People gather for vigil for the 3 missing Israeli teens
Jerusalem - Arab Today
As Israel presses a massive manhunt for three teens believed kidnapped by Hamas, Israeli and Palestinian activists are fighting an online battle over their disappearance under the hashtag #BringBackOurBoys.
Just hours after the teenagers' disappearance was made public on Friday, Israeli activists set up a Facebook page by that name which by Wednesday had received nearly 100,000 "likes."
There, supporters of the campaign have posted thousands of messages or "selfies" from across the world showing sympathisers holding up handmade notices or banners calling for the release of the three students, two of whom are minors.
Gilad Shaer and Naftali Frenkel, both 16, and 19-year-old Eyal Ifrach, went missing late Thursday from a popular hitchhiking spot near Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the southern West Bank.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Hamas militants of kidnapping them, and ordered a major crackdown on the Islamist movement's West Bank network.
Over the past six days, thousands of Israeli troops have been combing the West Bank, arresting some 240 Palestinians in a sweep dubbed "Operation Brother's Keeper."
Ever at the ready, the army's new media has been at the forefront of the online battle, publicising multiple updates, pictures, videos and links, all bearing the hashtag #BringBackOurBoys.
The slogan, which has even founds its way offline onto billboards and buses, was copied from the Nigerian social media campaign "BringBackOurGirls" which attracted worldwide support for the plight of 200 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram Islamists two months ago.
- Hijacking the hashtag -
"Our mission is to put pressure on public opinion and raise awareness," explains Elizabeth Zlatkis, a 26-year-old communications student who started the online PR campaign.
But a Palestinian counter-campaign wasn't long in coming, with the hashtag immediately used to flag up the rising number of Palestinian children arrested by the Israeli army.
Figures published by the Palestinian prisoner rights group Addameer show that last month, troops arrested 196 children.
"Israel made a mistake in using this hashtag which is easy to hijack," said Rami Abu Abdo, a Palestinian online activist.
"There is a great deal of documentation about the army's arrest of Palestinian minors."
"They are using the hashtag that we started," said Zlatkis, welcoming the publicity but insisting that the Israeli campaign "has no political or activist aims."
She says she makes sure that no hate-filled comments are published on the page.
But those with a less tolerant attitude were also quick to join the battle for public opinion in cyberspace, with the appearance on Friday of a Hebrew-language Facebook page called: "Until the youths come home, kill a terrorist every hour."
"The only way to bring the teens back is to instill fear in our enemies and make them understand that they will suffer. We support executing a terrorist every hour until the teens are released," the page explains in English.
So far, it has received close to 20,000 likes and was still online on Wednesday, despite calls for it to be shut down.
The Israeli press have flagged up a Palestinian online campaign of support for the kidnappers, with backers holding up three fingers to represent each of the missing teenagers.