Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age by Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca L. Stein (Stanford University Press)
Any social media user following Israel’s assault on the besieged Gaza Strip last summer may have encountered the slew of cartoons published on the Israeli army spokesperson’s Twitter account.
Intended to justify indiscriminate bombing by portraying Palestinian civilian buildings as legitimate targets, these slickly designed pictures were just one iteration of Israel’s online efforts to stem the PR backlash against its attack on Gaza.
It is well-established that the Israeli state is heavily invested in such social media propaganda. Less attention has been paid, however, to the intertwining of militarism and occupation with the social media practices of ordinary Israelis.
In Digital Militarism, Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca L. Stein seek to cover this ground, dealing with the militarization of social media in the hands not only of the state, but also its citizens.
Kuntsman and Stein frame their work as “an archive of Israeli occupation violence as rendered in social media forms.”
The reader is exposed to “selfies” taken by Israeli soldiers inside invaded Palestinian homes, YouTube videos of Palestinians being forced to perform songs exalting the Israeli Border Police and smiling teenage girls using the hashtag #IsraelDemandsRevenge to call for collective punishment.
Such disturbing phenomena candidly depict a society in which the pleasures of social networking have become enmeshed with extreme forms of violence. This development is referred to by the authors as “digital militarism.”
Israel’s public secrets
Kuntsman and Stein write from within academia, but their work is accessible to a general audience, if occasionally veering into postmodern territory.
A central theoretical concept of the book is the “public secret,” a term used to describe Israeli society’s relationship with state violence: while the brutality of Israeli militarism is known to the public, it is also hidden from sight through various means, allowing daily life to go on.
The authors apply this framework to the viral scandal in which bloggers discovered Facebook photos of Eden Abergil, a female Israeli soldier, posing flirtatiously in front of blindfolded, handcuffed Palestinian men.
The routine violence depicted in these photos – which Abergil posted on social media herself – would have been recognizable to any Israeli soldier or veteran.
Yet the images were declared to be aberrations: “I can assure you that the act in no way reflects the spirit of the IDF or the ethical code to which we aspire,” claimed an army spokesperson.
The notion that such incidents are exceptional was repeated by state and non-state actors following subsequent social media scandals.
“After each revelation,” the authors explain, “the Israeli public would again express surprise at the amorality, indecency, or stupidity of the young soldier in question, with the indiscretion explained as a matter of personal circumstance (age, familial context, or social background).”
All about Israel
Even supposedly critical Israeli voices, such as liberal Zionist group Peace Now, responded to such incidents by focusing on Israel.
Ignoring Palestinian victims of abuse, they described Abergil’s photos as “shocking evidence of the impact of the occupation on Israeli soldiers and Israeli society.”
Rather than opening up a conversation about military occupation and violence in the wake of these scandals, Kuntsman and Stein note that many Israeli commentators instead discussed information security, army social media rules, and online privacy issues.
Tellingly, the headline of one article asked, “Is Facebook to blame?”
As such, Kuntsman and Stein convincingly argue that social media itself serves as an alibi for the occupation. By blaming Facebook instead of Abergil, and talking about social media instead of state violence, Israel was able to keep its “public secret” under wraps.
In the wake of the recent viral video of a soldier choke-holding a child at gunpoint in the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh, and subsequent efforts by pro-Israel commentators to discredit its authenticity, the chapter on “digital suspicion” seems especially relevant.
The authors use this term to refer to Israeli accusations that digital images and videos depicting Palestinian suffering have been manipulated.
Such charges first emerged during Israel’s 2006 bombing of Lebanon, and were largely made by journalists and experts. But during later attacks on Gaza, average citizens became more active in leveling claims of digital tampering.
As this shift occurred, the authors argue that technical evidence and meticulous image inspection declined in importance, with accusations of manipulation becoming an almost automatic Zionist response.
Moreover, some pro-Israeli social media users began to tie allegations of digital deceit to more essential claims of national fraudulence: “Of course the picture is fake, everything they have is fake, they are a fake People,” claimed one such online commentator on an image of a children’s funeral in Gaza, cited in the book.
Importantly, Kuntsman and Stein contextualize “digital suspicion” within a long history of Zionist rejections of Palestinian testimony. Even before the digital age, the authors note, some supporters of Israel argued that an infamous video of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Dura’s slaying by a sniper’s bullet in the first weeks of the second intifada was a hoax.
Viewed through a wide historical lens, accusations of image tampering are the latest articulation of a discourse of suspicion which dates back to denial of the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
With many commentators focusing solely on the “newness” of social media technologies, Kuntsman and Stein deserve praise here for pointing out continuities between past and present.
Kuntsman and Stein also tackle “selfie militarism,” a concept used to describe smartphone-era forms of “military souvenir photography” by Israeli soldiers. The term is slightly vague, since it is not exclusively applied to self-portraits, but rather to a variety of soldier-produced media.
These include videos of Palestinians being forced to perform by the army, a sadistic Instagram photo of a young boy in a sniper’s crosshairs, and a Facebook solidarity campaign for a soldier caught on camera behaving violently toward Palestinian teens.
Each of these phenomena could have merited a chapter of its own. As it is, readers may find themselves craving a tighter focus. In particular, the disturbing trend of “photographer-perpetrators” – individuals who record their own violence for circulation online – demands further analysis.
Such themes emerge again in the afterword, where the authors note that the images and videos they compiled form “a perpetrators’ archive, a chronicle of self-documented Israeli racism and militarism on social media.”
They suggest that this archive, “with its potential longevity and retrievability, might yield political alternatives,” “wor[k] against Israeli legacies of forgetting and erasure,” or “ope[n] the possibility for Israeli accountability.”
Perhaps, in the long-term, this will prove correct. Yet despite all this evidence online, there is currently no credible mechanism to achieve justice for Palestinian victims of Israeli violence. One wonders, then, if the digital archive is merely a testament to Israeli impunity.
Even so, Digital Militarism is a fascinating and unsettling book – a laudable documentation of how state violence has seeped into everyday Israeli social media, and of the deep militarization of that society as it colonizes the Palestinian people.
Robin Jones is an intern at Mada al-Carmel, a Palestinian applied social research organization in Haifa.