The Israeli Defense Forces took to its Twitter account Wednesday to announce "a widespread campaign on terror sites & operatives in the Gaza Strip" even as its jets began attacking.
Within minutes, Hamas, the group that controls Gaza, announced through its English-language account the assassination of its "top leader Ahmed Jabari" by "Israeli drones." Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Israel.
Social networking sites such as those operated by Twitter and Facebook have been used to energize political campaigns, promote movies, raise awareness and, in the Middle East, galvanize the popular revolutions of the Arab Spring. Now, Israel and Hamas have used them to exchange threats and report attacks in real-time to followers worldwide.
The IDF's Twitter account, one of several from the Israeli government commenting on the operation, promoted a blog with updates, "photos & videos all in one place." Within minutes of the strike on Jabari Wednesday, the IDF spokesman's office posted video of his car exploding on Google Inc.'s YouTube and it was circulating on Twitter.
At the start of day two of the conflict, the IDF posted, "Good morning to our friends in #America. While you were sleeping, 3 Israelis were killed when a rocket hit their house." On its YouTube channel, the IDF posted a video showing warning leaflets being dropped over civilian areas in Gaza and another on "what gives Israel the right to defend itself."
As Israeli jets Wednesday bombarded suspected missile facilities and other buildings in Gaza, the service run by San Francisco-based Twitter lit up with 140-character chronicles of the assault and the reaction. Most of the messages known as tweets were identified with #Gaza, a "hashtag" with a pound sign before a key word that lets those on Twitter search for information.
The two sides fought for public sympathy through the names they gave the operation. While Israeli tweeters called it #PillarOfDefense, Palestinians used #GazaUnderAttack.
The IDF's message-writers said the operation's main goals were to protect Israeli civilians and "cripple the terrorist infrastructure in the Gaza strip." Hamas tweeted Thursday, "#Israel's military kills #Palestinian children in cold blood in #Gaza."
The IDF tweeted about the number of rockets (768) that Gazans had fired into Israel since the beginning of 2012 and wrote of real-time success in damaging Hamas's "long-range missile capabilities" and underground weapons storage. The Israelis warned Hamas that "if necessary, the IDF is ready to initiate a ground operation in Gaza."
Hamas retaliated with tweets about hitting "Isnad Sofa base with 6 mortars in response on assassination of its leader #AhmedJabari."
Journalists weighed in too. Jon Donnison, the West Bank and Gaza correspondent for the BBC, reported Wednesday the "sound of gunfire across #Gaza. News of Ahmed Habari's killing being broadcast from mosques. Fear here is another war." A colleague's baby was later killed in a strike and he tweeted about that as well.
As airstrikes intensified yesterday, an IDF spokesman tweeted that "we recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces aboveground in the days ahead."
Hamas's @AlqassamBrigades account quickly retorted, "@idfspokesperson Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves."
In the democratic virtual world of Twitter, anyone can comment on a tweet, and many did. Someone identifying himself as Doug Pologe asked "in what way have your 'blessed hands' ever benefited the world?"
A man who said he was Joe Bua and whose profile indicated he is from San Diego, California, tweeted to spokesmen for both sides: "Twitter is not a diplomacy tool. Stop killing each other. I support neither of you."
People living inside Gaza and in the areas of southern Israel that border the Palestinian territory documented the operation in intense bursts.
Someone identifying himself as Moshe Kwiat tweeted to his followers "alarms going off in Be'er Sheva and Sderot," southern cities often hit by rocket fire. He had adopted the hashtag, #StopTheRockets.
A user calling herself Dima-Gaza from inside "Occupied Palestine-Gaza" sent out an early message that said "explosions are everywhere, non-stop explosions and Israeli warplanes are hovering over Gaza."
Later, Dima-Gaza tweeted, "PLEASE don't cut the electricity," and later still, "HUGE explosions #WTF."
Some writers expressed disgust at the way the operation was playing out in the virtual world.
Someone who said he was Joseph Dana and identified himself as a writer based in the Eastern Mediterranean, wrote,"Good lord. It's official, the Israeli army spokesperson has turned Gaza operation name into a hashtag #PillarOfDefense."