Selfie Militarism

Rebecca L. Stein and Adi Kuntsman

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In late April, an amateur video of Israeli army aggression in the occupied West Bank began to circulate online. The content was neither new nor surprising: a soldier shoving, kicking and pointing his gun at unarmed Palestinian teenagers in Hebron’s old city. What was new, however, was the form and scale of the public response. When the soldier was suspended, the Israeli public mobilised on social media in unprecedented numbers to support their ‘brother in arms’. Pundits called it the army’s first ‘digital rebellion’. Thousands of soldiers uploaded mobile snapshots of themselves holding handwritten protest banners: ‘We are with David the Nahalite’ (the suspended soldier was in the Nahal Infantry Brigade). In some of the selfies, the message was written on the soldiers’ half-naked bodies; in others it was spelled out in ammunition. The meme then spread to civilians, who uploaded pictures of themselves at home or at work, with pets and household objects rather than guns.

The army announced that the soldier had been suspended for two earlier violent incidents, not the confrontation on the video. But the online protests continued, against more general targets:Palestinian provocation; the vulnerability of Israeli soldiers in the Occupied Territories. People urged the army to protect ‘the nation’s children’. Parents threatened to remove their sons from military service. Soldiers complained about the army’s ‘policy of restraint’, arguing that it left them vulnerable in the face of a hostile enemy.

In many respects, none of this was unusual. The public response replayed a recurrent Israeli political discourse about the military occupation – an inversion whereby the armed Israeli soldier, not the Palestinian civilian population, is figured as the chief victim. And displays of patriotic militarism are commonplace in Israel, voiced with particular vehemence during military operations in the Occupied Territories, after Palestinian attacks, or in the face of internal or international criticism of Israeli military policy. What was remarkable about this incident, then, was chiefly its form and scale. It demonstrated the ease with which social media could be mobilised to advance a national militarist agenda. Only a few years ago, what we term ‘digital militarism’ was viewed as a novelty in Israel, either lauded by the media as a story of technological innovation – when the Israeli military experimented with social networking for PR purposes – or condemned in the language of scandalous exception, when soldiers’ private Facebook posts depicting military abuse were exposed.These days, digital militarism is normal.

For its part, ‘selfie militarism’ of the kind evident in the latest viral scandal has a short but considerable history in Israel. The most famous instance is the case of Eden Abergil, a former soldier whose smiling portraits in front of bound and blindfolded Palestinian detainees, uploaded to her open-access Facebook page, went viral in 2010. The Abergil scandal was followed by others: Instagram self-portraits of scantily clad male soldiers, their genitals masked by weapons; smartphone snapshots of smiling recruits, their arms around blindfolded Palestinian detainees; images of female soldiers wearing only their weapons and ammunition, posing provocatively for the camera (‘giving the term GazaStrip new meaning’, in the words of the Israeli media). Selfie militarism isn’t unique to Israel, as recent images from Thailand make evident. Rather, the selfie – typically decried as a mode of a political narcissism and self-branding – is being retooled in various ways across the globe.

The latest round of Israeli selfie militarism shares an iconography with its predecessors – weapons, ammunition, nudity – but with a difference: in most of the recent uploads, the soldiers’ faces are concealed. They did it to avoid official retribution, but the anonymity is also a sign of the complex interplay between visibility and invisibility in the field of Israeli digital militarism.As images of military brutality proliferate on Israeli social networks, the occupation becomes at once increasingly present and increasingly obscured. Soldiers’ photographs are bringing the occupied West Bank into the Israeli metropolis. At the same time, the coupling of the occupation and social media conventions can make the violence banal, obscuring it through the patina of the digital everyday. The latest military selfies, with their missing faces, also replay a bigger Israeli fantasy of obfuscation: the fantasy of an absent perpetrator.