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November 11, 2009

Israel's propaganda and its war on Gaza

Dr. Amir Saeed

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On December 27, air strikes by Israel hit over 40 Gaza targets.

GazaOn December 27, air strikes by Israel hit over 40 Gaza targets.

According to early reports, the air strikes resulted in the bloodiest one-day death toll in 60 years of conflict between Israel and Palestine. Over two hundred people were killed in the first day alone. Between 1,166 and 1,417 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.

More than 400,000 Gazans were left without running water, 4,000 homes were destroyed or badly damaged, leaving tens of thousands of people homeless; 80 government buildings were hit. Both Israel and Hamas were accused of war crimes additionally Israel was accused of using illegal weapons and bombing UN buildings.

We will examine here how the Israeli government employed propaganda in terms of PR in the ‘traditional’ and new media to justify its aims.

To further compliment this research empirical work conducted by the authors via an email dialogue with Professor Noam Chomsky is also presented throughout the argument.

Arguably, the media represents a body of knowledge that shapes our understanding of the current affairs through the process of editing and relying on certain sources as ‘primary definers.’

Furthermore the increasing media dependency on PR sources has shown that the news content often favours dominant interests and ideologies. Even the rise of new media is increasingly influenced by dominant PR strategy.

Controlling the images and words used to explain the conflict has become an important extension of the struggle.

At times the Israeli army was accused of targeting media facilities and also not allowing foreign journalists access into Gaza.

It could be argued that Israel is really fighting a war on two fronts. The first is a military campaign being waged in the Occupied Territories against the Palestinian people. And the second is a PR campaign being waged in the Media to enlist support for its aims.

Taking lessons from its invasion of Lebanon in 2006 that was in Israeli opinion poorly mediated, Operation Cast Lead (Israel codename for the Gaza invasion) was heavily media managed.

Indeed the National Information Directorate was set up in 2008 to improve Israel’s image after this invasion (that resulted in at least 1000 civilian deaths).

In recent years we could observe the emergence of ‘information wars’ or ‘media wars’, a situation where news media becomes a battleground of images information where the information flow is often controlled and spun by the warring states in power.

Both American and the Israeli public relation companies are well-known in provoking government agenda and relating their actions as ‘democracy restoration campaigns’ or ‘peacekeeping’ rather than building support for, and justifying, invasions and wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, North Wazirstan and elsewhere.

Public Relations and Propaganda

It is important to note that the beginning of public relations as a discipline was closely tied with techniques of manipulation and control of the public opinion.

Propaganda is mainly perceived in the West as an aspect of Communist, Fascist or totalitarian regimes where the media is controlled by the state.

It is assumed that in the West, where much of the media is in the hands of private enterprise, that formal propaganda is absent. Public Relations began to emerge in the early 20th century America, partly out of the government information techniques used during the first and Second World War, and the belief that in the era of mass societies and mass communication, the need for management of public opinion to serve both governmental and corporate ends became a necessity.

The power of public relations has a number of implications, important particularly when it is used for the governmental and corporate ends. Sometimes referred to as the ‘technician’s mentality’, which means that PR practitioners are solely concerned about how the message is communicated, and not about the content of the messages.

It can be argued that public relations has played an important role in social transformations during the 20th century period (in the US and Britain in particular) and influenced a number of major events, such as the decline of the left and the increased importance placed on neo liberal market driven policies.

Increasingly PR strategy is employed to defend free market policies employing English language into contortions that the term propaganda simply cannot handle. 

For example phrases such as ‘winning hearts and mind’ about “friendly fire” or “shock and awe “are simply PR strategies encapsulated in the term ‘information dominance.” Even terms like ‘democracy’ are followed by an onslaught of media propaganda.

The impact public relations industry has on the news production has been the subject of much debate.

The growing importance of public relations as an information source, driven by the decline of investigative journalism and the shift from ‘traditional news values’ to ‘market-driven values’, gave public relations a greater influence on the news content, making it a part of the news production.

It can be argued that PR has become a communications industry in its own right designed to change perception, reality and manufacture consent.

It can be argued that the media dependency on PR tends to result in producing news coverage which reflects the dominant, socio-cultural worldviews’ instead of presenting an objective argument.  

An example of this is the portrayal of the Palestine-Israel conflict in the mainstream Western media. There is a strong tendency in the media to report the conflict from the Israel perspective and to omit the historical context of the events.

For example Chomsky notes

There is an overwhelming tendency for the media and the intellectual culture generally, to adopt the perspectives of state power on major issues. In this particular case, since Washington, post-1967 has supported Israel to an extraordinary extent, we would expect the media/intellectual culture to do the same, and that's what we find.  It has been documented to the skies.

For example, it is important to note that the creation of the State of Israel has been approved by the world’s elite nations, which have been consistently supporting Israel until today.

Perhaps the most substantial support came from the US government. The countries’ relationship has made Israel the largest recipient of US military and the only state in the world that can use US civilian aid to purchase arms.

Israel is also the only nuclear power in the Middle East and, although it has broken more UN resolutions than any other country in the region, yet its Western allies have never accused it of acts of terrorism.

Thus, the media often draws on the Orientalism discourse and constructs Palestinians as the aggressors, while representing the Israelis as the victims who defend themselves from the ‘terrorist’ Palestinians

Indeed, the Israeli representatives are often being given twice as much airtime as the Palestinians. 

This could be visible in the latest attacks on Gaza (27th Dec 08 – 18th Jan 09), when an assessment of eight hours of international media coverage showed that Israelis were given 58 minutes of airtime while the Palestinians got 19 minutes (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jan/02/israel-palestine-pr-spin).

Israel’s media and public relations campaign throughout this attack has been as meticulously planned as the military operation itself.

Israel had and has composed a narrative of events and a campaign by which to place this narrative at the forefront of the international community’s collective mind.

In this case much cited response was that Israel was responding to Hamas rocket attacks despite the fact that Mark Regev (The Israeli PM’s spokesperson) acknowledged that between the June 2008 ceasefire agreement and November 4 not a single Hamas rocket had been fired.

Likewise, Western leaders, presidents, prime ministers, editors and journalists cite another well-versed adage that Israel takes great care in avoiding civilian casualties.

For example The Israeli International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) compiled a report on their research of the casualties’ figures published by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights; incredibly this was based on age distribution.

Based on their examination of age distribution of the casualties listed by PCHR (Palestinian Center for Human Rights), the ICT estimated that 63% to 75% of the Palestinians killed in Gaza War appear to have been specifically-targeted, combat-aged males.

Amnesty International concluded that an overall figure of some 1,400 fatalities is accurate and that, in addition to some 300 children, 115 women and 85 men aged over 50, some 200 men aged less than 50 were unarmed civilians who took no part in the hostilities

The hope of the Israeli PR machine was simple that the Western public would accept the well-trodden tale that Israel was a democratic country under attack and was in its sovereign rights to defend itself.

Indeed academic studies into this conflict have noted that much Israel aggression is represented as “retaliation” rather than instigation.

However, prior to the military onslaught Israeli PR was at work.

Organisations such as BICOM (British Israel Communication and Research Centre) invited and funded journalists to Israel for “fact finding” trips.

Even the Israel newspaper Haaretz reported that the Israel government instructed Israel embassies worldwide to mount local media campaigns and recruit native speakers.

Despite the attempt to manage media representation information about what was happening in Gaza was finding a wider audience. One of the main reasons for this was the development of new or social media.

Arguably the media landscape has changed so drastically over the last few years that controlling cyber space is just as important as controlling traditional media outlets.

It could be suggested that the information revolution in the world and the development of new media technologies has created an alternative public sphere audiences unsatisfied with the dominant (or to use a Chomskian phrase filtered) media reporting.

This allowed Palestinian supporters to use the new media to present their views on the situation in Gaza.

Palestinian actions in the Web 2.0 environment included the use of internet publications such as Electronic Intifada (http://electronicintifada.net/), Palestine Monitor (http://palestinemonitor.org/) or Gaza Holocaust (http://gazaholocaust.com/).

However the well funded Israel PR machine were also quick to use employ new media alongside public relations strategies.

Chomsky notes the power of the Israel position

Palestinian propaganda is essentially nil. Israeli “hasbara” (“explanation” -- the Hebrew word for their own propaganda, the implicit assumption being that we are so obviously right that we only have to "explain" to those who don't understand) sets the basic framework for discussion and reporting, but it's difficult to separate its impact from that of the state propaganda systems that are largely similar.

Realising the importance of new media the Israel government recruited 1,000 volunteers with the objective of flooding news websites and blogs that the ministry term as anti-Israeli with pro-Israeli opinions.

Volunteers proficient in languages other than Hebrew were particularly sought after. Social network groups such as Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, etc. were policed and counter arguments justifying the invasion posted in PR style i.e. “we have to defend ourselves” etc.

This leads to producing official statements which take a form of a text message:

We R pro nego. crntly tlks r held w the PA + tlks on the 2 state soln. we talk only w/ ppl who accept R rt 2 live?

We hav 2 prtct R ctzens 2, only way fwd through negotiations, & left Gaza in 05. y Hamas launch missiles not peace?

(Israeli statement produced over their Twitter site – http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1230456533492&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull).

(We are pro-negotiations. Certainly talks are held with the Palestine plus talks on the two-state solution. We talk only with people who accept our right to live. We have to protect our citizens too, the only way forward is through negotiations, and we left Gaza in 05. Why Hamas launches missiles not peace?)

So polished was the social media PR campaign by the Israel government they even held a’ World Citizens Press Conference via Twitter only 4 days after the initial onslaught.

In an email interview with Professor Noam Chomsky makes the similar point that it is Israel seeking peace but the un-democratic Palestinians thwart that.

In Israel-Palestine we are "honest brokers," seeking to find peace between two bitter adversaries: Israel, which is desperately seeking a partner for peace; and Palestinians, who, like Arabs generally, are irrational, uncompromising, prone to violence, corrupt -- except of course for our clients, who are "pragmatic." …

Concluding Comments

News, especially television news, exerts a powerful influence on our perceptions, telling us which events are important and shaping our understanding of the issues.

It is clear that the mass media constitutes an important element in democratic societies.

Through shaping the political and cultural content of news, the media plays part in influencing the public understanding of current affairs and affects the process of the public opinion formation.

Given the central role played by the media in the Middle East conflict understanding media coverage of the conflict is crucial. 

However the Left must also that increasingly social media once seen as a challenge to dominant power networks is now increasing and subtly also been managed and the power that this control has over public opinion.

Whilst “hearts and minds” might be won, lost or fought over in the ever-changing media landscape we should also not forget the casualties of this media debate.

A recent report entitled “Breaking the Silence” published by an Israeli army college that details Israel soldier’s abuses had the following shocking extract of a shooting of an unnamed Palestinian woman:

I don't know whether she was suspicious, not suspicious, I don't know her story… I do know that my officer sent people to the roof in order to take her out… It was cold-blooded murder.

Dr Amir Saeed is a senior lecturer in media and cultural studies at the University of Sunderlan, UK.

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