When Pressed, Just Repeat Yourself
By Nadia W. Awad for MIFTAH
January 12, 2009

It’s a very sad day when the only US mainstream news program reporting on BOTH sides of the conflict in Gaza is a political satire show on Comedy Central. Yes, Jon Stewart’s ‘The Daily Show’ now appears to be the new standard of journalistic integrity for American media outlets. Stewart, one of America’s foremost Jews, is also one of a small number of people who have dared to question America’s acceptance of the Israeli position, hook, line and sinker. In six minutes, and without delving into the complex relations between Hamas and Israel, Stewart highlighted a huge flaw in America’s stance on Israel’s war in Gaza. Using clips from news sources such as NBC, CBS and ABC, he simply pointed out that American politicians were defending only one side of the conflict, namely Israel. In each clip, an American politician used the same analogy over and over to defend Israel’s actions– what if Cuba was firing missiles at Florida? The only thing that differed from clip to clip was the location firing those missiles. You also had the option of selecting Tijuana, Vancouver, or a ‘mentally unstable New Yorker’ living in your hallway. And this is where the discussions most often end. No mention of more than 60 years of occupation, and no mention of an inhumane siege on Gaza in play since mid-2007. These are the same symptoms of severe tunnel vision also displayed by American media sources that, by and large, dance along to Israel’s tune.

Many accuse Israel of having learned nothing from its defeat at the hands of Hezbollah in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. They are wrong – Israel learned one very important lesson: along with the battle on the ground, you need to wage an effective media war as well. As Ranan Gissin, a former Israeli spokesperson during Ariel Sharon’s prime ministerial term, so eloquently put it, "One must first shoot the enemy with film and then only after the pictures are out on the networks and on the Internet, then shoot the enemy with bullets." Perhaps this observation was based on more than just his own humble opinions.

In response to the publication of the Winograd Report, which sternly criticized Israel’s media effort during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Israel established the National Information Directorate (NID) just eight months ago. Its main purpose is to ‘synchronize the content and tone of Israel's message across the many organizations that carry it to the world, whether official or unofficial’. It deals with the ‘hasbara’ – translation: ‘explanation’ – and refers to the dissemination of information, spin, and propaganda (though I would argue that it is more like misinformation and indoctrination).

Israel definitely took the Winograd Report recommendations very seriously. In 2007, Israel’s Foreign Ministry initiated the ‘Women of the Israeli Defense Forces’ campaign to brighten the image of the Israeli army, badly blighted by the atrocities carried out in Lebanon the year before. Led by Miss Israel 2004, Gal Gadot, she and other Israeli models (all formerly Israeli soldiers) took part in magazine photo shoots to promote the campaign. Gadot’s photo shoot for the widely read Maxim magazine, in which she is wearing what looks like a skimpy, khaki-colored bikini, ended up on the front page of the New York Post. Perhaps the hope was that upon accidentally seeing a photo of an injured Palestinian baby, the viewer would think back to that sexy Maxim cover instead.

In addition to involvement in international media campaigns, Israel has been busy at home, feeding their spokespeople acceptable answers and explanations. Having watched hour upon hour of interviews with Israeli government and army spokespeople such as Mark Regev and Avital Leibovitch, I didn’t need to read any NID directives to figure out what they had advised. Here is what the directive probably looked like:

-Israel is defending its poor, innocent civilians.

-Israel does not target civilians, but Hamas does.

-Hamas sacrifices its own people by firing missiles from amongst residential areas and setting booby traps in homes and other buildings (also known as the ‘human shields’ argument).

-We cannot comment as we do not know the specifics of the case in question.

-We cannot release any information about strategy or weapons. No other army would do so, so why should we (a rhetorical question of course).

-Don’t allude to upcoming Israeli elections.

-Don’t stray from the above points. If pressed, repeat the above points.

And unlike the war in Lebanon, they have prepared themselves with footage to counter the devastating pictures coming out of Gaza of mangled men, women and children. This footage includes video recordings of secondary explosions, very badly hidden ‘Hamas’ booby traps (whoever set them up should be fired, no pun intended), and weeping children in Sderot standing next to damage (generally a hole in the ground) caused by Hamas rockets.

One other aspect Israel learned about was timing. Israel launched its media war well before it started its offensive against Gaza, lobbying governments, organizations, and media outlets for weeks, if not months, before they began the bombing. This strategy was no doubt organized in tandem with the planning of Operation Cast Lead more than six months ago.

After all this scheming and planning, their efforts have apparently paid off. Former UN ambassador Dan Gillerman confirmed this opinion when he said, "I don't know how long it will last, but at this moment Israel has no small measure of understanding and support, and even approval, from many countries… We haven't seen dramatic condemnations [from world leaders], only the expected and generic calls for calm and ceasefire."

In certain geographical locations (i.e. North America), Israel is definitely winning. But you have to wonder was there even a media war in the US to begin with? Most US mainstream media outlets, typically eager to find fault with the US government, have stepped into line with the White House and pledged loyalty to the ‘security of Israel’ as they always do. Unfortunately it goes no further than that. Given that most of the Israeli war machine is financed, manufactured and supplied by the United States, I suppose we should not be surprised by Bush’s stance, but I expected just a little more ethical professionalism from the media.

In short, Israel’s new media plan of action involves fewer military officers, more women, tightly controlled messages, and restricted access to Israeli cabinet ministers, as reported by the Jewish Chronicle. Perhaps Israel will be able to call this a media victory when the carnage in Gaza is complete. If that is the case, we can at least take comfort in the knowledge that scores of protests have taken place around the world, all demanding a halt to Israeli attacks in Gaza and an end to the occupation. We can take comfort in the fact that thousands of people have taken it upon themselves to protest outside Israeli, US and Egyptian embassies. Even in countries not always so sympathetic to the Palestinian people, such as Kuwait, there have been protests. Clearly, not everybody is buying into Israel’s latest media game plan, including some Americans.