The Gaza War, Theater and the Big Interview
Issue 10, Spring 2010
Jennie Stoller performs in Caryl Churchill's play, Seven Jewish Children
ART OR PROPAGANDA? – Reflections on Gaza, theater and the big interview
The military phase of the Gaza war started on December 27, 2008, when Israel launched an attack on the Gaza Strip. It ended on 18 January, 2009, when Israel, and then its opponent, Hamas, each declared a unilateral cease-fire. Israel began a ground invasion on January 3 and withdrew on January 21. The numbers pointed to the disproportionate nature of the carnage: estimates of Palestinian dead ranged from 1,166 to 1,417 while the Israeli figure for their side was 13. Visual images of Palestinian children killed or maimed were carefully omitted by one side in what came to be called the media wars, while for the other, they were a staple. This paper argues that the state of Israel devoted unparalleled attention to the media during this crisis, yet it became increasingly evident that it was losing the propaganda war ( Economist, 2009, 48). As the truth of this proposition became more and more evident outside of Israel’s borders, the question had to be asked: why?
In order to understand this, a wider knowledge of the history as well as the politics and economics of the crisis is needed. For Israel, the history was strategic. After their last war in 2006 in southern Lebanon, Israelis commonly blamed the press for covering the carnage too closely (Ibid.). In much the same way, media coverage of Vietnam was blamed for the failure of the United States in that theater, so its military was determined to orchestrate what was euphemistically called the battle for hearts and minds during the first and second Gulf Wars. The Israeli government intended to do the same in the Gaza war. As the venerable British institution, The Economist, put it, Israel’s tactics on the media front were as “cunning and punchy” as those of its fighting women and men in the air and on the ground (Ibid.). Israeli preparations for war were traditional, state-centric and top-down. By contrast, its opponents were most effective when they relied on non-traditional, non state-centric and bottom-up forms of media. In order to counter repressive government censorship across the whole range of Arab states, innovative use of various forms of media has become necessary (see, for example, Wheeler, 2009, particularly Table 22.3, 319).
The Propaganda Machine
Israel started preparation for war in November of 2008 when it blocked the access of foreign reporters to the Gaza Strip, an action which went largely unnoticed outside of the region (Economist, 2009, 48.). At the same time, Egypt made a decision to keep its borders with Gaza sealed. Mainstream US television networks “have largely abandoned the Middle East” (Pintak, 2009) – a view that was underscored by the fact that a few weeks before the start of the Gaza conflict, CBS News fired most of the staff at its Israel bureau. The information arm of Israel’s offensive involved far more than tight control of information to the press. The government developed its own form of branding, which it called hasbara – a Hebrew word meaning “explanation” – in reference to explanations rooted in a broader sense of image promotion (Economist, 2009, 48). The operation was carried forward with machine-like efficiency and a ruthless dedication to the task at hand. A vast array of what were called “on-message” spokespeople were readily available at all hours of the night and day to provide foreign reporters with information. But the tools of new media and of viral marketing were exploited as well. A web site was launched by the Israeli army, providing selective visual evidence of the effort to fight the war in a manner which would spare the innocent, thereby documenting what it chose to call the “humane action and operational success” of its forces (Ibid.). Another arm of the strategy involved outreach. Israel’s foreign ministry, assisted by scores of pro-Israel groups world-wide, enlisted thousands of volunteers who were supplied with constantly updated talking points “to nudge editors, journalists and commentators to see the news from Israel’s perspective” (Ibid.). During the war, Hamas’s launch of homemade Qassam rockets spread fear across the population centers in the south of Israel. Repeatedly, Hamas boasted that it would kill or abduct Israeli soldiers, thus reawakening memories of the start of the conflict in 2006.
For its part, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) relied on tried and tested fundamentals of psychological warfare, starting with an intensive “psy-ops” campaign. Aircraft dropped leaflets blaming Hamas for the violence,and giving contact information to people who wanted to turn in Palestinian fighters and secret arm caches. Palestinian radio shows were hijacked. Broadcasts on Islamic Jihad’s Voice of Jerusalem were constantly interrupted. New media such as text messaging and mobile phones were broken into as well. There were reports from some Gazans that phone messages were coming in to them from apparently sympathetic fellow Arabs who then turned out to want specific information about Hamas operatives in their area (Ibid.). Israel used physical geography to its strategic advantage as well. Gaza is a coastal strip about 25 miles long and between four and eight miles wide and one of the most highly populated places on the planet. By destroying Gaza’s electricity grid, its residents were literally kept in the dark. They were demoralized, and in many instances, because of the destruction of their homes, dislocated.