JERUSALEM – It started with a social media campaign designed to raise awareness and support for three Israeli teenagers abducted a week ago in the West Bank.
However, as with much related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a twitter hashtag calling to "#BringBackOurBoys" quickly became a battleground.
Israelis and their supporters started tweeting images of themselves holding up signs reading #BringBackOurBoys – a take on the #BringBackOurGirls campaign used worldwide to highlight the kidnapping of nearly 300 schoolgirls by Islamist extremists in Nigeria.
Several Israelis, including a group trained to promote Israel, have claimed credit for the hashtag. Well-known Israelis, such as the former Soviet dissident and now chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, participated.
So did Sara Netanyahu, wife of Israel’s prime minister.
Palestinians and their supporters responded with images and the same slogan, but depicting their own youths killed or arrested – in their words kidnapped – by the Israeli military. (Israel does put Palestinian minors arrested for throwing rocks in adult prisons, though they are kept in a separate wing.)
As the flames raged on Twitter over whose suffering is greater, Facebook users joined the fray, with the appearance of a page calling for "one Palestinian terrorist to be killed every hour until the youths are returned." In the eight days since it was created, the page has garnered more than 20,400 likes and no shortage of hate messages from both sides. (It remains unclear who is behind it).
Palestinian supporters started another social media campaign labeled "the Three Shalits," a reference to the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held hostage by Islamic militant group Hamas in Gaza for five years and was eventually released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners. There have been cartoons and even a celebratory cake with a three-fingered gesture on it.
Each has been quick to denounce the other for incitement and hate speech. In Israel, mainstream media picked up on the three-finger gesture, putting together a photo gallery with images of Palestinians, including young children, giving the salute. However, some of the images of three-finger salutes circulating on the Internet appear to have been taken from a completely different campaign last year to support the Palestinian heartthrob/crooner on the “Arab Idol” singing contest show, Mohammed Assaf, who was “number 3” in the televised competition. On the Palestinian side, photographs of uniformed young men who look similar to one of the kidnapped teenagers are being widely circulated on social media with captions that cast doubt as to whether the three missing Israelis actually soldiers.
Outside of the virtual realm, the verbal battles and conflicting narratives are no less heated. On Tuesday, Israeli parliamentarian Hanin Zoabi, who describes herself as Israeli-Palestinian, drew fire for suggesting (she says she was misquoted) on an Israeli radio station that those who kidnapped the youths might not be terrorists but instead carried out the abductions out of frustration at Israel's treatment of Palestinians. Zoabi faced a storm of criticism from fellow parliamentarians and received so many threats that the Israeli legislature assigned her a bodyguard.