Hamas uses Telegram to give its version of war with Israel

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In the chaotic aftermath of an attack Tuesday on a Gaza hospital, as Israeli and Palestinian officials traded blame for an aerial barrage that killed at least 500 people, the militant group Hamas quickly turned to its primary messaging platform: the online chat app Telegram.

Israel’s military had blamed the blast on misfired rockets from another Palestinian militant group. But over a rapid-fire series of nearly two dozen messages in Arabic and English, Hamas told its online audience of hundreds of thousands that the “massacre” had come from an Israeli airstrike and that the country and its Western allies were at fault for “genocide.”

Gaza Now, a Hamas-linked Telegram channel with 1.4 million subscribers, posted photos of what appeared to be children killed or badly injured in the strike. The official Hamas channel urged its supporters, in one Arabic post, to “take direct action, show anger. … Do not wait for tomorrow.”

Responsibility for the hospital blast has not been definitively determined. But in the days since its forces stormed across southern Israel, Hamas has deployed an unprecedented and multipronged social media campaign to tell its version of the war with Israel, seeking to persuade the world that its militants are freedom fighters justified in their killing and abduction of Israeli civilians.

Banned on most major social networks, the group is using unmoderated messaging platforms and grisly first-person video with a level of sophistication not seen in past conflicts.

Hamas has shared Telegram messages designed to strengthen supporters’ resolve, stir up anti-Israel rage in neighboring countries, defend its militants’ brutality and induce sympathy to the plight of Gaza, the coastal strip housing 2 million Palestinians under Hamas’s control. Follower counts for those channels have tripled since the attack, according to figures compiled by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

In one video posted to Hamas’s Telegram channel, camouflaged men hefting assault rifles push a crying baby in a stroller outside a ransacked Israeli home. The clip, said to display “Hamas fighters showing compassion for children,” has been viewed 200,000 times.

But the group also has worked to use the internet as a tool for terror and antisemitism, building on a playbook pioneered by the Islamic State with the aim of instilling fear, winning attention and marshaling support for potentially more attacks to come.

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In some videos, Hamas militants show off the bloodied hostages they’ve taken, the long-range missiles they’ve built and the training drills they’ve run with rocket launchers and machine guns. One video is captioned in Hebrew: “This is what awaits you when you enter Gaza.”

“Hamas came armed with magazines [for its rifles] but also the full battery on their phone,” said Achiya Schatz, the director of FakeReporter, an Israeli watchdog group that tracks online disinformation and hate speech. “They fully understood that what they were going for is a terrorist attack not just in the real world, but online … to glorify their act and to control the narrative.”

Hamas’s social media strategy was evident in the initial hours of its bloody assault when visceral footage from body-worn GoPro cameras quickly flooded its Telegram channels. In one clip, a militant points the camera at a body and says, “Time for photographs.”

In the days since, Hamas has continued using those channels to publish video monologues from political and military leaders, rally international supporters to take up arms and threaten to broadcast hostage executions. One channel has posted short video sound bites from Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s political leader living in exile in Qatar, while another has posted fundraising messages seeking donations in cryptocurrency.

Some of the videos show Hamas’s fighting force as ruthless and resourceful, and are edited to include dramatic soundtracks, title animations, slow-motion sequences and other professional touches. One video shows an action-movie-style training montage, while another uses footage recorded from underwater cameras and flying drones to show how militants refashioned pipelines into missiles.

Rita Katz, the executive director of SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks terror groups online, said Hamas’s channels were once a “boring” mix of photos showing rocket launches and killed fighters, known as “martyr reports.”

Since the ambush, however, the channels have shifted to publishing rapid-response statements and highly produced videos at all hours — a flow of wartime messaging and propaganda that Israeli supporters have described as psychological warfare.

“I have never ever seen the jihadi community, and probably also the far-right community, sharing so much from the Hamas channels,” she said. “It’s everywhere online. You can’t ignore it.”

Hamas is banned by Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and X, formerly known as Twitter. Many of its videos have nevertheless been reposted on X, which some experts said has been slow to take them down. The company said in a statement that it had recently removed hundreds of Hamas accounts.

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But the group posts its most violent videos and extreme messages directly to Telegram, where it has few concerns that they will be removed and where its audience numbers have soared. Its military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, now has more than 700,000 followers, up from 200,000 before the attack, and thousands of viewers there react with emojis to every message, such as the heart, fire and salute emojis.

Telegram did not respond to requests for comment, but its founder, the Russia-born billionaire Pavel Durov, said in a post Friday that the service did not “significantly amplify propaganda” and was instead a “unique source of firsthand information for researchers, journalists, and fact-checkers.”

“Earlier this week, Hamas used Telegram to warn civilians in [the Israeli city of] Ashkelon to leave the area ahead of their missile strikes,” he added. “Would shutting down their channel help save lives — or would it endanger more lives?”

Joel Finkelstein, co-founder of the research group Network Contagion Research Institute, said Hamas’s social media strategy took off two years ago during the 11-day war between Israel and the terrorist group. At that time, one of the top five hashtags to emerge globally about the conflict was #IsraeliCrimes, which Finkelstein said was boosted by extensive bot networks and fake accounts. Those accounts have continued to “prime the pump” since then with antisemitic content, possibly in preparation for the Oct. 7 attack, he said.

Hamas officials have not provided detail on how they run their social media operation. But the group’s continued 24/7 publication of videos and messages during the mass power and internet outages in Gaza has led some researchers to suspect it depends in part on international workers, perhaps in neighboring Lebanon or Qatar.

Hamas staffs a public relations office and runs media groups such as Al-Aqsa TV, a Gaza-based entertainment and propaganda network available via satellite and webcast.

The al-Qassam Brigades’ website is hosted by DigitalOcean, a cloud server provider headquartered in New York, domain records show. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

Ruslan Trad, a security researcher at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said the group’s online infrastructure operates more like a government bureaucracy than might be expected of a group such as the Islamic State.

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“Hamas has a strict and tested hierarchy divided by tasks; the organization has a social and military wing,” he said. “It’s more akin to a state structure than having a media team as a typical organization.”

Hamas also is using Telegram as a megaphone for its top brass. The spokesman for the Hamas’s military wing, who uses the name Abu Obaida, has posted several video statements, first, to threaten to broadcast executions of hostages and then, on Monday, to call the captives “our guests … we seek to protect.”

In the videos, his face is covered by a red checkered headdress called a kaffiyeh. A Hamas logo appears over his shoulder in the style of a TV news report.

Hamas also used the channel Monday to broadcast a video of one of its hostages, Mia Shem, a 21-year-old woman abducted from an all-night desert rave where at least 260 people were killed. In the video, Shem says thunder duress that the group had given her medical treatment, including a three-hour surgery to mend a severe arm injury.

“Please get us out of here as soon as possible,” she says in Hebrew. It’s unclear when the video was recorded. White House national security spokesman John Kirby said in an NBC News interview on Tuesday that it was a “propaganda video much more than it is proof of life.”

Hamas has recently worked to use Telegram as a strategic PR tool, urging its supporters to defend the group on their own accounts and thanking Russia for its support.

But the hours of video Hamas has collected and shared online also have been used by Israel to expose the group’s barbarism. The Israeli military on Monday released a gruesome video, compiling footage taken from Hamas’s body cameras and social media accounts, showing its militants murdering civilians, raiding homes, mutilating bodies and dragging away hostages.

Hamas has “always considered video jihad as one of their decisive weapons,” said a researcher at the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington-based group that tracks Hamas messaging, speaking on the condition of anonymity for security reasons. “They’ve always wanted to make sure they have educators and teachers and people of the media in what they call the ‘awakening of the masses.’ Now, with the involvement of social media, they have it.”

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