IDF, Neil Cohen, HO/AP
Israeli soldiers walk toward the northern Gaza Strip.

Israel Fights for Its Public Image Amid Rising Civilian Deaths

January 13, 2009 08:58 AM
by Josh Katz
The large civilian death toll in Gaza has fomented public opinion against Israel. But Israel continues to blame Hamas for putting civilians in danger.

Civilian Deaths Measured Against Hamas War Tactics

International criticism against Israel is seemingly mounting by the day, as casualties in Gaza have reached 900 and many of the dead have been civilians, according to Reuters. Last week, for example, Israel was roundly censured when troops struck a school with mortars, though Israel contends that it was responding to militant fire. Israel and the international community have condemned Hamas for turning civilians into shields and firing upon Israeli troops from heavily populated areas.

The question of who, exactly, constitutes a civilian in Gaza has also been a matter of debate. According to the BBC, “the thorny question is arising of who and what can be considered a legitimate military target in a territory effectively governed by a group that many in the international community consider a terrorist organization.”

A Sunday New York Times article writes that Hamas has been blurring the line intentionally: “Weapons are hidden in mosques, schoolyards and civilian houses, and the leadership’s war room is a bunker beneath Gaza’s largest hospital, Israeli intelligence officials say.” The article also notes that Hamas militants have been fighting in civilian clothes, and that Hamas has civilians stand on roofs of buildings in order to deter Israeli bombings.

An attack that generated much controversy occurred on Jan. 3, when Israel launched an air raid that razed a mosque during prayers. The strike killed at least 13 Palestinians, including 2 boys, and wounded 60 people. More than 200 people were reportedly praying in the mosque when it was hit. Israel has attacked several mosques during the Gaza offensive, “saying the Islamists used the houses of worship to store weapons,” according to Agence France-Presse.

The veracity of many of Gaza’s civilian casualties has been disputed as well. Barred from entering Gaza, Western media has had to rely on casualty reports from Hamas leadership and from Israel, which was providing little information during the first days of its military strikes. Accusations that Hamas is inflating numbers have been accompanied by allegations that even some deaths caught on video have been staged.

For example, CNN recently provided a video portraying the effects of the Gaza assaults on civilian lives, in which freelance cameraman Ashraf Mashharawi captured the death of his 12-year-old brother, Mahmoud, on camera. The video shows doctors frantically trying to revive the boy to no avail; according to CNN, the cameraman was determined “to show the world the human cost of this conflict.”

But the blog Little Green Footballs suggested on Jan. 8 that the CNN video might very well be a fake. The blog quotes one of its readers, who claims to be a doctor, asserting that “the ‘resuscitation scene’ at the beginning is fake, and it’s a pretty lame fake at that,” as the CPR performed on the boy looked like the “sort of thing you see in bad TV dramas.”

Little Green Footballs also points out that the Norwegian doctor in the video, Mads Gilbert, is a “radical Marxist who openly supports Hamas and the 9/11 hijackers.” The blog goes on to say that CNN later removed the video, “with no explanation or retraction.”

Historical Context: Winning the PR war

For years, both sides have been acutely aware of the value of public opinion, and have made concerted and often sophisticated efforts to use international media to their advantage.

The Economist published an article in March 2005 examining public relations for both the Palestinians and the Israelis. The article dwelt more on the public image of the Palestinian Authority at the time, revealing just how important PR has been in the ever-changing Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

According to The Economist, “it is hard to tell which side has better public relations just by looking at the coverage itself. Packs of media watchdogs scrutinise every news item, providing daily reams of proof that the world’s media are both riddled with Israel-haters and controlled by a Zionist conspiracy.”
In the current war, Israel has made use of a PR agency it created, called the National Information Directorate. According to The Guardian, the directorate was developed as a result of the war in Lebanon, and is currently making sure certain messages are disseminated: that Hamas violated the ceasefire; that Israel is defending its people; and that Hamas is a terrorist organization that purposely attacks civilians.

Aviv Shir-On, Israel’s foreign ministry deputy director-general for public affairs, said, “Support doesn’t mean the world is standing behind us, but it does mean people understand what we are doing and why.”

Background: Israel’s Gaza blockade, and truce with Hamas

Israel began the blockade against Gaza and the West Bank in early 2006 with the support of the United States and the European Union, after Hamas won a majority in parliamentary elections. Israel lifted the West Bank blockade in June 2007 when the Palestinian Authority’s power-sharing agreement fell apart, and the secular Fatah group took charge of the area.

Israel then engaged in peace talks with Palestinian Authority President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, while augmenting the blockade against Gaza. The rocket attacks from Gaza continued, however, and the popularity of Hamas did not fade in the strip.

Hamas then staged a violent coup in which the group routed Fatah from Gaza and took full political control of the area.

The Egypt-mediated truce began on June 19 and both sides consented to observe a “mutual and simultaneous calm.” Israel also agreed to gradually ease the blockade, and the nation did permit “more food, fuel and humanitarian relief supplies into Gaza,” but Hamas said it wasn’t enough, according to the Los Angeles Times. Despite the truce Hamas occasionally shot rockets into Israel, and the Israeli military launched surgical strikes aimed at destroying tunnels from Gaza to Egypt used to smuggle weapons, cash, and food and medical supplies.

Israel has faced increasing international pressure to lift the Gaza blockade. Even the United States, Israel’s closest ally, expressed such sentiments recently. The European Union, United Nations and Russia have also pushed Israel to remove the blockade, according to Sky News.

In mid-December, Hamas officials declared an end to the truce and increased the frequency of rocket launches into residential neighborhoods in southern Israel. Israel responded by beginning its current military campaign into Gaza on Dec. 27, first with air strikes and then, a week later, sending in ground troops.

Reference: Regional map


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