The online battle between Israelis, Palestinians and their respective supporters came under increasing scrutiny this week, after the spread of racial hatred appeared to contribute to the latest regional crisis.
As Israelis read about their disappearance, Palestinian media outlets spread stories suggesting that the kidnapping may have been staged, or that it was a hoax by the boys themselves.
When the Israeli manhunt closed cities, with hundreds arrested, thousands raided and up to ten Palestinians killed, the online tension escalated. And when the boys’ bodies were subsequently found, it led to an ensuing fervour.
On Twitter, IDF soldiers (pictured, right) joined other Israelis, posting images of themselves calling for “revenge”, while cartoons portraying Israelis as warmongers were circulated by Palestinian groups.
On YouTube, inflammatory videos were uploaded, including Israeli Jews marching in Jerusalem shouting “death to Arabs” and Israeli police beating a Palestinian protester unconscious.
On Facebook, prominent figures used their personal pages to call for vengeance. Rabbi Noam Perel, leader of youth group Bnei Akiva, called for “Palestinian blood” and Michael Ben Ari, a former Knesset Member and head of Otzma LeYisrael, urged thousands of his Facebook followers to join riots in Jerusalem, where Palestinians were being dragged from cars and beaten.
Meanwhile, a proliferation of Facebook groups sprang up, with over 35,000 people joining a group of Israelis “demanding revenge”.
“That’s a big number, especially for a small country,” said Ben Hartman, a J-Post correspondent and social media commentator.
“It’s pretty bad this time. There are new elements, like the soldiers posting, but in general people shouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “We’ve had it here [in Israel] for years. Every time there’s a rocket, we have guys saying ‘let’s flatten Gaza.’ It’s bad now because of the nature of the crime, the wait, the emotion that went into the search. But as a phenomenon, it’s not new.”
“First we saw a lot from the ultra-Kahanist groups, calling for death to Arabs,” says Fiyaz Mughal, founder of Faith Matters, which monitors faith-hate and prejudice online.
“But then, in the 48 hours after the boy was killed, we had a whole lot of anti-Semitic messages register, including some blood libels,” he said.
“Both sides have been fomenting hatred and violence. This isn’t the usual suspects, opposing a two-state solution or whatever, this is much harder, much more aggressive.”
The grisly murder, which led to another surge of hate messages, was condemned from every corner of the Jewish world.
“It’s impossible to describe the intensity of the incitement absorbed by these youthful murderers,” said prize-winning Israeli commentator Shlomi Eldar. “What poison stopped them seeing Arabs as human beings? And how did all this fall under the radar of the Shin Bet and the police?”
As leaders from all sides appealed for calm, analysts picked over the online wreckage. Twitter hashtags such as #GazaUnderAttack, tracking Israel’s response, registered on the web’s Richter Scale, with over 375,000 tweets.
Others, such as #StopKillingOurBoys, were also taken up with vigour.
“Many of these images are not from the latest conflict and not even from Gaza,” reads a BBC report. “Some date as far back as 2009 and others are from conflicts in Syria and Iraq.”
With Israel ramping up for another major assault on Gaza, have we seen the last of the hatred?
The online hatred has still has not reached the levels seen during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, says Mughal, but what has developed is “a kind of cumulative extremism whereby one side cements and builds upon the hatred of the other, reinforcing it”.
He added: “That’s exactly what’s happening now. It’s really marked and significant, with extremists on both sides. The middle ground is just left wearing tin hats.”