Israel, Hamas, and the Public Relations War

August 19, 2014

As of this date it appears that yet again the terrorists that run Hamas have decided to not even wait until the most recently negotiated cease fire had expired to begin firing another round of rockets at Israeli cities.  Any reasonable person would wonder by now what other evidence is necessary in order to assign the blame for the current conflict at the feet of an organization whose charter calls for the killing of Jews not only in Israel but anywhere in the world.  And yet, as has been amply demonstrated by rallies throughout Europe and even the United States, a large segment of the population chooses to focus only on the images that Hamas wishes to portray—that of women and children killed or injured by Israeli bombs and artillery.  The logic of Israeli government officials that these casualties are a direct result of using civilians as human shields and that firing rockets from schools, hospitals, and mosques only increases the likelihood of non-combatant deaths is often ignored. By this point it would seem fairly evident that anti-Semitism is at the center of much of the world’s condemnation of Israel.

Clearly those inclined to blame Israel for ills in the world ranging from global warming to the price of milk will not be swayed by logic or reason.  But for those open-minded individuals who look at this conflict and the whole Israeli-Palestinian dynamic in a more enlightened fashion, it is imperative that supporters of Israel let their voices be heard within the context of a world-wide media too ready to draw moral equivalences between a democratically elected state that affirms life and a radical organization the glorifies death and nihilism.

At the beginning of this latest round of fighting, spokesmen such as Mark Regev (representing Prime Minister Netanyahu), Peter Lerner (speaking for the IDF), and particularly Ron Dermer (Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.) did an admirable job in presenting a solid case for Operation Protective Edge.  They continually pointed out that Israel was not only fully justified but obligated to respond to thousands of rockets launched from Gaza and the numerous tunnels used by Hamas designed to attack and/or kidnap inhabitants on the other side of the border.  They challenged foreign journalists by asking what country would act differently under the circumstances.  They also noted with respect to the large number of Palestinian casualties that Hamas’ tactics of “using civilians to protect their rockets” in contrast to Israel’s ability to use rockets (i.e., Iron Dome) to protect its civilians was the major factor in the disparity on the “battle scoreboard” that seemed to lead every news broadcast on the conflict.

But as the rockets and carnage continued, many valid arguments in defense of Israel remained ignored or underplayed by these and other representatives of the government, including the Prime Minister himself.  After a while many of the original talking points began to lose their impact, not because they were any less valid but due to repetition.  It was as though a script had been written that had to be rigidly followed regardless of the interviewer or interviewee.  By the time CNN’s Wolf Blitzer made his trek to Jerusalem, anyone who had been following the conversation could have predicted how the Q &A would have proceeded almost verbatim.

So what was missing from the discussion?  What arguments were left off the table that might have persuaded at least some in the media and those watching or reading about the war to view the actions Israel has taken in a more favorable light?  One such talking point actually began to surface weeks into the fighting when a camera crew from India managed to film a number of Hamas fighters assembling and firing rockets from right outside the hotel the journalists were staying at.  The fact that other reporters based in Gaza were unable to talk to or film members of Hamas is something that needed to be pointed out within days of the outbreak of hostilities.  Only recently has it come to light that many such journalists were threatened and intimidated to the point where they feared for their lives if their coverage went beyond filming ambulances carrying wounded Gazans to hospitals or interviewing those whose homes were destroyed by shelling.  As columnist David Bernstein rhetorically asked in a recent Washington Post op-ed: “Can live journalism by reporters who are scared of retaliation from the authorities they are reporting about really count as pure journalism, or is journalism in that context fundamentally compromised?”

A second point that needed to be emphasized but seemed to be ignored was the whole question of intent.  Clearly the Iron Dome missile defense system spared untold numbers of Israeli lives as well as limiting property damage but, in a perverse way, had a deleterious effect on the battle for public opinion.  The media routinely contrasted the handful of Israeli non-military casualties with those on the Palestinian side which numbered in the thousands.  What needed to be done early on by advocates for Israel was to draw an analogy within the context of the criminal justice system whereby an individual who successfully commits a felony as well as someone who is thwarted by external circumstances are considered equally guilty in the eyes of most of the world’s legal systems since in both cases the intent is the same.  The law does not excuse an incompetent bank robber who is caught at the scene or a counterfeiter who is betrayed by his partner before he is able to circulate phony currency.  Iron Dome should be viewed as a vehicle for mitigating the effects of rockets whose sole intention was kill, maim, and terrorize the citizens of Israel.  Regardless of the results, the criminal intent on the part of Hamas was always present.

Undoubtedly other arguments beyond those cited might be offered in an attempt to convince reasonable minds of the rationale for Israel’s handling of the conflict and to avoid reiterating  points that have been made time and again.  Having a flexible military strategy that can be altered by facts on the ground is clearly a necessity for any successful battlefield campaign.  It should be apparent that the public relations war and the battle for world opinion should be viewed in a similar light.


About the Author
Richard Knox is a retired school administrator currently lecturing on the Performing Arts on Long Island, New York.