By LAUREN E. BOHN
JERUSALEM (AP) - The hostilities between Israel and Hamas have found a new battleground: social media.
The Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas militants have exchanged fiery tweets throughout the fighting in a separate war to influence public opinion.
Shortly after it launched its campaign Wednesday by killing Hamas' top military commander Ahmed Jabari, the Israeli military's media office announced a "widespread campaign on terror sites & operatives in the (hash)Gaza Strip" on its Twitter account.
It then posted a 10-second black-and-white video of the airstrike on its official YouTube page. Google Inc., which owns YouTube, removed the video for a time early Thursday, but reconsidered and restored it.
A tweet from (at)idfspokesperson said: "We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead."
Hamas, under its (at)AlQassamBrigade English-language account, which is largely considered to be the official Twitter account for its military wing, fired back: "Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves)."
The Israeli military's media office Twitter account, which gained more than 50,000 followers in just 24 hours, is just one of various online platforms used to relay real-time information to the public, sometimes even before it is conveyed to reporters.
The IDF news desk's email signature reads like a catalog for new media platforms, including links to its YouTube channel, Facebook page and Flickr photo albums. The military also just opened a Tumblr account in English and plans to launch one in Spanish.
Following the assassination, the military tweeted a graphically designed photograph of Jabari, with a red backdrop and capitalized block letters reading "ELIMINATED," drawing both celebration and fierce criticism from a range of users. Throughout the operation, the military and its supporters have tweeted with the hashtag "IsraelUnderFire," while many Palestinians have tweeted with a separate hashtag "GazaUnderAttack."
The operation, launched after days of rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel, marks the most intense round of violence since Israel and Hamas waged a three-week war four years ago.
Palestinian militants fired more rockets into Israel on Thursday, killing three people and striking the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Israeli strikes have killed 15 Palestinians.
Military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich said that in the four years since Israel and Hamas last dueled, an "additional war zone" developed on the internet.
"I'm sort of addicted to Twitter, you can say. It's a great tool to release information without the touch of editors' hands," she said. "Militaries are usually closed operations, but we're doing the opposite."
Leibovich is also the head of a two-month-old "Interactive Media" branch of the IDF, staffed with around 30 soldiers trained in writing and graphic-design skills. As an indicator of the significance of the department to the military, Leibovich said she'll be leaving her current spokeswoman's post in February to focus solely on running the interactive branch.
The Hamas media wing has dramatically improved its outreach from the days when their loyalists used to scrawl graffiti on walls in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas' militant wing keeps a frequently updated Facebook page and a multilanguage website. They tend to update reporters of rocket fire through an SMS distribution list.
Nader Elkhuzundar, a prolific 25-year-old Twitter user from Gaza, said the recent social media barrage reached "a new level of psychological war."
"Twitter gives us a voice, but there's also a lot of misinformation at the same time. It's a tool you need to be careful using because there's a lot of noise out there," he said.
Although there were tweets directed at the IDF's Twitter account claiming that the Israeli government and military websites were hacked and taken down Thursday, the Israeli military denied it.
"The IDF blog was down for a very short period, less than hour in the afternoon, only due to heavy traffic," according to Eytan Buchman, an Israeli military spokesman.
Israel's ministry of public diplomacy also started a "Special Operations Center," a virtual situation room of sorts, working with Israeli bloggers and volunteers to "get Israeli's message out to the world virtually, to Arabs as well, through social media and other web platforms," said spokesman Gal Ilan.
Tamir Sheafer, chair of the political communication program at Hebrew University, said the embrace of social media by both sides indicates recognition that "you don't win conflicts like this one on the ground; you win it through public opinion."
But the use of social media for public diplomacy is also a double-edged sword, says Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington.
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