The nature of modern warfare is quite different from classic confrontation, we now have imbalanced wars between full-fledged armies and armed movements where no clear victor emerges. Against the backdrop of recent confrontations from Jerusalem to Gaza, the two sides waged a brutal war on social networks and through the media. Social media became a battleground, with the Palestinian and Arab side betting on a shift in Western public opinion spurred by the onslaught of shocking images. However, such a shift remained relative, because of Hamas and its allies rewriting the narrative of the confrontation from a peaceful intifada in Jerusalem to a missile bombardment from Gaza (and the subsequent Israeli violent response), re-polarizing Western public opinion, which is usually sympathetic to the Israeli narrative while condemning the extremism of Palestinian movements tied to external agendas.
Therefore, the debate about the behavior of the Facebook administration or about the importance of sharing scenes of civilian suffering, excessive repression and destruction, will not radically change the positions of countries and peoples. Rather, media confrontations require credibility in reporting news as well as a coherent narrative linked to political realism and not to an outdated ideological logic. Especially since linking the Palestinian issue to the agendas of non-Arab regional powers, most notably Iran, will only further fuel the conflict at the behest of the Palestinians, while giving the Israeli side, especially its extremists, the pretext for further denial of the Palestinian right to exist.
During the confrontations in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the interior of Israel and the 2021 Gaza war, Israelis and Palestinians fought a relentless war on social media, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and others, posting pictures and videos, some of them misleading or dated. In contemporary wars with the digital revolution and electronic warfare, there are some legal restrictions, but spaces of freedom have moved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the virtual world, and this conflict has become more intense with increased use of the Internet and smart phones.
Debates over wording and terminology is another manifestation of the media battle. International news agencies and Western media presented the recent war as a "new surge of violence", while Palestinian supporters emphasized that the fight was for "justice and freedom." As for the popular Western notion regarding the sectarian nature of the conflict, seeing it as a battle between Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews, it is losing traction in certain circles that support the movement for the liberation of the Palestinian people against "a new form of colonialism." But the leadership of the Islamic Hamas movement in the military operations, and their connection to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which calls for the demise of Israel, do not help bring about a major shift in Western public opinion.
The Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood issue sheds light on the human and legal dimension of Palestinian rights and its impact on world public opinion. Celebrities with Arab or Muslim roots, as well as sympathizers of the Palestinian cause, helped highlight Palestinian narrative on grievance that challenges the historical Israeli propaganda.
Social media battles varied, as there is a circulating census saying that there are 4 billion hashtags in support of a free Palestine, an incredible number that points to broadening global support, but the extent of the influence on public opinion trends from the United States to Europe, Canada and Australia is not related only to scenes on the ground, but with multiple data, including those related to developments within those same countries and systems.
If we take the United States, we find that the younger generation does not read, in most cases, the major newspapers and does not watch channels such as CNN or Fox News. Instead, they get their news from social media, and they see, for example, directly what is happening on the ground in the Al-Aqsa Mosque and in the neighborhoods of Jerusalem. And since there is a deep American division between evangelical Christians and supporters of Israel on the one hand, and people of color and leftists in support of the Palestinians on the other hand, this was reflected in the Israeli narrative that was prevalent and began to highlight the issue of Palestinian rights among youth and ethnic minorities. Through Bernie Sanders’s current, the left in the Democratic Party and some representatives of the middle class in it, a shift took place against Israeli policy that did not deeply affect the Biden administration’s pro-Israel options, but prompted the president to put pressure on Netanyahu to reach a ceasefire and prevent a ground war. However, it can be said that the limited shift in American public opinion did not come primarily from the shocking images or from the social media battle, but rather was a reflection of the deep rift established during the Trump era and was carried over to the early Biden era.
As for Western and Northern Europe, the presence of Muslims living in those countries has dominated the movements supporting the Palestinians. The Middle East is no longer a priority for the European left, which is focused on its internal issues. As for the right wing, which was accused of anti-Semitism in previous periods, transformations took place in favor of Israel, especially within Marine Le Pen's party in France and similar parties from Hungary to Germany. Thus, in general, the shift in European public opinion was not major, as a centrist discourse prevailed, which considers that the current conflict is the result of the deep political crisis in Israel and within the Palestinian movement, and the rise of the national and religious identity that dominates the two camps.
In conclusion, we see that in the battle for hearts and minds, in the imbalanced conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, there are no clear winners or losers as in conventional wars, and that battles in virtual space will continue for as long as justice and humanity are not established in the crisis in the Middle East.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Arab.