All things told, it’s been a bad week for Israel’s public image. On Tuesday, the country’s top court approved the deportation of the local Human Rights Watch representative. Over the weekend, a video featuring an Israeli soldier shooting an unarmed Palestinian man with a sponge-tipped bullet went viral on Twitter. The video, apparently taken from a cell phone, shows the man adhering to instructions being called out by the soldiers just off-camera, ordering him to walk away from them with his hands behind his head. The man makes it about fifty feet before a muffled gunshot is heard, and he clutches his back in pain, screaming as he falls to the ground. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the soldier who fired the shot was arrested about a year ago, shortly after the incident occurred, and the judge presiding over the case “said the officer apparently shot the Palestinian ‘as a dubious form of entertainment.’”
Speaking generally, these sorts of incidents are par for the course for the Israeli government. An extremely paranoid variety of right-wing politics rules the day there, and administering a military occupation over several million Palestinians naturally involves human rights abuses. This is, after all, why the Israeli government cares so much about propaganda and attacking its critics. There’s even a Hebrew word for the practice of “making the case” for Israel — hasbara — a rough translation of which in English is, “explanation.”
Though the Israeli government’s most devious and effective tactics to thwart its opponents come through political lobbying and financing shadow campaigns, the country has long prided itself on practicing the art of hasbara. The start of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political celebrity began in Washington and at the United Nations, where he became a fixture on American cable news for telegenically advocating on behalf of the Israeli government. But that was decades ago. These days, publicly making the case for Israel requires denying an increasingly obvious series of crimes: the routine destruction and perpetual poverty of Gaza, the denial of basic civil rights to Palestinians in the West Bank, and a political culture riven with corruption (Netanyahu is presently staring down multiple indictments of fraud and bribery).
The best and worst place to see what hasbara looks like these days is on Twitter, at the official English-language account of the Israeli Defense Forces.
🐢WATCH: Look at what this Israeli firefighter found among the devastation caused by the arson balloons that Hamas launches from Gaza into Israel. 8,000+ acres burnt, 1000s of animals killed - Hamas must be held accountable. @Greenpeace@PETApic.twitter.com/KoO3ASF1ef— Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) October 24, 2018
The account has been online and active for a bit over a decade now, and was previously called “IDF spokesperson.” It was created in January 2009, around the time that Netanyahu took office and as Israel was wrapping up Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, a campaign that killed about 1,400 Palestinians and a dozen Israelis.
Initially, the IDF account sent formulaic updates about what was happening on the ground, from the perspective of an occupying power.
Israeli civilian lightly injured + vehicle damaged when Palestinians hurled rocks @ him near Teqoa— Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) February 17, 2010
~81 aid trucks crossed into Gaza strip today. Erez Xing open— Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) February 10, 2010
In time, the IDF figured out a more effective way to use Twitter, which was to toggle between #inspiration content and outright propaganda:
Protecting the environment is vital to our future. Every single one of us can make a difference. pic.twitter.com/wIwBjj1ckX— Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) December 21, 2015
These days, the IDF appears to have figured out what looks like its final form, which is something like Denny’s account crossed with what the LiveJournal page of the British army in India might have looked like at the height of the Raj:
The perfect place to be vegan doesn't exi- pic.twitter.com/TxPRExAz4M— Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) November 1, 2019
The IDF Twitter account, as it is operated today, is a master of the form of trollish propaganda. The traditional hasbara toolkit was to assemble a series of arguments about the threat the Israeli government faces from terrorists and unfriendly neighboring Arab states. These were then buttressed with questionable claims about the positive influence of Israel on the world — the technology for instant messaging! cherry tomatoes! gender equality! — meant to suggest that Israel’s critics hate Israel so much, they would deprive the world of all these marvelous inventions.
On Twitter, the IDF account, with its million-plus followers, takes it a step further. In addition to the usual hasbara claims, there’s a particularly deranged strain of “influencer” in the account’s voice. There are camouflage make-up tutorials and parodies of the intro to Friends alongside boasts of foiled terrorist attacks and constant reminders of the threats that Israelis purportedly face on a daily basis.
In a way that it is not intended, these posts do give great insight into how the IDF functions. The Israeli military is a tremendously large bureaucracy, given that conscription is mandatory, which means that there are far too many young people with nothing to do. In the 2014 film Zero Motivation, this bureaucracy leads its protagonists to extreme boredom and a sense of purposelessness (which is pretty close to reality). And so, like any large bureaucracy, as the IDF searches for reasons to justify a scale excessive to its operational purpose (administering military occupation), it winds up investing resources in parody promo videos filmed in the heart of Tel Aviv.
The audience for content like this is, obviously, not people like me. More than anything it’s meant to reinforce the feelings of attachment that many people (Jews and not Jews) feel toward Israel and the Israeli government; it’s a formulation that expresses itself as something like ”falafel is tasty, Israel is America’s friend, and Jerusalem should be the undivided capital of the Jewish people.” But more than that, the IDF account presents a surreal exercise in what military propaganda can look like when dressed up as social media influencing, with a message of empowerment (“Being a good soldier is about character, bravery, friendship & determination. Not gender.”). It’s a direct contrast to the dominant mode of what right-wing politics on the internet looks like today: shit-posting.
Occasionally, I wonder what it would look like if the IDF’s Twitter account were to ever directly acknowledge the atrocities committed by the Israeli military. Consider the shooting of a Palestinian man that was mentioned earlier. If Israeli military representatives were forced to address this episode on Twitter, which, again, would almost certainly never happen, they would likely have pointed out that the Border Patrol officer who fired the shot was a woman. And they would have likely asked: in what other country do women get to participate in human rights abuses alongside men?