January 9, 2009
Criticism of Israel’s conduct mounts
01.10.2009 | The Financial Times
By Andrew England in Jerusalem and Vita Bekker in Tel Aviv
As Israel’s offensive in Gaza enters its third week, the Jewish state appears to be rapidly losing the public relations war abroad as criticism from United Nations officials and humanitarian agencies has mounted amid the constant stream of pictures of dead and wounded women and children.
Israeli strikes on UN convoys and schools sheltering hundreds of Palestinians who fled their homes, as well allegations that Israeli troops prevented medical workers from retrieving dead and injured Palestinians, have increasingly called into question Israel’s conduct of the war.
A UN agency added to the increasing negative news flow with a report that cited witness testimony alleging that Israeli troops evacuated Palestinian civilians to a house in Gaza City and then repeatedly shelled the building 24 hours later, killing some 30 people inside.
And from the outset, Israel has been under fire for preventing foreign journalists from entering the strip – restrictions that were in place weeks before the bombardment started.
However, a team of reporters from the Al-Jazeera satellite channel were already in Gaza and Arab television stations have broadcast a constant stream of images of death and destruction that have been picked up across the world. International news agencies also have local staff on the ground.
Al-Jazeera reported that a building used by journalists working in the strip, including Turkish and Chinese outlets, was hit by Israeli fire on Friday.
“There’s definitely been a step up for the Israelis in their attempt to control the information flow. But if you actually look at the news, information and pictures emerging from Gaza, there’s been tons of it and it’s all been hugely detrimental to the Israeli cause,” said Charlie Beckett, a media specialist at the London School of Economics. “The fact that the Israelis seem to be trying to blockade the media only hurts their argument that they are somehow more democratic, more open and not terrorists.”
Israel officials have insisted they regret civilian deaths and have accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields. They have also sought to highlight the threat posed by rockets fired by Palestinian militants into southern Israel – which have killed three Israelis since the offensive started – saying some 950,000 Israelis are vulnerable to attacks.
But analysts say the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza overwhelms the impact.
Anthony Cordesman, at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says Israel has failed to talk to the world “in ways that the outside world finds relevant.”
“We are now two weeks into the war and nobody has a clear idea what the Israelis are attempting to accomplish,” he says. “They have not communicated the ways in which they are attempting to reduce civilian casualties; it is not clear that they have provided proper guidance to the troops in the field [and] they have not managed the issue of humanitarian relief with any effectiveness.”
Still, an Israeli newspaper poll on Friday showed that 91 per cent of Israeli Jews were still in favour of the war, and Nachum Barnea, an Israeli newspaper columnist, says it is the mood of the domestic constituency which is the main concern for officials.
He believes Israel made a mistake in preventing journalists entering Gaza before the conflict, but adds that he is ambivalent towards restrictions preventing reporters from entering the strip while the fighting rages. He was embedded with Israeli troops during the 2006 war with Hizbollah in Lebanon, which turned out to be another PR disaster.
“In 2006 it became a real comedy because every commander of a battalion used his cell phone to call a reporter and to tell him his battalion was discriminated against or didn’t get the air protection he wanted,” says. “I’m almost sure it caused a lot of damage to the operation.”
The Israeli military did allow a pool of three Israel reporters and one foreign correspondent to embed for a day with troops this week. But it has not given clear responses to many of the recent allegations.
It also became embroiled in a controversy after Israeli mortars struck outside a UN-run school used as a shelter, killing at least 40 people. The Israeli army insisted militants fired at Israeli troops from within the compound – claims rejected by UN officials. Shortly after the attack, the military emailed journalists a link to a video that purported to show assailants firing from a school, but that footage was dated October 2007.
Hamas, meanwhile, has managed to issue sporadic statements of defiance. Communicating its survival and willingness to fight on would seem at the core of its public relations strategy. But for Israel losing the propaganda war could be costly.