Why Israel is losing the war for public opinion over Gaza

The Gaza conflict, now into its third week, has had one distinguishing feature in the eight days.

Israel: Soldiers prepare to fire a shell from the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip (Credit:JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

It was not trumped in the media by the shooting down of MH17. The two stories have raged across the media side by side throughout the period. If, on the day of the crash, there was a moment when it might have seemed to Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu a ‘good day to bury bad news’ as Israel upped the ante and moved to the second phase, the ground assault, that moment passed quickly.

As this latest round of fighting got under way there was, for a few days, a flicker of rationalism and even-handedness in public assessment and in the columns of the international commentariat. It didn’t last long – the death of the Palestinian boys on the beach was a tipping point – and opinion quickly fell into its traditional narrative patterns: Israel’s right to defend itself versus justice for the Palestinians. 

This is a classically asymmetric conflict. The Israelis have on their side their overwhelming armed power and technology, and their claimed right to defend their State against Hamas’ declared aim of destroying it, and their citizens against unprovoked, unguided and indiscriminate bombing. Hamas has on its side unarmed, trapped, suffering and dying civilians and their historic case of injustice in face of land alienation, economic starvation and ‘apartheid’ (an older meme that has recently been brought back in service of the Palestinian cause).

Result: Israel has lost the war of international public opinion (if only that mattered). In this mega-battle of the narratives, the mounting death toll on the Palestinian side – over 800 compared to 38 on the Israeli side at time of writing – has seen to that. 

Social media are in a frenzy as each side takes its battle online. Al Jazeera reports that the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack has been used in more than 4 million Twitter posts, compared to the nearly 200,000 for #IsraelUnderFire – a powerful index of how this conflict is perceived. My own Facebook page – populated by mainly by white, middle-aged Westerners in Britain, South Africa, Europe, the US, and many Arab friends – is awash in reposted rage. Even I, who in this sort of situation try to make a pitch for ‘none of this is helping, stop shouting at and killing each other’, have retreated into silence before the flood of anger that greets each new image of Gaza’s broken bodies and bombed streets. 

For journalists, the rules of engagement differ on either side of the border. Israeli reporters face limited official sanction in what they may write: they can’t report the identities of dead soldiers until the families have been informed, or the precise location of Hamas rocket strikes; for the rest they write what they like and risk only the ire of Israeli opinion. Gaza’s army of citizen journalists are carefully monitored and do face ‘official’ sanction. This is hardly conducive to rational discussion in Gaza about the future, and possible political responses to Hamas’s military strategies.

One has a modicum of sympathy for the Israelis’ efforts to maintain some reasoned high ground but their continued assertion of rights and regrets (over Palestinian casualties) and their televising of funerals and relatives weeping over soldiers’ graves, get limited emotional traction outside Israel, even in that shrinking middle ground of opinion where people struggle to maintain a balanced perspective. What might help would be to encourage the amplification of those voices in Israel that decry its massive response – and there are many. Such voices would at least indicate some difference between a political culture that permits dissent even in the face of crisis, and one that does not. 

Paul Bell is a director of Albany Associates and a specialist in conflict communications. 

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