Civilian deaths seen as public relations problem
The three-week Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip that began December 27 was accompanied by aggressive public relations strategies intended to improve the assault’s portrayal in international media. “In the war of the pictures we lose, so you need to correct, explain or balance it in other ways,” said Israeli public affairs official Aviv Shir-On (London Guardian, 1/2/09). In U.S. corporate media, that effort faced little resistance.
Israeli control of information was described as unusually disciplined—Israel was said to have “revamped its information operations, presenting a unified message, bottling up leaks from the field and working to drive a wedge in Arab public opinion” (L.A. Times, 1/9/09)—tactics often portrayed as a solution to problems from the 2006 war with Lebanon, where foreign reporters were able to assess civilian damage in real time. Reports noted that government sources were repeating the same talking points ad nauseum; one Israeli reporter complained anonymously to the L.A. Times that it was “a bit unnerving” to talk to officials who had been “fed responses.”
Most dramatically, foreign reporters who were not already in Gaza were banned from entering the territory once the assault started, in violation of an Israeli Supreme Court decision. (This was widely portrayed as making it impossible for foreign media, particularly TV correspondents, to produce reports from Gaza, but that was only partly true; Al Jazeera English had correspondents reporting from the territory and even made some of its coverage freely available for reuse at broadcast quality under a Creative Commons license—New York Times, 1/12/09—so TV outlets hungry for footage would not have had to try very hard.)
The censorship policy became fodder for press complaints, but some criticized it primarily for preventing journalists from undermining Palestinian claims. Speaking to a reporter covering the conflict, CNN host Howard Kurtz (1/4/09) seemed mostly troubled by Palestinian claims of heavy civilian casualties: “Obviously, it’s in their interest to portray the Israeli incursion in the harshest light. And as you just noted, you have no independent way to check that, or do you have at least limited ways to try to check that?” Kurtz was even clearer when he expressed concern over the footage that was available: “And when we do see video of the attacks in Gaza or the after-effects, much of that video, as my understanding, is supplied by Arab media outlets, so it may be very selective.” Yes, they do tend to select images of buildings that have been bombed rather than those that have not been bombed.
A New York Times article (1/7/09) paraphrased one Israeli official who explained these were “methods to keep Hamas in the fog of war, which includes disinformation and impediments to real-time press coverage on the ground.” Of course, such tactics cannot be calibrated to affect only Hamas; they impeded everyone’s ability to understand how the war was being waged.
The same day, Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner seemed to at least tacitly endorse Israeli censorship tactics, writing that the dominant television image of an “awesome military machine fighting a third-world guerrilla force” struck Israelis as “simplistic,” and that “context” favorable to the Israeli position (that “years of terrorist rocket fire on civilians have gone largely unanswered”) was being overlooked. Bronner summed up by saying that while there might be “other ways to construe the context of this conflict, of course”—he didn’t bother offering any—“Israel’s diplomats know that if journalists are given a choice between covering death and covering context, death wins. So in a war that they consider necessary but poorly understood, they have decided to keep the news media far away from the death.”
As the conflict wore on, some declared Israel’s PR campaign—which had been planned for six months prior to the Israeli assault (Jewish Chronicle, 12/31/08)—to be faltering. A San Francisco Chronicle story (1/10/09) headlined “At War in Gaza, Israel Losing PR Battle in the U.S.,” noted that there were “jarring events” that shook the pro-Israel side—namely, critical comments by Daily Show host Jon Stewart (1/5/09) and a pro-Palestinian march that was also attended by “Jewish protesters.” One Los Angeles Times story (1/23/09) floated the idea that Israel “found itself on the public relations defensive” over civilian casualties, an odd way to characterize the fallout from an assault that left an estimated 5,300 civilians wounded (USA Today, 1/29/09) and 1,300 dead—over 400 of them children (Daily Telegraph, 1/20/09).
But it was actually common to find corporate media framing such casualties as a problem of bad PR. On January 15, Fox News anchor Bret Baier declared that “Israel is acknowledging a major blunder that has dealt the country a public relations blow.” The report that followed concerned an attack on U.N. headquarters in Gaza (one of at least three U.N. facilities struck by Israel in the conflict—London Guardian, 1/21/09). In the Washington Post (1/15/09), a report by Griff Witte started off: “A war that began almost three weeks ago as an effort by Israel to stop Hamas rocket fire from killing Israeli civilians has been consumed by a bitter debate over who is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip”—as if the problem were that a well-intentioned war had been “consumed” by a debate over civilian deaths that were the perfectly predictable result of a military assault on a heavily populated area.
A New York Times front-page piece (1/7/09) was headlined, “For Israel, Lessons From 2006, but Old Pitfalls.” Those “pitfalls” seemed to be the deaths of innocents, or as the Times put it, the “sudden events that can throw off so many careful calculations and come to symbolize the horrors of war.” Time magazine (1/19/09) echoed that concern over inappropriate imagery:
Ideally, in a war shaped by television images, Israelis would like a tableau of surrender: grimy Hamas commanders crawling from underground bunkers with their hands up. Instead, the deaths of at least 40 civilians taking shelter at a United Nations-run school north of Gaza City are more likely to become the dominant image of the war.
Reporters seemed willing to accept at face value Israel’s rationale for targeting civilian infrastructure (Extra!, 2/09; FAIR Media Advisory, 1/13/09), and many accounts merely passed along descriptions of such tactics. “The goal of targeting such a broad array of facilities, Israeli military officials say, is to break Hamas’ will to continue firing rockets, not just its means,” the Washington Post reported (1/15/09). “Israeli officials say they ultimately hope that Gazans become disgusted with Hamas and drive the group from power.” An L.A. Times news account (1/7/09) observed, “Almost every neighborhood in Gaza is littered with sites that Israel considers legitimate military targets.” Whether they would be considered legitimate targets under the laws of war did not seem to be considered a relevant question.
NPR’s Mara Liasson explained on Fox News Sunday (1/4/09) that the lessons from Israel’s 2006 war with Lebanon had been learned: “They can’t just do it from the air, as they learned in Lebanon. They say they’ve learned a lot of lessons from that catastrophe and are going to do it right this time.” This sort of discussion glosses over exactly what “it” is, and what it would mean for it to be done “right.”
After the heaviest fighting had ended, the New York Times (1/19/09) reported on the state of the debate over the war—and included some information that may have surprised careful readers:
The Israeli theory of what it tried to do here is summed up in a Hebrew phrase heard across Israel and throughout the military in the past weeks: “baal habayit hishtageya,” or “the boss has lost it.” It evokes the image of a madman who cannot be controlled.“This phrase means that if our civilians are attacked by you, we are not going to respond in proportion but will use all means we have to cause you such damage that you will think twice in the future,” said Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser.
It is a calculated rage.
After weeks of reading Israeli assurances that the Gaza attacks had scrupulously avoided civilian casualties—and certainly did not violate “proportionality” (e.g., New York Times, 1/17/09)—it must have come as a shock to the readers of this article to learn that Israel had actually been trying to appear to be a “madman who cannot be controlled.” The Times added:
For Israel, Hamas’ rule here is anathema. But the fact that the group controls all facets of Gazan society gave Israel a rationale for attacking a wide range of institutions.As an example, Eiland, the former national security adviser, noted that Israel “can destroy the infrastructure of the regime, and that is much more painful than only hitting military targets.”
That such frank admissions of attacks on non-military (and therefore illegal) targets came only after the fighting had ended is not a complete surprise. Nor was the news that Israel would be launching a new phase of its PR campaign (Agence France-Presse, 1/17/09), intended to show the world that it shouldn’t trust what they’re hearing from international media or human rights observers—or Israel’s own former national security officials, apparently.