As the 51-day-old bloody war on Gaza reached its end, many are saying that Israeli propaganda, carefully nurtured over the past decades, has come crumbling down. Media-wise, they failed to block the eyes of viewers to the mayhem, mass destruction, debris, killing and dead bodies that were a result of Israel’s use of tanks and military jets against a defenceless population.
The Israeli government has also failed to unseat Hamas, which has come out stronger and in a better shape while it also lost a great deal of money. Total cost for rebuilding Gaza is estimated to be between $4-6 billion. . In Israel, there is the the psychological shock the people suffered because of the rockets — estimated at 4,600 — raining on their cities, towns and the Jewish colonies.
While the media in general, especially the western media, continued to toe the Israeli line, no one has realised up until today the power of social media and networking in damaging Israel’s image. Through posting pictures, graphics and commentary on platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other websites, the world, especially viewers in Europe and the US, have come to see the “unadulterated”, “un-doctored” pictures first-hand of the extent of destruction and damage inflicted upon children, women and old people by Israeli guns and tanks.
Palestinian losses were no longer hidden behind dull statistics, but were there for everyone to see. And the culprit was the Israeli army, dropping bombs and firing missiles indiscriminately.
Indeed, the more than 2,100 Palestinians killed and more than 10,000 injured served as social media content, which Israeli propaganda, despite its fair amount of tweeting and “YouTubing”, had not been banking on.
The United Nations states that at least 1,460 civilians were killed — 493 of them children and 253 women. This is not to mention the fact that 475,000 are now living in emergency shelters because of 17,200 homes were either totally or severely damaged in addition to the 244 schools that were damaged and the 70 mosques that were destroyed.
For the very first time, those behind the numbers were human faces — not at all what the Israeli media and propagandists wanted the world to see.
But things have changed — thanks to technology. In the past, images and pictures used to be controlled, but not this time.
Since the 1970s, Israelis came to realise the power of the media and propaganda in shaping views and altering perceptions and of the need to put the right image on the screen and in print. This became more apparent after Israel invaded Lebanon, went up to Beirut and turned a blind eye while Palestinians, up to 3,000 of them, were slaughtered in one of the worst massacres of the 20th century. It was they who stood by and let Christian Phalangist militiamen create an orgy of murder inside the camps.
Israel’s invasion was a public relations disaster and made its political and military establishments quickly embark on a road to present a neat image abroad through spin doctors and image-makers, mainly for their American backers who were bankrolling them with hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
Israel had a special term for what it embarked upon — it wanted to reshape global public opinion while at the same time get away with what it was doing through an essentially evasive propagandist campaign, called Hasbara, to show the better side of Israel. The Hebrew term refers to public diplomacy and public relations as an “explanation”. It became their buzzword and every Jew was expected to take part in it. This was further developed in the 1990s as Israel committed another massacre in Qana in 1996 in what came to be regarded as its Lebanese backyard. Hasbara continued to be splashed before western audiences in the first decade of the 21st century when it went after Palestinians during the second Intifada.
Not at all happy with satellite images of dead Palestinian children piled up in makeshift hospital corridors in Gaza — as seen on the Al Jazeera television channel, with Israeli F-16s bombarding Palestinians and sending down missiles — the Israelis were determined to be as good in their speeches as in their shooting prowess. After the 2008-2009 war on that beleaguered Palestinian territory, the most densely populated in the world, Israeli politicians employed a top-level American pollster to polish their image in the eyes of foreigners while carrying out their abominable acts.
Dr Frank Luntz came up with a confidential study on how to influence media and public opinion in the West, under an ambitious title The Israel Project: Global Language Dictionary. The 112-page booklet was published on the Newsweek website but later mysteriously removed. It was not for distribution or publication but deemed essential for Israeli press officers, government spokespersons and propagandists, to know how to handle the media and look good on screen — repeating certain key phrases and shaping their answers in a way to make sure the Israeli point of view came across as right.
It is argued that the document became a blueprint of what Israeli government and military spokespersons on satellite channels like CNN were supposed to say on the assault on Gaza — feeling “sorry” about Palestinian deaths and that it was all because of Hamas’s “terrorism”. It was all in keeping with Dr Luntz’s coaching, who has been telling these spokespersons to present facts selectively and to demonise Hamas as much as possible in order to generate a favourable world opinion.
However, it was difficult to maintain such a blatant propagandist role this time, mainly because many of the media publications and newspapers had their own sources, whose coverage, despite being slanted towards Israel, included enough content coming from “citizen journalists” comprising ordinary people. These “citizen journalists” were able to upload content independently, which made it very difficult for editors around the world, including the US, to ignore. The world has become an open forum, at least in terms of cyberspace.
This was evident when NBC’s Ayman Moyheldin covered the shooting of four Palestinian teenagers from an Israeli gunboat. They were playing football on the Gaza beach during the first half of the war in early July. NBC carried the report, but later pulled Moyheldin out of Gaza and instituted another reporter in his place. However, after a short while he was back reporting from Gaza, and it was argued that several tweets clamouring for his return put enough pressure on the NBC management to reinstate Moyheldin.
It is difficult to say who finally won the war. Is it Hamas, the people of Gaza or Israel with its fire-power? Certainly, the people of Gaza say they won the war because they beat off Israel, Hamas is still in place and there is some agreement on the removal of the seven-year-old economic siege that has crippled Gaza’s economy.
Off course, the popularity of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has plummeted to a low 38 per cent from the high 80s when he started the war. It is difficult to see what will become of his career in politics. It will now take somebody with an extraordinary deftness in public relations to turn this low popularity around and allow Netanyahu to skim through.
Marwan Asmar is a commentator based in Amman. He has long worked in journalism and has a Phd in Political Science from Leeds University in the UK.