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New Texts Out Now: Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca L. Stein, Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age

[Cover of Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca L. Stein, [Cover of Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca L. Stein, "Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age"]

Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca L. Stein, Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2015.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca L. Stein (AK & RLS): Our research began in the aftermath of 2008-2009 Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip, a bloody military campaign that marked the Israeli military’s first efforts to employ social media as PR tools. As Jadaliyya readers may recall, the military began experimenting with YouTube during this time, chiefly videos of their aerial bombardment of Gaza shot from the vantage of the weapon, employed to justify and sanitize the ongoing assault. The military deemed this a substantial media success, lauding these efforts as some of the first official military engagements with social media in any geopolitical context, while social media pundits mocked the military’s ineptitude on popular networking platforms. This was a foundational moment in what we would henceforth call “digital militarism,” the beginnings of Israeli military experimentation with social media as a PR tool. These efforts would expand and develop considerably during subsequent years; soon, social media would occupy the center of the military’s PR and self-branding projects.

Our book was still in its initial stages during the Arab revolts of 2011. Like other observers at the time, we were dissatisfied with “Facebook Revolution” as an explanatory narrative for these popular uprisings. Our project was enlivened by this moment; we realized that the Israeli case could be employed to counter this anemic narrative by illustrating the myriad ways that social media could function as everyday tools of militarism and authoritarian rule, a phenomenon we were watching unfold and expand in the context of Israel’s occupation.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AK & RLS: We focus on a concept we term “digital militarism.” The phrase refers to the ways that social media tools, technologies, and practices can be employed in the service of militant projects—both by state and everyday civilian users. Digital militarism is a broad and flexible concept, with wide global applicability, but we consider the ways it has unfolded in the context of Israel’s occupation. We are particularly interested in the ordinary forms of digital militarism that we see unfolding in the hands of everyday Israeli users, the ways that militant nationalism takes shape through conventional modes of social media engagement. For example, our concluding chapter focuses on a phenomenon that we term “selfie militarism.” Here, we look at the ways that routine selfie conventions were used by Jewish Israelis to mount calls for bloody revenge against Palestinians in the lead-up to the 2014 Gaza incursion. At work is the interplay between two seemingly incongruous forms: the selfie and violent calls for retaliation. This interplay is increasingly common in Israel today. This is the subject of our book.

Take an older example, an infamous episode from the Israeli context. In 2010, an Israeli female soldier used Facebook to archive and share images of herself posed—smiling and in a sexy pout—with blindfolded and bound Palestinians. This was the first viral incident of digital militarism in the Israeli context, and we use it as a barometer to consider a field that would expand massively afterwards. These kinds of digital militarism are now ordinary and predictable. Today, digital militarism is part and parcel of the everyday fabric of Israeli social media.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research

RLS: My previous work focused on the politics of Israeli popular culture at key moments in Israel’s relationship to the broader Middle East, its military occupation, and the legacy of the Nakba. Itineraries in Conflict: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Political Lives of Tourism studied these issues through the lens of Jewish Israeli tourist practices of the 1990s in the context of the Oslo Process of this decade. New forms of Israeli tourism were exploding during this period: Israeli Jews were traveling to Jordan (following the 1994 peace treaty), into Palestinian villages in Northern Israel, and to Palestinian restaurants in the Jerusalem area. By the end of this decade, Jewish Israelis were visiting the jazz clubs of Ramallah and the casinos of Jericho, and returning to West Bank sites and attractions they had enjoyed prior to the first Palestinian uprising (1987-1991). Tourism functioned as what postcolonial theorist Mary Louise Pratt has called a “contact zone”—namely, contact crosscut by extreme power disparities. In these tourist sites, histories and present-day dynamics of Israeli colonialism, military occupation, and racism came to the fore in interesting and sometimes explosive ways, all mediated by the consumer-tourist encounter. Neither tourism nor popular culture more generally, I have argued, is peripheral to politics. Rather, it is often a crucial staging ground for political processes. In the Israeli case, it has often been an engine of militant colonial politics.

AK: My prior work focused on the relations between violence and the Internet, considering how homophobia, racism, or nationalism can be manifested in digital domains in the hands of ordinary users. For example, in Figurations of Violence and Belonging: Queerness, Migranthood, and Nationalism in Cyberspace and Beyond, I argued that on-line violence—whether racial, sexual, or national—is neither a mere reflection, nor a cause of violent political realities “on the ground.” Rather, it reverberates between various on- and off-line spaces, bodies, communities, and psyches, creating multiple, and at times unpredictable, affects. In Figurations and later publications, I have also explored the role affect and emotions in shaping digital politics and the ways wars and conflicts across the globe are experienced by ordinary users through digital communication tools (for example, when on-line audiences become witnesses, bystanders, or joyful spectators of wartime violence).

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AK & RLS: First, a moment of shameless self-promotion: this book is short, highly readable, and great for undergraduates! Please assign it! In all seriousness, we wrote Digital Militarism with the undergraduate classroom in mind, particularly courses on Israel/Palestine and Middle East studies, digital culture, and media studies. We believe that this case study, and the notion of “digital militarism,” has wide applicability. Today, we see the interplay between militarism and social media unfolding in political theaters across the globe. We hope the book will be interesting reading for all folks interested in the ways that social media has changed global political theaters and modes of everyday citizen engagement with politics.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

RLS: My current research builds on Digital Militarism through a study of the role of new photographic technologies within the context of Israel’s occupation. Cameras have long been employed as tools of Israeli military rule. But the digital age has altered this dynamic, changing its form and scale. Today, many soldiers are carrying smartphones into service in their vest pockets. Many are posting and sharing images and video on social media directly from the field of military operations, and often in violation of army policy. And many are using these photographic technologies as improvisational tools of military rule—as when personal iPhone cameras are used by the security services to photograph Palestinian young men and boys during house-to-house raids (an increasingly common phenomenon, stocking the military’s growing visual database). Today, we are also seeing formal changes to the military’s camera engagement, as with the newly inaugurated “combat camera” team (used for the first time during the 2014 Gaza incursion). I am interested in how these new cameras are changing the way that the military conducts its occupation, even as it is changing the ways that Israeli activists and human rights workers struggle against it. These new optical technologies, prolific and available to all, are also changing the Israeli view of the occupation—literally shifting the ways that Israelis see military rule as a visual field (now seeable, even by amateur photographers and viewers, at the scale of the pixel). Building on Digital Militarism, this project is interested in the interplay between the political theater of military occupation and the terms of a changing technological playing field.

AK: I continue my ongoing interest in digital technologies as they shape the political everyday, in two new projects. The first, “Selfie Citizenship,” builds on Digital Militarism and in particular, on our analysis of “Selfie Militarism,” and further explores the increasing mobilization of the selfie genre for various forms of social and political protests, in the Middle East and beyond. The iconography of such projects is often deceivingly similar, yet their motivations, causes, and context vary—some stand against police abuse or military occupation, others call for clearer cities or smaller classrooms, yet others promote a charitable cause or a form of social awareness, and there are those that incite violence or call for a war. I propose that these forms of selfie actions should be understood as a new techno-social practice that generates particular forms of spectatorial intimacies and performative affects that capitalize on individual visibility and agency, at the time when citizenship is increasingly governed through facial recognition and large-scale dataization. My other project unravels classed, racial, and geo-political politics of digital refusal—individual and collective initiatives to disengage from digital technologies, platforms, and devices, in favor of alternative modes of interpersonal and collective relations.

J: How does your book coincide with or differ from previous scholarship on the Israeli occupation?

AK & RLS: This is not the standard story of the Israeli occupation. Both of us have long been involved in activist campaigns against the Israeli occupation. This book is fueled by that activist project. But it is primarily a story about the very ordinary and banal ways in which Jewish Israelis live with, and perpetuate, Israeli military rule in the Palestinian territories through every day cultural practices—in this case, social media. We believe that this story about Israel’s occupation—about its reach into the heart of everyday Israeli living, beyond the territories—has been left in the shadows of much academic scholarship. Digital Militarism, then, is less about the spectacular violence of military occupation, than about the terms of everyday Israeli living with and participating in military occupation. We are arguing that social media is the domain of ordinary Israeli complicity with occupation—complicity evident not only in the actions of the Israeli solider deployed in the West Bank, but also in the everyday networking practices of the Jewish resident of cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, for whom the occupation seems to exist at something of a distance from her life. We are interested in the ways that such Israeli everymen and women are retooling global social media culture to do militarized work—work that takes the form of selfie aesthetics, memes, and debates over digital doctoring. The means may be sanitized, but the message and sometimes effects can be violent—as evident in the social media “revenge” campaign of last summer (when Israelis used Facebook to call for violent revenge against Palestinians following the murder of three settler youth). Digital Militarism aims to shine a light on this ordinary domain of military occupation by other means.

Excerpt from Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age

From “When Instagram Went to War”

In November 2012, during the Israeli aerial assault on the Gaza Strip of that year, many Israeli soldiers went into service with smartphones in their pockets, checking and updating their social media accounts from army installations as they awaited the start of the ground invasion.[1] The social networking field of the wartime moment was crowded and diverse, including users from a range of geographical locations and political standpoints. Official military spokespersons from Israel and Hamas joined thousands of civilian users from Israel, the Palestinian territories, and the international arena, anti-occupation activists numbering heavy among them, all of whom employed popular apps as political tools in what the global media called Israel’s “first social media war.”[2] The mobile uploads from individual soldiers differed markedly from the official output of the Israeli military, with its emphasis on PR didacticism and the production of an institutional record. And they contrasted sharply with the viral content from Gaza’s Palestinian residents that saturated global social networks, amateur documentation of the unfolding Israeli military devastation that was delivered to global users in the familiar staccato of digital real time. Israeli soldiers, for their part, chiefly employed social media to personalize the military campaign, to share images of mundane military scenes and army ephemera as they waited for the onset of the ground incursion (which would, in fact, never occur).

During these days of waiting, Israeli soldiers uploaded a series of selfies to their personal Instagram accounts.[3] In most respects, it was a standard catalogue of smartphone self-portraiture, including casual snapshots of uniformed young men and women smiling for the camera in compliance with Instagram’s investment in the beauty of the ordinary, featuring everyday moments of military life in uniform: riding on a bus, posing for an elevator self-portrait, embracing a friend, all framed by the extended temporality of waiting, waiting to deploy (see Figures 1.1–1.4).[4] With the aid of retro filters, and their familiar aesthetics of the out of time and place, these mobile snapshots produced an exquisite and highly sanitized visual archive of soldiering. As such, they offered a digital twist on the long history of Israeli nationalist sentimentality and associated iconography, in which war is simultaneously heroized and aestheticized while disassociated from resultant violence.[5] Through the genre of the selfie, this iconography was mobilized to serve the needs of self-branding, with war configured as meme and employed as a tool of micro-celebrity.[6] These were images of militarism but not of battle, beautified bodies free of dirt or blood, at a considerable remove from the carnage of the concurrent military operation. The accompanying hashtag strings gestured toward the violence that the visual field had cleansed: #kill #sexy #nevergiveup #sleep #m16 #instalove #happy and #war #army #soldier #artillery #fire #friends #cool #sad #israel #idf #instamood. Read together, the selfies and their hashtags generated unsettling intersections between the patriotic and the intimate, the lethal and the playful, the army and the algorithm.[7]

This book explores such intersections between social media and militarism: between ordinary networking practices and wartime violence, between the pleasure of commonplace digital acts and the brutality of Israel’s military occupation.[8] We term this phenomenon digital militarism. In our rendering, digital militarism describes the process by which digital communication platforms and consumer practices have, over the course of the first two decades of the twenty-first century, become militarized tools in the hands of state and nonstate actors, both in the field of military operations and in civilian frameworks. In the broadest terms, the digital of digital militarism is a highly varied domain of new technologies and technological aptitudes, including high-tech weaponry and cyberwarfare—a field in which the Israeli military proudly excels. Our investigation focuses chiefly on the role of social media and enabling mobile technologies within this framework, with attention to how they have been mobilized by Israeli state and civilian “networked publics” as tools, sites, and languages of militarist engagement.[9] Hence, we use digital militarism to refer to the extension of militarized culture into social media domains often deemed beyond the reach of state violence, and to the impact of militarization on everyday Israeli social networking. We are proposing, then, that both terms in this equation shape the other: namely, that the evolving terms of social media usage impact the field of Israeli militarism, just as shifts in Israeli militarization are altering the social media field. Digital militarism allows us to think beyond the paradigm of the repressive Israeli military state in an effort to make visible the varied and often ordinary ways in which Israel’s military regime and pervasive culture of militarism are perpetuated and sustained.

[FIGURE 1.1. ISRAELI SOLDIER SELFIES I, INSTAGRAM, 2012. Israeli soldiers pose for selfies while awaiting
their deployment for a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. SOURCE:]




The militarization of social media is by no means unique to the Israeli context. Rather, as is by now something of a truism, social media have been integrated into military operations in contexts across the globe, with platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube employed for wartime PR, as tools of surveillance and counter-insurgency, and as archives of perpetrator violence. In the social media age, contemporary warfare and armed conflicts have increasingly encompassed digital communication platforms—a process that has enlarged theaters of military operation and changed our understanding of the political function and political ends of digital technologies.[10] In recent years we have seen the increasing incorporation of social media into the military toolboxes of Western states, employed to win hearts and minds and conduct counter-terrorism. Today, violent conflicts between states, or with stateless groups, take shape on social networks—digital battlefields deemed vital to the success of conventional military operations on the ground. Today, we expect the presence of smartphones, computers, and video-enabled cameras on the battlefield; the integration of social networking into military arsenals; the real-time Twitter and Facebook updates from war zones; the violent footage filmed and shared by the perpetrators themselves. Digital militarism was once an aberration, located on the periphery of the Internet and its associated social worlds. By 2014, it had become commonplace.[11]

Although digital militarism has diverse geopolitical coordinates, this book studies the ways it takes shape in the contemporary Israeli context and the history of its emergence.[12] We argue that within a global culture of mobile capture and viral circulation, Israeli militarism is being reframed and recruited by ordinary Israeli users and their international supporters as part of the social media everyday. In Israel today, mainstream militarized politics are being interwoven with global networking protocols: their grammars, aesthetic norms, structures of feeling, and modes of consumer engagement. On platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, the classic terms and aesthetics of Zionist settler-nationalism are being reshaped in compliance with networking norms. Like any global phenomenon, this interplay between militarism and social media necessarily takes highly localized forms, a process by which global protocols are retooled to articulate national needs. It is precisely this process of localization that concerns us here.

While broader histories of Israeli militarism inform this book, we focus on how digital militarism functions in the context of Israel’s ongoing military occupation of the Palestinian territories. In particular, we are interested in the ways that social networking practices are mediating the everyday Israeli relationship to military rule. Our objects of analysis, then, include the Israeli soldier in the occupied West Bank or Gaza Strip with a smartphone in his or her pocket for whom routine army operations have been rebranded as a potential “share.” They include official Israeli military bodies endeavoring to incorporate social media into the state’s toolbox. And they include ordinary Jewish Israeli civilians and pro-Israeli supporters outside the nation-state who consume and circulate digital images of Israel’s occupation from the comfort of their mobile devices, often while the military operation is unfolding. In all of these instances, ordinary social media practices and users are being conscripted into the state’s military project. And in the process, state violence is being practiced through other means—through acts of “liking” and “sharing,” through the visual syntax of the selfie, through the structures of feeling that social networking make uniquely possible.[13]

A central tension lies at the core of digital militarism: namely, the ways it renders the Israeli occupation at once palpable and out of reach, both visible and invisible. On the one hand, mobile technologies have made the spectacle of state violence instantly available, often in real time, in the palm of the hand on smartphone screens. As such, digital militarism has the potential to extend Israel’s occupation into the most private Israeli spaces and times, the most mundane networking contexts, zones of Internet activity typically deemed beyond the purview of Israel’s military projects. At the same time, the patina of the digital everyday can minimize and banalize this violence, obscuring its visibility and mitigating its impact. Such tensions undergird this study.


[1] This was the first war in which Israeli soldiers deployed in large numbers with smartphones. We discuss the history of soldier mobile and smartphone usage, and military policy governing this usage, in Chapter Two. In 2014, the Israeli military unveiled new plans for “military grade” encrypted smartphones for soldier use. See Ziv, “Israel’s Defense Ministry Signs Deal for Military-Grade Smartphones.”

[2] Peled, “The First Social Media War Between Israel and Gaza.”

[3] The Oxford English Dictionary defines selfie as “A photographic self-portrait; esp. one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media” (“Selfie, N.”). However, there is considerable disagreement among scholars regarding the parameters of the selfie genre. In our rendering, we include portraits taken by others but shared by the subject in question on their social networks. The growing popularity in Israel of so-called selfie sticks, enabling mobile self-portraiture from arm’s length, has further complicated the genre. We discuss Israeli soldier selfies in Chapter Five. This particular Instagram archive can be found at Notopoulos, “Surreal Instagrams from Israel Defense Forces Soldiers.” For discussion of the broader history and use of cameras by soldiers within larger geopolitical contexts, see Struk, Private Pictures.

[4] According to 2013 public statements from the Israel military, this Instagram archive was in violation of the army’s emerging social media policy; historically, this policy has been rarely enforced. For a recent articulation of such policy as it pertains to Facebook, see Cohen, “A New Directive Will Impose Restrictions IDF Soldiers’ Use of Facebook.”

[5] For further discussion of iconographies of Israeli soldiering, see Brownfield-Stein, Fantasy of the State; Brownfield-Stein, “Visual Representations of IDF Women Soldiers and ‘Civil-Militarism’ in Israel”; and Yosef, Beyond Flesh. On the longer legacy of Israeli soldiering as a project of self-making, see Sasson-Levy, “Individual Bodies, Collective State Interests.”

[6] The me-centered character of such mobile self-portrait images is part of the broader trend of micro-celebrity and self-branding that increasingly characterizes social media usage among young people. See Senft, “Microcelebrity and the Branded Self.” For an excellent analysis of the Israeli military’s embrace of branding culture, see Lemmey, “Devastation in Meatspace.”

[7] The US blogger responsible for the widespread circulation of these images would call them “surreal.” Notopoulos, “Surreal Instagrams from Defense Forces Soldiers.”

[8] Our analysis is informed by recent and foundational scholarship on the Israeli military occupation, particularly scholarship attentive to the role of cultural technologies, discursive formations, and modes of governmentality in the workings of military rule. See, for example, Azoulay and Ophir, The One-State Condition; Gordon, Israel’s Occupation; Weizman, Hollow Land; and Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils. We also draw on literature on the interplay between militarism and the entertainment industry and on the mediated aesthetics of war. New and foundational writings include Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography; Derian, Virtuous War; Dyer-Witheford and De Peuter, Games of Empire; Mirzoeff, Watching Babylon; Morris, Believing Is Seeing; Stahl,Militainment, Inc.; and Virilio, War and Cinema. For a fuller genealogy of the existing scholarship on Israeli militarism, see note 37, p. 110.

[9] We borrow the phrase “networked publics,” which we employ throughout this book, from social media scholar danah boyd. She defines it thusly: “Networked publics are publics that are restructured by networked technologies. As such, they are simultaneously (1) the space constructed through networked technologies and (2) the imagined community that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology and practice.” boyd, It’s Complicated, 8. For a broader discussion of Internet cultures and digital communications in Israel, including the use of such tools by the Israeli left activist community, see Ashuri, “(Web)sites of Memory and the Rise of Moral Mnemonic Agents”; Doron and Lev-On, New Media, Politics and Society in Israel; Hijazi-Omari and Ribak, “Playing with Fire”; and Schejter and Tirosh, “Social Media New and Old in the Al-’Arakeeb Conflict.” During the years chronicled in this book, the Israeli left, veterans of Internet use for political ends, relied heavily on social media, their ability to self-publish providing a means by which to circumvent the constrained ideological terms of the national media, with social media increasingly functioning as a counter-archive of the military occupation.

[10] Karatzogianni, The Politics of Cyberconflict; Karatzogianni, “Introduction”; Kozaryn, “Tactical Internet Key to Digital Battlefield.”

[11] Recent scholarly research on the militarization of social media includes Alper, “War on Instagram”; Chancey, “New Media”; Hjorth and Pink, “New Visualities and the Digital Wayfarer”; Kaplan, “The Biopolitics of Technoculture in the Mumbai Attacks”; Lawson, “The US Military’s Social Media Civil War”; Lynch, Freelon, and Aday, Syria’s Socially Mediated Civil War; Morozov, The Net Delusion; Pötzsch, “The Emergence of iWar”; and Susca, “Why We Still Fight.” Recent popular writings on this topic are also extensive, including Berkman, “Russia Blocks Pro-Ukraine Groups on Social Media”; Gregory, “Inside Putin’s Campaign of Social Media Trolling and Faked Ukrainian Crimes”; “How Researchers Use Social Media to Map the Conflict in Syria”; Kantrowitz, “The United States’ Social Media Plan to Keep Syria’s Chemical Weapons Safe”; and McBain, “In Syria, the Internet Has Become Just Another Battleground”; “Military Announces New Social Media Policy”; “The Role of Social Media in the Syrian Civil War.”

[12] This book does not address the use of digital media by Palestinians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Israel, or the Palestinian Diaspora, although our work is informed by scholarship on these matters. See, for example, Abu-Zayyad, “Human Rights, the Internet and Social Media”; Aouragh, “Confined Offline”; Aouragh, Palestine Online; Aouragh, “Virtual Intifada”; Asthana and Havandjian, “Youth Media Imaginaries in Palestine”; Cook, “Palestinian Social Media Campaigns Unlike Egyptian, Tunisian Counterparts”; Junka-Aikio, “Late Modern Subjects of Colonial Occupation”; Khalili, “Virtual Nation”; Sienkiewicz, “Out of Control”; and Tawil-Souri, “Digital Occupation.” For a broader discussion of Internet culture in the context of the Arab Israeli conflict, see Marmura, Hegemony in the Digital Age; Sucharov and Sasley, “Blogging Identities on Israel/Palestine”; and Alsaafin, “Palestinians Turn to Facebook in Fight Against Occupation.” On the state of the Palestinian ITC sector in general, see Alsaafin, “Palestinians Turn to Facebook in Fight Against Occupation”; Musleh, “Maath Musleh on Social Media and Palestine”; Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) Reviews the Current Use of Technology in the Palestinian Territory on the Occasion of World Information Society Day; and Palestinian ICT Sector 2.0.

[13] On militarism by other means, see Clough, “War by Other Means.”

[Excerpted from Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca L. Stein, Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age, by permission of the authors. © 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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