As demonstrated by the recent spike in violence, the terror group Hamas continues to pose a threat to the lives of Israeli and Palestinian citizens. In May, Hamas fired more than 3,300 rockets at Israeli cities and towns, killing 10 people during an 11-day confrontation that that ended in a ceasefire on May 21. Yet, the group that has controlled the Gaza Strip since seizing power in 2007 uses the levers of modern media to portray itself as the victim.
Founded in the late 1980s, Hamas is considered a terror organization by most Western governments. In 2007, Hamas seized control over the Gaza Strip, from where it has continued its war against Israel. Throughout the entirety of the conflict, especially during recent tensions, Israeli authorities and Hamas have been in an “intense public relations battle.”
Yet, Hamas utilizes an array of communication channels, from word of mouth to social media, in order to relentlessly spread their anti-Israel initiative. According to Moeen Koa of the University of Westminster, “the most effective channel used by Hamas locally is the mosques, and the most effective internationally is the satellite TV channels and social media.”
Hamas launched its official English-language website in 2015. Also available in Arabic, the site broadcasts information from Hamas’s point of view, official statements from Hamas members, opinion pieces with titles like “Israel will pull out all the stops to avoid facing war crimes charges,” and news updates such as “Hamas hails plan to probe Israeli violations against Palestinians.”
Aside from directly communicating with the public through their website, Hamas also disseminates its message through spokesmen, including Abu Ubaida, the spokesman of the Al-Qassam Brigade, the armed wing of Hamas.
One way in which Hamas spokespeople reach out to the general public is through social media, specifically Twitter and Facebook. Although Twitter and Facebook currently prevent Hamas from having an official page, individual members of the organization, such as their leader Ismail Haniyeh, are still able to broadcast on behalf of the whole organization on Twitter and Instagram. Abdelatif al-Qanou, a Hamas spokesman, for example, posted on Twitter: “The West Bank’s youth and men will remain rebels against the occupation and continue to clash with it until it is banished.” These comments demonstrate a lack of effort and effective moderation from Facebook and Twitter and a willingness to allow the terror group to misuse their platforms to further their agenda. Although Facebook bans some organizations from using their platform, such as the Hamas-affiliated Shehab news, members like Ismail Haniyeh can remain active despite continuously violating community standards, such as through glorifying violence. This gap in platform security and defence allows Hamas to strategically and systematically use social media to further their movement, as exemplified by the fact that Hamas’s public relations division has its own “situation room” solely dedicated to coordinating tweets.
Another way Al-Qassam spokespeople spread the Hamas message to the general public is through official statements on televised news or by speaking directly to news reporters who are reporting from the Gaza Strip. Some news agencies that have televised interviews with Hamas spokespeople are Deutsche Welle News, ABC News, and Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera is a Qatari news agency whose recent coverage of the conflict has been praised by Hamas. In addition, Hamas is affiliated with several news agencies, such as Shehab News. This grants them the power to control media coverage even when not directly owning the news agency.
Similarly, Hamas has managed to get its message to the general public through photography. News photographers from various international agencies often work directly in Gaza to capture raw, unfiltered footage. This footage is regularly and strategically used by Hamas to transmit messages in pictures. For example, Hamas leader Khalil al-Hayya, after the ceasefire was announced, was photographed in Gaza flashing a V for victory sign, a picture that gained widespread public distribution and essentially claimed that Hamas won the recent confrontation with Israel.
As demonstrated by the strategic, systematic network of communication utilized by Hamas, “public opinion is a crucial element to this conflict.” Accordingly, the organization attempts to control any information that undermines or contradicts their agenda. For example, the Hamas interior ministry recently issued guidelines for anyone using social media in the Gaza Strip, which restricts information that can be discussed with outsiders. In addition to these guidelines, Hamas uses intimidation to control journalists who report to international news agencies from within Gaza. Several journalists, for example, have been “threatened and even expelled” from Gaza, such as Abu Dagga from the French newspaper Liberation. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal’s Nick Casey deleted a tweet about how Hamas was using Shifa Hospital as a base of operations. Although Abu Dagga and Nick Casey are unable to validate claims of intimidation themselves, freelance Italian journalist Gabriele Barbati backed up the claims that Hamas threatens reporters. Sadly, as a result, news outlets in the Gaza Strip largely cooperate with Hamas, which suppresses balanced reporting.
Hamas threatens the lives of Palestinian and Israeli citizens while aiming to promote a positive image to the wider international public, skillfully using a victimization narrative. News media, and in particular large social media platforms, which can have a global impact on public opinion, must do their part by publishing reliable and transparent information. This also includes adequate defenses against the misuse of their services by international terror groups such as Hamas. Banning only the group from using their platforms but allowing the spokespersons of its military wing, the most violent part of the organization, to spread their ideology globally is irresponsible and negligent.