Why Are Israeli Defense Forces Soldiers Posting Thirst Traps on TikTok?
With her long, lush blond hair, almond-shaped blue eyes, and expertly manicured brows, influencer Natalia Fadeev bears a striking resemblance to model Gigi Hadid. On TikTok, where she’s racked up nearly a million followers, she’s mastered the art of the coquettish facial expression, balancing it with angles that show off her rear end. She’s cultivated a brand as an Airsoft shooting game enthusiast, maintaining a separate Instagram account under the handle @gunwaifu sponsored by a tactical gear store, and she regularly posts catgirl videos and kawaii (a Japanese-inspired cutesy aesthetic) cosplay on her TikTok page.
In addition to being well-versed in the art of monetizing her personal brand, Fadeev is a reservist in the Israel Defense Forces, and much of her page is devoted to pro-Israeli military content. Earlier this month, she posted a video of Israeli soldiers playing soccer with Palestinian children; in another, she dances and preens at the camera while the caption, “when they tried to destroy your nation but you ended up having one of the most powerful armies” flashes on-screen. In the context of the most recent turmoil in Gaza, which has left 13 Israelis and over 240 Palestinians dead, many criticized Fadeev’s content for making light of the Israeli military’s actions and attempting to put a sexy face on the conflict.
Fadeev has a long history of using her platform to spread what is essentially nationalist propaganda. She’s a member of the Alpha Gun Angels, an Israeli gun-modeling and social media marketing agency featuring buxom former and current IDF soldiers brandishing heavy military artillery while wearing crop tops and camo pants. And Fadeev, who did not respond to Rolling Stone‘s requests for comment, is not the only hot IDF soldier who’s gone viral for blatant pro-Israeli military cheerleading: last week, Yael Deri, who describes herself in her bio as a member of the Ta’oz battalion in the IDF, garnered controversy when a TikTok of her lip-synching to Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad saying, “What was that? I should kill everyone and escape?” while brandishing her gun and preening adorably at the camera went viral. Such content is interspersed with videos of her filming at what appear to be military checkpoints.
It’s not clear what the IDF’s official stance on such content is: though the military ostensibly has guidelines restricting “unbecoming online content,” Deri herself has been featured on the official IDF TikTok page, and her page is still active. (The IDF did not respond to a request for comment.) But it’s fair to say that IDF soldier thirst traps are part and parcel with the official IDF’s general strategy to use social media to win hearts and minds across the globe.
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The IDF is incredibly internet-savvy, jumping on trends, posting increasingly baffling memes, and putting its own spin on various internet phenomena. There’s even an IDF ASMR video on TikTok, featuring the dulcet tones of a gun clicking and a soldier polishing his boots. Such a strategy has basically been in place since the IDF’s 2008 Gaza incursion in the early days of YouTube, when they started posting footage of air strikes on their official channel, says Rebecca Stein, professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University and author of Screen Shots: State Violence on Camera in Israel and Palestine. At the time, the military had blocked media access to the Gaza strip, so the IDF’s social media unit had “a lot of control over the narrative,” says Stein, who spoke to members of the unit while researching her book. “They considered themselves pioneers in the language of social media, and that was important for them.”
The various social media accounts associated with the IDF have long traded in thirst traps, sometimes to absurdist effect. Last year, for instance, the IDF Twitter account mysteriously posted a context-free mirror selfie of a young woman in a tank top; it later said it tweeted the photo because it was used on a Hamas operative’s fake account to attempt to catfish and hack into Israeli soldiers’ phones, though many were skeptical of that explanation. But it has also been more explicit about using attractive young women to bolster its social media image and, in turn, foster sympathies abroad.
On its official TikTok page, the IDF has posted videos of beautiful female soldiers lip-syncing to Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” or marching in fatigues and doing dances to military music. “There is a long history within Israel of military iconography favoring the beauty in uniform as a nationalist symbol,” explains Stein. “The military is using it in new ways to meet the needs of the digital moment.” All of these thirst traps can create a disorienting experience for a young, horny, American progressive with pro-Palestinian sympathies — which, of course, is exactly the point.
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In using social media as a propaganda tool, the IDF is not particularly unique, as most countries’ militaries have established social media presences. “It’s the kind of thing a public can always find when a war comes under scrutiny,” says Roger Stahl, a professor at the University of Georgia and author of Militainment, Inc.: War, Media, and Popular Culture. But Israel is unique in terms of both its military’s strong focus on social media and its mandatory military service requirement, meaning its conscripts (who are between the ages of 18 and 21) are all young and well-versed in social media. “Israel is such a militaristic society, so there’s broader support for that kind of media, whereas in the U.S. things like [soldier dancing videos] don’t go viral in the same way,” says Sophia Goodfriend, a cultural anthropology PhD candidate at Duke currently based in Jerusalem.
The IDF’s TikTok account, which launched in 2020 and has garnered more than 90,000 followers, has been particularly active during the latest conflict in Gaza, in large part due to the platform being flooded with videos of people running away from Israeli strikes and the collapse of a high-rise building after an Israeli military attack. The proliferation of such footage has resulted in increased pro-Palestinian activism on the platform, with hashtags like #freepalestine garnering 5.6 billion views. With TikTok playing “a strong role” in this current conflict, says Goodfriend, the IDF has responded accordingly, pumping out multiple feel-good videos of soldiers from different units showing off their uniforms or being surprised with loved ones at the Gaza border.
It’s up for debate exactly how successful the IDF and its soldiers’ efforts at staving off social media uproar are. Though the violence has come to a temporary halt due to a ceasefire, the comments on the IDF’s most recent posts are largely negative and centered on the Israeli military’s myriad documented human rights abuses. “There’s been a major shift in the social media ecosystem, [and] Palestinian social media has gained global virality in a totally unprecedented way, which wasn’t the case in previous military campaigns,” says Stein. “We’re seeing this content and messaging is dwarfed by the scale of Palestinian social media usage and global solidarity. The military now recognizes they’ll never catch up, they’ll have to reinvent their PR strategy. It has failed.”
Still, even if many people do not feel a surge of Zionist patriotism at the sight of comely soldiers brandishing guns, plenty of people are into it. “No one wants to see these clowns,” says one comment on an official IDF TikTok featuring a montage of Israeli men making the heart sign and pointing to the IDF logo. “Show us the pretty girls with rifles please.”