Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Social #netWARks- new dimension, or crass distraction?

The internet is swamped with talk of the 'new dimension' of warfare that this latest Gaza, Israel fighting has spawned. From the twittersphere to traditional broadsheets articles are spewing forth on the potential importance of this radical new battleground. One of the most commonly cited exchanges of 'tweet bombs', this between the official twitter accounts of Israel's military and Hamas' military wing-

But these are just the more official combatants circling each other in this much vaunted cyber dual. There are armies of bloggers, facebookers and tweeters lining up to take a side and do battle, mostly under fluttering hashtag banners like #GazaUnderAttack or #IsraelUnderFire-

There have even been fake accounts set up, further contributing to the chaotic online struggle. Look carefully at the twitter handle of this user. 'Spokeperson' instead of 'Spokesperson' on the genuine Israeli Defence Force account. Having copied the look of Israel's official military voice, look what this platform is used to broadcast-

But what does all this swirling storm of comment actually consist of? Many of the tweets sent by supporters of the various camps call for support and try and to justify their side's case. Others attack the other side or criticise those that support them. And some others celebrate or lament some reported, all too often gossiped, victory or defeat, for example the Israeli jet 'shot down' on the internet which strangely never materialised in real life.

Once upon a time a reporter was surrounded by the details of the story, struggled to pick and choose which elements to include and which to leave out for the audience, and that was pretty much it. Now that pyramid if you like, a mass of raw detail on the bottom distilled into a selective report at the top, has metamorphosed. It hasn't been turned upside down, because the mass of detail is still there on the ground, rather than pulled out into a giant block.

The usual myriad of details, depending on how deep you want to look, is still being fed in. But that mass is also more easily fed out through a vastly expanding number of outlets. In a way this is good, breaking the stranglehold of traditional media on the 'truth'. However it's now fed out fast, with little checking and often shot through with rumour, comment and emotion. Does it deserve the title, 'a new dimension of warfare'. Hardly.

By its nature this mass of social media publishing, on the surface united in support of a single side or cause, is not organised. It doesn't have a clear or unified objective. And it doesn't contribute to the overall aim of a campaign. In fact, far from well representing their cause many social media warriors end up creating a scatological mob. Their 'arguments' swirl around like a murmuration of starlings.

Even worse, many of the barrage of comments are just plain crass. Ignoring many of the human tragedies unfolding in Gaza and Israel, comments like this-

or this exchange-

There are 'conversations' on the web far, far more hateful than this. They make the whole thing seem like some sick ideological game. Even if there is mention of the dead, the rabid fury with which dedicated groups or individuals tweet their cause sets them permanently onto 'output' mode and seems to disconnect them further from reality. It's easy to tweet or post. But all chatter seems to fade into the background when stories of real human tragedy present themselves. Like the BBC Arabic journalist in Gaza who's baby, among other family members, was killed in an Israeli airstrike. It rather puts it all into context to see pictures of him, not filled with rage but sobbing with heartbreak, asking only, "what did my son do to die like this? What was his mistake? He is 10 or 11 months old. What did he do?  

War is intimately connected with society. War is a political act. Many of these social media comments are highly, even obscenely, politically charged.  But with such grave consequences on the ground, and such a need for calm, clear headed compromise from both sides, it begs the question, is this frenzy of shouting down and denouncement really 'social media', or in fact something highly anti-social?

Monday, 19 November 2012

Shadows over Ashkelon- A snapshot of the Israel-Gaza war 2012

Looking out to Gaza and the war beyond.

It was dusk, and a few kilometres away from Gaza the sounds of war drift across to me. The whirr of the drones and graze of the planes never stops, their jet streams looping over the bombarded city. The thud of the bombs and missiles are loud and regular. They can’t but lift one’s head from what you are doing and send a thought racing about who might have been underneath it. As of writing the death toll in Gaza stands at over 100, both militants and civilians. The pictures of children caught up in the random terror of aerial bombardment will not stop provoking shock.

The death toll in Israel stands at 3 as of writing. Yet it is luck that means it’s not been more. Israeli spokespeople will find it increasingly difficult to justify the rising civilian casualties in Gaza. They still have a point though when they say that Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza are really only targeting civilians and they are trying their best to target only militants. The same law of averages that means militant rockets from Gaza mostly miss the towns they are fired at, or are too weak or faulty to cause casualties also means the powerful bombs and missiles dropped on Gaza, no matter how high tech, are steadily pushing up the collateral damage cost.

But war is war. Both sides try to inflict damage on the other. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups, hateful though their objectives are, are trying to hit back at Israel the only way they can. So here it was. As I strolled down Histadrut street in Ashkelon in the south of Israel in came the latest rocket attack.

The missiles snaking up to meet, and this time intercept, the incoming rockets are from Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ missile defence system. Israelis usually have between 10 and 15 seconds to scramble for a shelter when the sirens start wailing. The iron dome teams, and any journalists like me who want to cover the aerial dual of physics, parabolas, rocket vectors and statistical chance have even less time.  

The entrance to the staircase of one of the shelters Israelis flee to when the sirens sound.

As night falls Hamas, who struggle to aim their rockets well enough by day, largely stop firing. With the background noise of the town gone, and only a quiet few kilometres of scrubland separating me from Gaza, the sounds of the fighting are distilled through the darkness. Around 2 am heavy plane engines drone in over Ashkelon. A few minutes later a series of huge booms roll back to me. Then a pattern of three small blasts, followed by three huge ones, repeating several times. It sounds like artillery fire. Israeli gunboats stand off the Gazan coast blasting targets to order from aerial spotters. It was likely them, I thought.

Another worry was preying on many minds though that night. The statements Israeli generals make about what will come next are rarely calm. 75,000 reservists were ready to be sent into battle. And the latest statement from an Israeli commander indicated the ground attack would come that night. Was it, I wondered, the opening volleys of the ground offensive? These worries are frequent and I’m sure they aren’t felt by me alone.

I rose early and headed down to the Iron dome launchers themselves. A morning volley of rockets was becoming routine, around 8-9am. Once there I found out that no ground offensive had started, also that the Hamas rockets were expected soon. Sure enough my heartbeat, as all the others in Ashkelon rose in tempo to the waking siren as Iron dome burned into action. But it didn’t seem such a clear engagement as the day before. Although some aerial reports sound out, other iron dome missiles seem to fumble blindly about the sky. 

This time, Israel lost the war of the vectors. The Hamas rocket had made it through reportedly hitting a house on, where else, Histadrut street. As I ran back through this unfamiliar corner of Israel my surroundings became more known to me. I realised the block of flats around which the crowds of reporters and police were gathering was a mere 100 metres from where I had stood and filmed the evening before.

Thankfully there was no one at home and the rocket didn’t explode. But it did punch through the roof of one apartment into another and nearly into a third. For Israelis too, as much as it may look like it, this war is not a game.

A ceasefire would be a start. Then at least we are back to the over sensitive politics, crushing historical burden, unreasonable demands and deforming social and economic effects that militarisation has on the region. But as many times as it has fruitlessly been said before, a solution to the old fashioned territorial politics underlying all of this is the only thing that will stop the recurrence of the terrorism and the terrifying bombardments.   

The hole in the apartment block roof where the rocket entered. It continued down through  one of the top floor flats and into another.