Propaganda Wars and the Gaza Offensive
Is Popular Anti-war Sentiment Misguided?
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who is working to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza said yesterday that slanted coverage of the war mocks world opinion. "Excuses are found for mass killings of children at schools, hospitals and mosques, especially by Jewish-backed media," he said. "News stories saying that terrorists hide among children or (describing bombings) as technical errors or accidents are aimed at making fun of the world."
Egypt seems to have proved ineffective at negotiating a peace deal and international organizations have turned increasingly towards Turkey to step in since it maintains good relations both with Israel as well as Arab nations, but Erdogan made no bones about how he feels about the current offensive, referring to it as a "crime against humanity." "If we do not state what is just and lawful, then we will lose our self-respect," he added
In my readings and discussions in recent days, I have heard a common complaint from those who support the actions of the military in Gaza. They claim that what we are being fed in the media is well-crafted Palestinian propaganda aimed at blinding us from the true reality of the dangers before them, namely that the elimination of the Jewish state is at stake here. Let us just assume that that is a distinct possibility and set it aside, but what of the charge that what we are watching on our screens day in and day out is propaganda?
The problem Israel has had in the past with its wars is not so much the amount of civilian casualties, but what this does to its public image. In the wake of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, when thousands of refugees were massacred amid worldwide criticism, Israel mounted a massive campaign to control how Israeli and American media report its actions (Hasbara Project) with the aim of garnering public support for its continued occupation and regular incursions into Palestinian territories. It worked very well. Much of the mainstream media in the US still operates under the same influences today, but the Internet has drastically changed the means by which we get our news. The dissemination of information can no longer be controlled the same way it was even just some four years ago when YouTube didn't exist, for example. The advent of AlJazeera has also provided a widely acclaimed alternative source for news, which is more openly critical of Western policies in the Middle East and more sensitive to Islamic culture and popular sentiment.
Israel has had to find new ways of controlling media output, but its latest tactics don't seem to be working particularly in its favor. Blocking all foreign journalists from entering Gaza now, and for extended periods during the long months of the blockade, not only is in violation of democratic values and international law, it also has not helped Israel keep its public image untarnished. A dearth of independent, impartial reporting has outraged the media and public alike.
Stories about the dire situation for people living on the strip have surfaced despite the ban, and humanitarian agencies have been culling data which is instantly available on-line for inquiring minds. Stop by the UN site here and you can read the regular field updates about the situation over the last 18 months to get a sense of the effects the blockade has had on the people of Gaza. It might become a bit clearer why the vast majority of the media is heavily criticizing the current operations against a people, which had already become essentially crippled by lack of basic supplies.
But if the claim that what we are watching is propaganda is true, and indeed, some of the castings I have seen on Al Jazeera recently do seem to be rather slanted, Israel is really shooting itself in the foot by not allowing international media in. By doing so, the vast majority of reports are coming from Palestinian sources, which are very likely to be one-sided, and wrought with sympathy for its own people. Where are the images of Hamas fighters launching rockets into Southern Israel for example? Not letting media in to show both sides of the story and then turning around to label what information does get out as propaganda is something of a self-defeating and irrational calculation.
In the meantime, those who support the offensive and defend the tactics of Israel have continued uttering a series of mantras in the hopes that it will eventually sink in and drown out the wave of images of dead children we are being bombarded with daily. To the high number of civilian casualties they say, "Hamas hides among civilians." To the alarming number of children being killed they say, "Hamas uses children as fighters." To the inability of the IRC to rescue injured parties they say, "Hamas uses ambulances to shuttle in weapons and fighters."
Then come the flat out blank denials of reality from the Israeli armed forces. To the bombing of the Samouni family who had been asked to evacuate into another house where they were then shelled, killing 26, we get "we have no reports of this." To the claims that the chemical weapon white phosphorus is being used against civilians, we get a mixed bag of responses: "no we are not using this weapon," "we are using weapons within international law," "we use weapons which other western countries use in their military operations," or "we do not discuss the munitions we use." All this despite photographic evidence and munitions experts worldwide proving that it has been used. Who is the mantra for, us or them? As PM Erdogan said, it does seem a bit as though we are being made fun of.
Hamas is bad news. Let us agree on that. They have openly stated that they wish to abolish the state of Israel. They train militant youths to launch rockets into civilian neighborhoods in Israel, and the Palestinian Authority itself has even questioned its legitimacy. The violence needs to stop. Dialogue needs to start. It is foolish and inhumane for them to kill civilians and put their own people at risk for what is happening right now. Israel historically has not stood for attacks on its own people and it has one of the most well-armed and powerful armies on the planet. It could be argued that Hamas has sacrificed its own people by their tactics, but that's an argument with a great deal of holes in it, and it doesn't excuse the methods of the Israeli army in trying to flush them out, nor does it suddenly bathe Israel in the white light of sainthood, acting merely in defense of its own people.
The latter has always been the argument they use to justify military operations against the Palestinians, but it has grown stale in recent years and falls on deaf ears in the face of a mountain of indicting reports of major violations of human rights, international law, and war conduct. For one, international law maintains that self-defense is an act of last resort and is subject to rules of proportionality and necessity. Then there are the numbers.
Since 2001, when the rockets were first fired, more than 8,600 have hit southern Israel, 6,000 of which came since Israel withdrew from Gaza in August 2005. 28 people have died and hundreds more have been injured. In just 18 days, 984 Palestinians have died, most of them civilians, with an additional 4,530 injuries. That's not including the thousands more killed over the last eight years. The greater public does not seem to think that this equation is acceptable, nor is it in keeping with the laws of proportionality.
Supporters of the Israeli offensive often claim that Hamas attacked Israeli citizens first, which therefore erases the guilt of killing so many Palestinian civilians now. They claim that Israelis just want peace, often insinuating that Palestinians, or even Arabs in general, breed a culture of violence and have a different set of values which do not match those of a supposed free and democratic society. Not only is this stance inherently racist, it also happens to be apocryphal. As Sherdia Zuhur, Research Professor of Islamic and Regional Studies at the U.S. Army War College notes, "Hamas operatives first utilized suicide attacks in 1994, after an American-born Israeli settler, Baruch Goldstein, fired on and threw hand grenades at unarmed worshippers in the al-Haram al-Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron on February 25, killing 29. Until that date, Hamas' only targets were Israeli military. It ceased such attacks, which were very controversial with other Palestinians in 1995, and reintroduced them after the "targeted killing" of Hamas leader Yahya Ayyash."
Lebanon's Daily Star posted an interesting article today about India's similar problems with terrorist acts from neighboring Pakistan. "Terrorism has taken more lives in India than in any country in the world after Iraq, and yet, unlike Israel, India has seemed unable to do anything about it," it says. "As Israel demonstrates anew its determination to end attacks on its civilians by militants based in Hamas-controlled territory, many in India, still smarting from the horrors of the Mumbai attacks in November, have been asking: Why can't we do the same?" The answer is quite simple: Pakistan, a legitimately recognized state and member of the United Nations, is a nuclear power and an equal match for India's armed forces, against whom they would likely neither win nor loose, exacting too much collateral damage on their own people to justify an attack.
Israel has the great fortune of being far more powerful in every regard than Hamas, yet the astounding force with which it has attacked Gaza in the last two and a half weeks, does not seem to have disabled Hamas' capability to launch rockets at its neighbor. The ground offensive into Gaza hopes to achieve that aim, but it is likely to exact higher casualties on the Israeli side, and many argue this bit of math could change the tide of public support for Operation Cast Lead. That is rather telling, isn't it? When the body bags of your own people start shipping home, the war doesn't seem so justified anymore and propaganda looses its weight. That is what happened with the Lebanon war in 2006, and also what swayed public opinion in the US with regards to the war in Iraq.
Who among the American public can recall the civilian carnage of the first days of the war? What we saw then on television in the US looked more like fireworks show than the bloodbath that it was. The US media did not do its job in the run up to the war, and the well-oiled Pentagon propaganda machine churned out repetitive language, reiterating words and phrases like "terrorist," "Osama Bin Laden," "September 11," "protect the American people," "defend our values," and so on. These kept most of the American public in a blind patriotic stupor, terrified for their own safety and hungry for revenge. Much of the same language is used by supporters of the Israeli offensive today, and it has been reported that Israeli media is not giving the full picture of what is presently going on in Gaza, which might help to explain why there is such a high percentage of support for the offensive.
The vast majority of Americans supported the invasion of Iraq despite the fact that evidence was available in the European press proving the famous yellow cake uranium documents had been forged by a devious Italian intelligence agent. It was also widely reported outside the US that there was no connection whatsoever between Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network, yet the American public supported the Pentagon in its march toward disaster, and continued to do so until the insurgency started exacting its toll on US forces, until army personnel started coming home dead, missing limbs, comatose from the shock at having participated in heinous war crimes, or suffering from the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The rest of the world was largely opposed to the war from the outset, arguably because their medias showed them a different picture and didn't use fear to drum up support for deployment. September 11 gave the dogs of war in Washington the perfect leverage for public support in the US. Public fear of the Muslim terrorist was so easily played on, that even the most revered journalistic institutions didn't question the invasion. If they did, if they doubted the US government's motives, they were deemed to be sympathizing with the terrorists, never mind the fact that September 11 happened because of decades of US state-sanctioned terrorism in the Islamic world. Osama Bin Laden, who, incidentally, appears to have released a tape today calling for jihad in retaliation for the current Israeli offensive, clearly stated in 2004 that he ordered the attacks of 9/11 because of the injustices committed against the people of Palestine and Lebanon. What then does the future hold now?
Since the Israeli incursion, anti-Jewish sentiment has increased tenfold, and what a surprise this is. Alarming as it may be, given the history of the Jews, it's important to note that Anti-American sentiment exploded around the globe with the Iraq war almost instantly, dashing the global sympathy it had garnered after the attacks of September 11. Israel has used the Holocaust as a trump card in an effort to stamp out criticism and stoke public support, but that doesn't seem to be working on the world at large as collective memory fades along with support for the occupation.
Prime Minister Erdogan did make a point to say yesterday, amid his sharp criticism of the war, that he is "a leader who has said that anti-Semitism is a crime against humanity." We should all take caution not to fall into the trap of bigotry and blind hatred, that much seems obvious, but the sort of anti-Jewish sentiment we are seeing today comes as a direct result of bad policies and unjust actions on the part of the Zionist state. Just as the US played on public fears of terrorist attacks, so is the Israeli state playing on the very real fears of its people. In both cases, they do a great disservice to their people in keeping them frenzied and blind to the reasons for the retaliatory acts, which sadly, are sure to come.