Israel licks its wounds in the Gaza propaganda war

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jan 07 2009 06:30 PM | Updated as of Jan 15 2009 01:41 AM

JERUSALEM - Israel has taken a battering in the global propaganda battle over its war with Hamas, despite deploying all the latest weaponry from Youtube videos to Twitter blogs and an overworked spokeswoman, experts said.

Governments worldwide have slammed the Israeli military onslaught on the Gaza Strip, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemning attacks near UN schools that killed dozens and foreign media angry at being kept out of the Palestinian territory.

With images of parents carrying lifeless children to overwhelmed hospitals dominating international media, angry protests have been staged in major capitals and Israeli websites have reportedly come under cyber attack.

European Union External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told President Shimon Peres in a meeting on Tuesday that "Israel's image is being destroyed" by its refusal to heed appeals for a ceasefire.

Hamas has concentrated on the Arabic media and largely shunned the West. But Israel has sought to keep the focus firmly on Hamas cross-border rocket attacks that led to the war, and launched a sophisticated public relations campaign.

Military spokeswoman Major Avital Liebovich has become an international media celebrity as she parries tough questions about the Israeli attacks and the hundreds of Palestinians killed.

Israeli ambassadors have also been forced to join the television battle.

The defence ministry in Tel Aviv has posted videos of Israeli air strikes on Hamas targets on Youtube, and the government has also tried to spur debates on Facebook.

The Israeli consulate in New York this week organised a Twitter social networking debate on the merits of the war which drew more than 2,500 bloggers.

It was not conducted in the language of diplomacy, as this extract shows:

"Explore4corners: How many attacks have there been against IS in the last 6 months? How many casualties? The MSM doesn't report that here.

"Israelconsulate: ovr 500 rockts Hit IL in the 6 mts of CF. per the last 72 hrs mre thn 300 hit IL. kiling 4 ppl & injuring hndrds."

Israel says it will not let world public opinion sway the decision whether to call a ceasefire in the conflict that has left more than 680 Palestinians dead since December 27 -- a third of them children.

According to the president's office, Peres replied to Ferrero-Waldner: "We are not in the business of public relations or improving our image. We are fighting against terror, and we have every right to defend our citizens."

But Israel, which last year hired a British public relations firm that had worked with Lebanon and the Northern Ireland governments on their image, does care, experts say.

The Israelis "are the ones who have a grip on communications," said Dominique Wolton, a specialist on media at France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris.

"But Israel will not win the communications battle because whatever Israel's legitimate rights are, the unbalanced use of force and the unleashing of violence by Israel is acting against it.

"The Palestinians are not saying a lot. Israel has a grip on the communications and Israel manages its very well," Wolton commented. "The word 'terrorist' is systematically linked to Palestinians."

Charles Tripp, professor of Middle East politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, told AFP: "As far as the Arab world is concerned, clearly, there is no question about who's winning the propaganda war."

In Europe, Tripp added, "the very powerful images of what's happening to civilians in Gaza must be having a greater impact than seeing Israeli spokesmen talking about the war on terror.

"In many ways, one of the main targets of the Israeli propaganda is Europe and the US, and I would have thought they're not doing too well there."

In a BBC television interview broadcast on Wednesday, Ron Prosor, Israel's ambassador to Britain, acknowledged the difficulty of the battle when the suffering of Palestinians is dominating the debate.

"In a sense, it is very hard for me but I know that our nation has to defend itself and its citizens," he said.