Site becomes key front in Gaza propaganda war

BEIRUT — As the military war in the Gaza strip enters its third week, Israel is pressing forward to win the image war in cyberspace — and its weapon of choice is YouTube.

Hundreds of thousands of viewers have been drawn to channels on YouTube launched by the Israeli government and military. The uploaded videos explain the military operation — in English and Arabic — and demonstrate with aerial footage the air force’s “precision” and “pinpoint” strikes against Hamas targets.

About 900 Palestinians and 13 Israelis have died since Israel began air strikes on Gaza on Dec. 27 with the stated aim of stopping militant Palestinian org. Hamas from launching rockets, according to international media reports. Israeli state media have since rolled out new-media tools — Twitter feeds, blogs and video logs — to control the war’s message amid mounting international condemnation of the Palestinian death toll.

The Israeli Defense Forces’ media arm joined YouTube two days into its air strikes to document “the IDF’s humane action and operational success in Operation Cast Lead.” Its videos have been viewed well over 1 million times. With almost 18,000 subscribers — people who choose to get notified every time the IDF uploads a new video — it is the most subscribed-to channel on YouTube this month.

“The IDF has become a highly viewed channel on YouTube because our users think their content is worth watching — whether they agree with the IDF or not,” Steve Grove, YouTube’s head of news and politics, tells Variety. YouTube content is largely regulated by users themselves, who push videos up the “most viewed” list by playing them and passing them around, while flagging inappropriate content for YouTube to review.

YouTube has been used by governments and militaries since its inception, Grove says. The U.K. prime minister’s office and the U.S. military have channels on the site. The multinational force in Iraq set up a YouTube channel in 2007 to bolster support for Operation Iraqi Freedom. “When governments and militaries come to YouTube, they are opening up a conversation with citizens and giving them an access point through which to connect,” Grove says.

“Whether you agree with their message or not is up to you, but we think having the information there is a good thing.”

Arab governments have been slow to harness new media to engage citizens and influence public opinion, giving Israel the lead in open platforms such as YouTube in which, Grove says, “any voice has the same chance of being heard.”

Queen Rania of Jordan took the lead among Arab states last year, earning plaudits for her YouTube channel dedicated to tackling stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims. But the channel has largely kept silent on Gaza, except for one clip of an interview with Al Jazeera in which the Queen appeals to international aid and humanitarian agencies to intervene on behalf of “a crisis of human dignity.”

Al Jazeera has built up a strong presence on YouTube with more than 40,000 subscribers and 2.5 million views to its Al Jazeera English channel.

“I think we’ve reached a point now where if you want to get a message out there, you can’t afford not to be on sites like YouTube,” Grove says. “You’re seeing that in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict now.”

Conversation and credibility

The IDF videos have started a conversation — though not on the IDF channel itself, where text comments on the videos have been disabled.

A Gaza reporter for the Associated Press said he saw his home destroyed by a bomb — on YouTube. “The Israeli army issued a video of the bombing of the Hamas-run government compound, which it posted on YouTube,” wrote Ibrahim Barzak in an AP report. “In it, I also can see my home being destroyed, and I watch it obsessively.”

The video is in the top five most viewed on the IDF channel.

Also spurring commentary is the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs Arabic YouTube channel, in which a spokesman’s Arabic statements have generated pages of text comments and video responses. The channel was created last year — ahead of Israel’s landmark prisoner-swap deal with Hezbollah in Lebanon — “to create dialogue as well as to bypass the limitations we are facing when it comes to getting airtime on Arab TV channels,” MFA spokesman Ofir Gendelman told Variety in early December.

Gendelman, who is acting director of the MFA’s Arab Press and Public Affairs Division, has uploaded almost a video per day since the start of the war in Gaza, in which he speaks to Arabs through clips titled “Why did Israel undertake the military operation in Gaza?” and “When will Israel end its operation?” But the most popular videos — the aerial shots on the IDF channel — are also the most contested. In these videos, English annotation guides viewers through murky night shots, and red circles edited into the footage enclose what is described in text as Hamas targets.

Flagged by YouTube users as inappropriate content, some of these videos were removed, reviewed and then re-uploaded within the next day. Since then, IDF videos on YouTube have been called into question on two accounts.

Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, followed by the BBC, reported that a video showing a missile strike on a truck loaded with “Hamas grad missiles” was actually a truck owned by a Gaza resident. Ahmed Sansur said his family was moving oxygen cylinders from his damaged workshop.

In the second incident, the IDF released footage on Jan. 6 — the day Israel shelled two U.N.-run schools — of mortar bombs being shot from a U.N. school. The video, released as evidence that the IDF was retaliating after specific shots, was shown to date to October 2007. The video has been marked as such on YouTube, and the IDF has also since backed down from its claim that the attack was a response to mortars fired from within the school compound.

But the 2007 video is still being used on the IDF channel in reference to the Jan. 6 attack. The old footage plays in the background of a video “message to the Gaza people,” delivered by an IDF captain in Arabic. The video received 11,000 views in its first 24 hours on the site.

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