Israel desperately tried to control the message during its attack on Gaza in winter 2008-09. (Oren Ziv/ActiveStills)
The Israeli military establishment is once again on the offensive, but instead of high-tech weaponry and missiles, it is using computer screens, keyboards and rapid wireless connections to fight what Israeli military representatives are dubbing a “new media war.”
In early February, military spokesperson Avi Benayahu announced that approximately $1.6 million would be invested to train more than a hundred Israeli “media warriors,” who would use social media tools to disseminate Israeli propaganda to audiences around the world.
“We need to ensure the confidence of the public, and assist the minister of foreign affairs to obtain that legitimization which is required for an army like ours to effect a military operation, whether it’s in the north or the south,” said Benayahu of this new media campaign during the 11th annual Herzliya security conference in early February.
Held at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya near Tel Aviv, the Herzliya Conference is a largely right-wing, neo-conservative gathering that brings together mainly Israeli and American government, business and academic figures to discuss Israeli policy and regional and global issues. This year’s conference, which was covered by this reporter, was held under the theme “The Balance of Israel’s National Strength and Security.”
Speaking on a panel called “New Media as a Strategic Weapon,” Benayahu told the audience in Herzliya that Israeli soldiers are now forced to be more aware of the fact that new media users can be documenting their actions at all times.
“[There is] an unprecedented responsibility to the commanders,” he said. “They have to think if the civilian across from them or the child on the second floor above them is a combatant or a new generation media person.”
According to Benayahu, the Israeli military has prioritized the field of new media in order to combat “pro-Iranian factors” which use the Internet to “delegitimize Israel.”
“It is orchestrated and timed and financed by all the pro-Iranian factors,” he stated. “They know how to flood us with media and information. They are also nurturing all these pro-radical organizations. The Palestinian Diaspora [is] conducting this [work] in universities, in the [United Nations] institutions, in the human rights institutions, and in the new media,” he added.
Strategy perfected during attack on Gaza
It was during the outbreak of Israel’s attacks on Gaza in the winter of 2008-09 — during which more than 1,400 Palestinians, including 300 children, were killed — that the Israeli hasbara campaign concentrated its focus on new media sources.
“Hasbara,” the Hebrew word for “explanation,” is used to describe official Israeli efforts to release information, spin and propaganda on behalf of the state and its governmental, communication and informational branches.
Key messages during the three weeks of attacks, dubbed Operation Cast Lead by Israel, included the claims that Hamas broke the ceasefire agreement with Israel, that Israel’s aim was to defend its citizens and that Hamas is a terrorist organization.
Israel’s assault on Gaza has been condemned by numerous international human rights organizations. Israeli officials responsible for the attacks are suspected of war crimes according to the UN-commissioned fact-finding mission led by international jurist Richard Goldstone.
“Israel knew of the violent extent of its planned war on Gaza well before it took place,” Ramzy Baroud, a Palestinian-American political analyst, journalist and author, told The Electronic Intifada.
“The political rationale for that was Hamas needed to be taught a lesson, hoping for two possible outcomes: that either Hamas will simply disintegrate under the weight of Israeli bombs, or that the people will topple the government,” Baroud added. “For that to happen, the extent of the violence had to be extraordinary, and had to target largely civilian infrastructure and exact a high price in terms of civilian casualties.”
“That required planning and lots of it. The propaganda, as in disseminating misinformation, falsehoods, half truths and selective versions of events, was more institutionalized than ever,” he said.
In order to carry out its hasbara campaign, the Israeli military opened a YouTube account in December 2008 (http://www.youtube.com/user/idfnadesk), where administrators uploaded dozens of videos depicting Israeli bombings and missile strikes, and images of Israeli shipments of humanitarian aid into the besieged Gaza Strip.
One of the first videos uploaded to the account on 31 December 2008, for example, displays what the Israeli military defined as “a precision [air force] strike against weapons hidden in a Gaza mosque.”
According to Aliza Landes, an Israeli soldier originally from Boston, Massachusetts, who now heads the military’s new media unit, the YouTube account has been the Israeli army’s “greatest success” to date.
“YouTube is our greatest success,” said Landes, who was called on stage by Benyahu during the “New Media as a Strategic Weapon” panel, to talk specifically about the Israeli military’s New Media Desk and spoke for approximately ten minutes. “Visual material is what is most compelling online. It’s evidence. It’s proof in a way that a written statement isn’t. If there is a big operation going on and we can provide visual evidence of what’s happening, then other people can use that to make arguments and discuss things.”
Tangible impact on Palestinians
While the real impact of Israeli hasbara is difficult to determine, perhaps its most dangerous impact is how it easily seeps into newspapers and magazines in Israel and abroad, thereby swaying the public discourse.
“The media has I think the tremendous power to influence how society sees itself, how it interprets its reality,” explained Nasser Rego, the International Relations Coordinator at I’lam, the Media Center for Arab Palestinians in Israel. “The media is extensively consumed in Israel; 90 percent of the public takes in media on a regular basis. So it has a tremendous impact.”
According to Rego, the Israeli media’s portrayal of Palestinian citizens of Israel has a palpable impact on the community, which accounts for 20 percent of the population. “I think what it does is it dehumanizes Palestinians and the community [and portrays them as] being interlopers or being these people that come from the outside. Then it seems almost justifiable to treat them or deal with them in a way that’s reflective of that coverage. So to continue to deny them their rights as human beings, basic civil rights, to continue and to press with the policy of home demolitions.”
Rego explained that the Israeli reaction to its attack on Gaza in winter 2008-09 is a prime example of how Israeli hasbara — and the coverage allotted to this propaganda by Israeli news sources — can influence public opinion, which was largely favorable to the Israeli attack.
“I think unfortunately when the community has been dehumanized, there really [aren’t] too many barriers to such kind of action continuing or even increasing in degree and worsening. For now I think this is the most troublesome impact of this kind of coverage,” he told The Electronic Intifada.
A more recent example of how easily Israeli hasbara can infiltrate into the mainstream media and influence a situation was evident at the beginning of this year when Jawaher Abu Rahmah died as a result of excessive tear gas inhalation during a demonstration against the Israeli wall and settlements in the occupied West Bank village of Bilin.
Almost immediately after her death, the Israeli military made statements suggesting a variety of lies and misinformation. Anonymous “army sources” were widely quoted by Israeli reporters and bloggers as stating that Abu Rahmah was possibly not even present at the 31 December 2010 demonstration in Bilin, or that her death resulted from a pre-existing medical condition.
While these claims were quickly refuted by eyewitnesses and doctors at the Ramallah-area hospital where Abu Rahmah passed away, the damage was already done: the link between fiction and reality had been blurred.
“The army is trying to evade its responsibility for Jawaher’s death with lies and invented narratives that have no basis. They are spreading these lies and invented narratives via the media, which is not bothering to do basic fact checking,” explained Mohammed Khatib, a member of the Bilin Popular Committee, in a press release put out by the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee.
“Our version is supported by named sources and with medical documents. In a properly functioning society, the army’s version, which has been spread by anonymous sources, would not be considered worthy of publication,” Khatib added.
Hasbara’s greatest challenge is Israel itself
According to Ramzy Baroud, an absence of Palestinian voices in US media depictions of the situation in Palestine makes it more difficult to counter Israeli propaganda.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of Israel’s propaganda machine’s own success or failure that is causing this amount of misunderstanding among general publics, mostly in the West,” he said. “The misconstruction and confusion are largely caused by the absence of Palestinian and pro-Palestinian voices — in fact reasonable and objective voices altogether — when it comes to the conflict in Palestine, from mainstream US media.”
A lack of coordination, an absence of media platforms and “the wall of the mainstream media” all make getting Palestinian voices to a large, international audience much more difficult than it is to present Israeli voices, whose messages are long-established and have been ingrained into Western discourse, Baroud explained.
“The Israeli propaganda is older and is almost embedded in Western psyche which sees Israel as the embodiment of goodness, freedom, bravery and democracy, while Arabs are the antithesis of all that is good and ‘American’ or ‘Western.’ In other words, Israelis are ‘us’ and the Arabs are ‘them,’” he said.
Still, Baroud added that the greatest challenge to Israel’s hasbara campaign is Israeli actions and policies themselves.
“Israel’s real challenge is not the Palestinian voice per se, but Israel’s own behavior. Even if there is no Palestinian voice altogether, Israel’s war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank are so revolting that even well-financed media campaigns cannot hide their atrociousness in their entirety,” he said.
“Israel’s biggest opponent in the media is its own crimes.”
Originally from Montreal, Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in occupied East Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at http://jilldamours.wordpress.com.