The National – 4 January 2009
JERUSALEM // The thermal imaging footage shot from an Israeli drone hovering over Gaza shows eight Palestinian militants loading rockets on to a lorry. Within seconds, the drone’s sights are locked on to the vehicle and it and the ghostlike figures nearby are incinerated in a missile blast.
Or so tens of thousands of visitors to the popular video-posting internet site YouTube have been led to believe. The clip was one of several dramatic scenes uploaded to the site by the Israeli army last week, the first time a national army has created its own YouTube channel.
A subsequent investigation by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem attracted less attention. It suggests the rockets were in fact gas canisters and that the supposed militants were civilians moving welding equipment after their workshop had been damaged in one of the hundreds of Israeli air strikes on Gaza over the past week.
But facts appear to have been the first casualty in a public relations war that is being conducted as vigorously by Israeli defence officials as the fight against Hamas.
This weekend Israel was celebrating the first week of a “hasbara” campaign – the Hebrew word that has come to mean “spin” and “propaganda” – being waged on several fronts, including unprecedented use of the internet and other new media.
Despite a ratio of more than 100 Palestinians killed for every Israeli during Operation Cast Lead, officials said they are satisfied that Israel is winning sympathetic media coverage that has provided its military with the breathing space it needs to continue the strikes against Gaza.
“Israel has no small measure of understanding and support and even approval from many countries,” Dan Gillerman, a former ambassador to the United Nations, said last week. “Unless something very dramatic happens, such as a blundered hit that kills large numbers of civilians, then we will have enough time to do what we need to do.”
This is one of the chief lessons of the Lebanon war of 2006, said defence officials. One of the major changes since 2006 is the creation of the National Information Directorate, a body set up last summer on the recommendation of the Winograd inquiry into Israel’s failures in Lebanon.
Led by Yarden Vatikai, a former official with the defence ministry and the Jewish Agency, the directorate decided to replace the traditional wartime press conferences with a wide range of initiatives using new media.
“In terms of communicating our message, new media is the future,” said Avi Benayahu, the chief spokesman for the Israeli army, who has organised a series of workshops for his staff over the past six months. “Explaining your actions is a kind of ammunition in this sort of war.”
The YouTube channel, established the day after the first air strikes, is currently the most popular on the site. The two dozen videos relating to the current operation have recorded hundreds of thousands of hits. The channel also features a daily video blog – a vlog – in which army spokesmen justify the attacks on Gaza and the dozens of civilian deaths, as “humane action” in self-defence against Hamas provocation.
Israel has turned to other websites, such as Facebook, blogs and chat rooms, often relying on former army personnel and public relations consultants, to advance its case. According to the Israeli media, the army has been advising 50 influential bloggers in the United States alone.
In addition, reporters and diplomats have been blitzed with text messages offering interviews, briefings and tours of Israeli communities in the Negev close to the Gaza border. Other initiatives are likely to be unveiled if and when a ground invasion is launched.
“We have photographers embedded in all the units preparing to enter Gaza and we already have incredible footage that we are planning to release [if] we go in,” Dinor Shavit, commander of the Israeli army’s filming unit, told The Jerusalem Post newspaper.
Opposition politicians, including the Likud party head, Benjamin Netanyahu, have set aside their campaigns for the parliamentary election next month and been recruited to the public relations offensive.
Officials believe coverage of Israel’s actions in Gaza have benefited as a consequence. According to a survey by the foreign ministry of the international broadcast media, Israeli spokespeople have been given three times as much airtime as Palestinian representatives.
This imbalance has been assisted by Israel’s banning of foreign reporters from Gaza in the run-up to Operation Cast Lead and during its first week. Under pressure from the Israeli courts, the government agreed on Thursday to allow eight reporters at a time into Gaza when it reopens the borders.
Haneen Zoubi, director of the Ilam, an organisation monitoring media coverage in Israel, said the international media should refuse the government’s terms.
“This makes a mockery of freedom of the press,” she said. “These hand-picked journalists will either be ones who have a track record of offering favourable coverage of Israel, or they will feel pressure to be sympathetic to Israel so that they do not lose their privileged status. It is simply another form of embedding.”
Daniel Seaman, the head of the government press office, accused foreign journalists of being under the control of Hamas.
“We know that Hamas is in complete control of the news and that reports from Gaza are carried out under duress. Foreign media in Gaza will become fig leaves for the news, and will give credibility to the reporting.”