital battleground: Israel, Hamas in fierce social media fight to shape Gaza narrative

Even during the just-ended seven-day pause in fighting on the ground, there was no let-up in the digital war between Israel and Hamas.

On the digital battlefield and in the court of global public opinion, the Israeli government and Palestinian militants each rushed to capitalize on the temporary truce by pushing their own narrative, trying to control the spin on events as they unfold inside the Gaza Strip, and its broader view of exactly what the long-running battle between Israel and Hamas truly represents.

It’s a fight that some specialists have dubbed the “YouTube War,” and it’s an aspect of the conflict that Hamas seems to have spent nearly as much time and energy planning as it did the physical Oct. 7 murderous surprise attack on Israel. After seemingly being caught flat-footed by propaganda videos that painted Israel, not Hamas, as the unrepentant aggressors willing to kill innocent women and children, Israel has unleashed a major counterpunch.

Commanders of the Israeli Defense Forces in particular have flooded social media, often explaining their military actions in great detail, and the reasons why they’re necessary. The IDF‘s raid on the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City earlier this month, for example, was accompanied by a one-shot video in which IDF officials showed Hamas weapons, computers and other tools of war strewn across the hospital.

It was part of the IDF‘s aggressive new strategy to justify its actions in real time online, an effort to get ahead of any narratives that would paint Israel as cruel and dismissive of innocent civilian life.

But analysts say the true test is yet to come. The week-long pause in the fighting is over, and having largely concluded the first phase of its military campaign in northern Gaza, Israel has turned its attention to the southern portion of the enclave, an area now home to hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinian civilians pushed out of the north.

SEE ALSO: Truce collapses: Israeli fighter jets hit targets in Gaza, fate of remaining hostages in doubt

“The real crunch is going to come now, when the fighting resumes,” said Michael Doran, senior fellow and director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East at the Hudson Institute.

Mr. Doran said the public relations battle will soon reach a fever pitch, as the resumption of Israel‘s military campaign coincides with a high-level gathering of world leaders at the United Nations climate summit in Dubai. Behind the scenes at the U.N. summit, global decision-makers will undoubtedly discuss the IsraelHamas war and what positions to take on it moving forward. And they will surely be influenced by the photos, video and other PR offensives coming out of Gaza from both sides of the conflict.

Ahead of that flash point, Mr. Doran argued that Israel and the U.S. have made strides in the PR arena. But he said it’s too soon to say the tide has turned in their favor.

“I still think the other side has done exceptionally well,” Mr. Doran said in an interview. “You need only to look at the size of the protests across Europe to realize that all of those protesters, they see a completely different picture of the world than those of us who are listening to the IDF.”

Hostage propaganda

Hamas leaders knew Israel would respond to the Oct. 7 attack with a show of unprecedented military force in the form of airstrikes, a siege of Gaza, and the unfolding ground war in the enclave. Hamas and its chief ally, Iran, believed that much of the world — especially Arab governments that prior to the attack had been actively warming their relations with Jerusalem — would quickly turn their attention away from the Hamas attack itself and toward the perceived brutality and indiscriminate nature of Israel‘s response in Gaza.

That assumption seems to have been proven true. Media coverage around the world has focused heavily on the dire humanitarian conditions in Gaza and the 15,000 Gaza casualties Palestinians say have occurred in the wake of October 7. Hamas has both helped to drive that coverage while also exploiting it.

The clashing narratives over the seven-day truce, in which Hamas released about 100 Israeli hostages in return for the freeing of over 200 Palestinian prisoners and the expansion of international aid shipments into Gaza, is perhaps the best example.

As dozens of prisoners have been freed from Hamas custody in recent days, the militant group has put forward well-produced videos showing the hostages, including young children, smiling and waving goodbye to their captors.

Israeli officials say it’s almost certain those videos were made under duress, but it’s still likely an effective tactic for Hamas to reinforce the perception in some quarters that it is a humane collection of freedom fighters, while Israel is a merciless aggressor.

Though Hamas, which Israel, the U.S. and many Western nations have designated as a terrorist organization, is banned as an organization from such popular sites as TikTok, Facebook and Instagram, there are signs that pro-Palestinian posts as swamping those of posters backing Israel in cyberspace. A recent Washington Post survey found that the #freepalestine hashtag was used 39 times more than the #standwithisrael hashtag on Facebook and 26 times more on Instagram.

But the Hamas media campaign has gone even further. The group in recent days released a letter supposedly written by Danielle Aloni, who had been held hostage along with her 5-year-old daughter. The letter was posted on social media by the al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, and was designed to paint the group in a more sympathetic light.

“Kids shouldn’t be in prison, but thanks to you and other kind people we met along the way. … My daughter considered herself a queen in Gaza,” the letter read in part, according to English-language media accounts.

It went on to wish “good health and well-being” to Hamas, the group that held them both hostage for nearly two months.

Ms. Aloni’s family fired back. Liam Adam, identified in media accounts as Danielle’s cousin, said on Instagram that the letter was little more than “propaganda.”

“Unfortunately I know many out there will try to use this in Hamas‘s defense. Don’t believe them!” he said.

Fighting back

Israel and its allies have mounted a major counteroffensive in the PR realm, though it’s clear they’re fighting an uphill battle.

As of Friday, as the truce was breaking down, Israel had released some 240 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the roughly 100 hostages — including some foreign nationals — set free so far by Hamas. The Palestinian side has tried to cast that as a fair exchange, but the IDF has tried to get out in front of those claims.

On Thursday, the IDF put out a social media post contrasting the kidnapping of 9-year-old Israeli Emily Hand, taken hostage on Oct. 7, and Israel‘s imprisonment of 38-year-old Asraa Jabes, who Israel said carried out a bombing attack against civilian targets.

“Being Israeli is not a crime. Trying to blow up innocent civilians is,” the IDF said in a post on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter.

Israel also has been fiercely proactive in instances when it knows a global backlash is all but inevitable. Perhaps the clearest example was the IDF‘s siege of the al-Shifa hospital, the largest medical facility in the Palestinian enclave, shortly after the ground invasion began in mid-November. The IDF said that Hamas militants used the site as a command center and as a weapons storage depot.

The raid was met with sharp condemnation abroad. But Israel successfully blunted some of the backlash with a carefully crafted media blitz accompanying the raid.

“While we and most countries do everything we can to protect the sick, sadly that’s not the case in Gaza. Hamas sees ill Gazans as an opportunity — an opportunity to put the most vulnerable in the line of fire,” Israeli Defense Forces Lt. Col. Amnon Shefler said in a social media post released at the very moment Israeli special forces were on the ground at the hospital.

“We know Hamas has done this for years,” he said. “Hamas terrorists have embedded themselves deliberately in any place they could, be it schools, kindergartens and hospitals. Hamas, in the most cynical way, is not only using the fuel, the electricity, the oxygen, the medicine from hospitals, but is using the most vulnerable, the sick and the ill, as human shields. This is what we are up against.”

The same day, Israel released a single-shot video that seemed to show guns, ammunition, flak jackets and other battlefield gear stashed in the hospital complex’s MRI room and elsewhere around the facility.

The footage appears to show weapons sitting on shelves alongside bandages and other traditional medical supplies, bolstering the Israeli argument that the militant Palestinian group is perfectly willing to use hospitals, and the vulnerable patients inside, as shields.

Source: WT