Pillar of Defense: The media war in review

With a ceasefire in effect, Operation Pillar of Defense has drawn to a close. Of course there will be plenty of media coverage in the coming days and weeks as the “fog of war” clears. In any event, Israel is rarely out of the news, a situation that will not change in the near future.

It is, however, a good time to take stock and make some observations on how this conflict was conducted and covered from a media perspective.

Preparing the message

Christian Science Monitor headline perhaps typifies the unusual starting point that the IDF found itself in when Operation Pillar of Defense began with the targeted killing of Hamas commander Ahmed Jabari:

As Gaza offensive intensifies, Israel enjoys unusual international support

Israel’s government had already laid the groundwork, briefing Western leaders on the intolerable situation of rocket attacks on Israel’s southern population. The almost unequivocal support from the US, Canada, the UK, Germany and others for Israel’s actions and firmly laying the responsibility for the situation at the door of Hamas played a significant role in pushing the media in that direction.

Of course, as more and more journalists arrived in the region, reporting from both Gaza and Israel, the media became more critical. However, this initial international support that was maintained throughout was crucial in setting the parameters of the story.

Chronological inversion

Many media outlets engaged in chronological inversion whereby the focus of a story is the Israeli response to a Palestinian attack. As we’ve seen so often in the past, the media pays little attention to Palestinian acts of terror, only waking up in time to cover Israeli countermeasures.

In this case, the story began with the targeted killing of Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari in the eyes of too many in the media who had ignored years of Hamas rocket attacks on the south of Israel. Israel was therefore the aggressor, the side that had deliberately escalated the violence according to a narrative that was actively promoted by Hamas and its supporters.

That the media labelled each day of the operation “Day One, Day Two” and so on certainly did not help when it came to identifying the beginning of the overall story. This problem was compounded by the IDF’s own descriptions of the chronology of the military operation as distinct from the ongoing violence that had plagued Israeli communities prior to the launch of Operation Pillar of Defense.

A social media war

Social media is a highly effective tool to bypass the mainstream media and to get a message out to the general public. In this respect, the IDF excelled, even breaking the news of Jabari’s death on Twitter. Clearly, lessons had been absorbed from previous crises such as the Mavi Marmara and Operation Cast Lead. By relaying information almost in real time, the IDF maintained control of the story. In the past the information vacuum had been swiftly filled by Palestinian spokespeople prepared to go to any lengths necessary to smear Israel.

Israel was aided by a groundswell of online public support that saw expression on Facebook and Twitter while other non-governmental organizations also played a crucial role in multiplying the impact of the information and producing effective content themselves for sharing online. HonestReporting’s video of Pallywood fake injuries, for example, has been viewed by over 300,000 people on YouTube – clearly not only playing to the choir, while the IDF’s own YouTube channel received huge numbers of views.

Playing the “disproportionate” card

Clearly there were more Palestinians killed in this latest conflict than Israelis. Noticeably, much of the media did very little to identify how many of these Palestinians were combatants. In any event, the ratio of deaths to some 1,500 Israeli air strikes is astonishingly low from a military perspective. Of course, Israel does everything in its power to avoid civilian casualties but during Operation Pillar of Defense, the IDF had clearly improved its intelligence and accuracy since the last major confrontation in Gaza.

Every civilian casualty is obviously a tragedy and is regarded by Israel as an unintended mistake. Nonetheless, many media outlets attempted to portray Israel’s actions as disproportionate based solely on the higher number of Palestinian casualties to Israeli casualties.

For example, the Jerusalem Post’s Gil Hoffman was virtually ambushed on this question during an aggressive interview conducted by the BBC that says much about its despicable attitude towards Israel.

The issue was summed up extremely well by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg who responded to this line in a New York Times editorial:

Israel has a vastly more capable military than Hamas, and its air campaign has resulted in a lopsided casualty count: three Israelis have been killed.

Goldberg stated:

Whenever I read a statement like this, I wonder if the person writing it believes that there is a large moral difference between attempted murder and successfully completed murder. The casualty count is lopsided, but why? A couple of reasons: Hamas rockets are inaccurate; Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system is working well. But the Israeli body count isn’t low because Hamas is trying to minimize Israeli casualties. Quite the opposite: Hamas’s intention is to kill as many Israelis as possible. Without vigilance, and luck, and without active attempts by the Israeli Air Force to destroy rocket launchers before they can be used, the Israeli body count would be much higher. The U.S. judges the threat from al Qaeda based on the group’s intentions and plans, not merely on the number of Americans it has killed over the past 10 years. This is the correct approach to dealing with such a threat.

Access for the journalists

During Operation Cast Lead, Israel prevented journalists from entering Gaza (it was still possible to enter from the Egyptian side). Journalists camped out on a hill near Sderot overlooking Gaza took much of their frustration out on Israel through their negative reports. There was even anecdotal evidence that some journalists wished to “punish” Israel for limiting their access.

During Operation Pillar of Defense, however, journalists were able to gain access to and report from Gaza without any Israeli restrictions. Previously, media organizations were taking much of their raw footage from Palestinian stringers working for Al-Jazeera. Images of dead and injured children dominated the airwaves and the cameramen were only too happy to collude with Hamas to produce the most dramatic pictures to feed an anti-Israel narrative.

This time, the images coming out of Gaza, while still making for unpleasant viewing, were not as skewed or damaging towards Israel. While footage such as Reuters’ Pallywood scene was aired by both the BBC and CNN, this appeared to be an exception rather than the rule. Having been caught out by this and previous Hamas deceptions, journalists may well have been more circumspect in their reporting.

No key incident

In any conflict, things can change in an instant. In any military operation, mistakes are bound to occur. In the past, just one errant missile or even a staged event leading to a mass civilian casualty event has been enough to cause immense damage to Israel in the eyes of the world and consequently leading to increased pressure to bring operations to a swift end before an objective may have been achieved.

Operation Pillar of Defense was not without tragic mistakes. There was, however, no one incident that could be seen as a real turning point that caused Israel to lose the PR war in an instant. Of course, this was all in the absence of a ground war.

CNN poll found that a majority of Americans (57%) said that Israel’s operation in Gaza was justified as opposed to 25% who were against. Clearly, in the US at least, Israel came out on top in this respect.

In conclusion, while HonestReporting and others identified many examples of media bias, overall the media coverage was more balanced than we have seen in the past. Some of the usual suspects such as the BBC and The Guardian did not disappoint when it came to one-sided content and it remains to be seen whether balanced coverage will be part of a longer-term trend.

While the military action may be over for now, the media war will continue.

About the Author
Simon Plosker is the Editorial Director of HonestReporting, returning to the media watchdog in October 2022, having previously been part of the organization’s management team from 2005 to 2020. Prior to his first spell at HonestReporting, Simon worked in Israel for NGO Monitor, BICOM, and served for a short period in the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. He was Managing Editor of the Geneva-based NGO United Nations Watch for two years before deciding to rejoin the frontline defending Israel from media bias. Simon has a BSoc.Sc in International Studies and Political Science from the University of Birmingham and an MSc in History of International Relations from the London School of Economics. He immigrated to Israel in 2001 from London.