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June 24, 2017

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Israel, Hamas battle over public opinion online

JERUSALEM--Beyond the boom of Israeli airstrikes and the stream of rockets fired from Gaza, Israel and Hamas are also battling to control the message emanating from this latest Israeli-Palestinian conflagration.

Using videos, Twitter, text messages, leaflets and phone calls, both sides have attempted to direct the tone of the fighting — for their own public, their opponent's population and for a global audience. Propaganda and psychological warfare are nothing new in battle, but technology and social media have exponentially increased the ability of each side to penetrate their intended audiences.

Each side has sought to tip the moral scale in its favor with an international audience. Israel has tried to make its case that it is defending its citizens from unprovoked attacks but taking steps to avoid killing civilians on the other side. Hamas has appealed to the world by pointing to the high civilian death toll from Israel's onslaught on Gaza.

Israel and Hamas are each addressing the other's populations as well.

Israel has pushed the message to Palestinians in Gaza that the territory's Hamas rulers are to blame for the bloodshed that's being wreaked. In phone calls that the military makes to Gazans to tell them to evacuate their homes before a strike, the recorded script in Arabic also tells them that Hamas is using them as human shields.

Hamas, in turn, has sent text messages directly to Israelis, warning them that the group will continue firing rockets at them until its demands — like the end of the long-stifling blockade of the tiny Gaza Strip — are met.

"This is a war over public opinion," said Yuval Dror, an expert in digital communications. "It's an inseparable part of battle in the modern age."

Israel launched the war on July 8 in response to heavy rocket fire out of Hamas-controlled Gaza. More than 600 Palestinians and 29 Israelis have been killed in the fighting, which escalated last week with the start of a ground offensive. The war over hearts and minds that has accompanied it has been just as dramatic.

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