After their last controversial war,against Lebanon in 2006,Israelis commonly blamed the press for sapping morale by covering the carnage too closely. Israel is now better prepared. The tactics it deploys on the media front are as cunning and punchy as those its army has been wielding against Hamas in Gaza.
Back in November,few outside the region noticed when Israel suddenly blocked foreign reporters access to the crowded Strip. But the information prong of Israels Gaza offensive involves far more than the tight control of press access. Israel has fully utilised its expertise at hasbara,a Hebrew word meaning literally explanation,but referring more broadly to image promotion. Platoons of on-message spokesmen are available to foreign reporters in Israel at all hours of the night and day. Israels army has also launched a website featuring selected videos that is dedicated,it says,to documenting the humane action and operational success of Israeli forces. Israels foreign ministry,assisted by scores of pro-Israel groups worldwide,has enlisted thousands of volunteers,supplying them with regularly updated talking points to nudge editors,journalists and commentators to see the news from Israels perspective.
Gaza itself has been subjected to an intense psy-ops campaign. As well as air-dropped leaflets,propaganda that blames Hamas for the violence is beamed out via hijacked Palestinian radio broadcasts,text messages and direct calls to mobile phones. Some Gazans report receiving calls from apparently sympathetic fellow Arabs,who then turn out to want suspiciously specific information about Hamas operatives in their area. Meanwhile,the destruction of Gazas electricity grid makes it hard for those trapped inside the territory to communicate with each other or the outside world.
Israels campaign has succeeded on the home front,with its own Jewish citizens remaining broadly enthusiastic about a war mostly portrayed in admiring terms. It has conquered the American House of Representatives,too,which voted on January 9th by 390-5 for a bill declaring unwavering commitment to Israel. And it has even won over Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher,an American everyman who won brief celebrity in the presidential campaign for his forthright views as Joe the Plumber. Dispatched by Pajamas TV to report from Israel,he declared that its ban on war coverage was a good thing.
Yet wider support among the American public for Israel in this conflict appears to be less robust than usual. A Rasmussen poll taken on December 31st showed that while 44% of Americans were still for Israel,41% were against it,a relatively high figure. And that was before the bloody attack on a UN school and other such incidents. Global public opinion has also probably shifted against the Jewish state. Even inside Israel,human-rights groups,concerned that much of the normally outspoken local press has turned largely jingoistic,have launched a website to expose the mounting tragedy inside Gaza.
They suffer no lack of heart-rending material. Here,denying access to Gaza to all Western correspondents might have backfired on Israel. The result has been that it is Gazans themselves,including some 300 local journalists,who have kept the world focused on their plight. More significantly,the most watched Arab television news channels are all in Gaza,giving saturation coverage to the conflict,even three weeks after its start.
The English-language sister channel of al-Jazeera,with two reporters in Gaza,has flourished in the absence of Western competitors,such as CNN. Its coverage has been graphic but sombre in tone. This contrasts with the hyperbole on many Arabic-language networks,where charges of Israeli genocide,mixed with unsubstantiated reports of Hamass military successes,have been frequent,accompanied by dramatic music and filler material looping pictures of dead children.
Hamas has been largely sidelined from this effort,although its television still beams feebly,airing martial pomp and pre-recorded speeches. The group has even tried its hand at phoning threatening messages to Israelis and posting propaganda on the internet. But what has really turned the tide is the ceaseless stream of appalling imagery that fills the Arab satellite channels. Their passion is certainly not always professional,but the gore,distress and misery they portray are all too real.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2008