The media war in GazaTuesday 13 January 2009 01.59
By correspondent Tony Connelly (with cameraman Micheál Mac Suibhne) reporting from Gaza
Standing next to two Israeli photographers on a hill overlooking the Israel Gaza border, I am dumbstruck by a stunning blood-orange sunset over Gaza.
As we gaze into the slowly setting fireball, one of the cameramen breaks the silence.
‘All we need are two helicopters to fly across the sun.’
We all grin at the shared recognition of a cinematic moment. But then I’m ashamed at the levity when I reflect on the horror of what has been going on in Gaza.
The moment is a reflection of the media age we live in, and the specific fact that in this war, a hill a few kilometres from Gaza is as close as the international media can get.
Nearly every new conflict which comes to our screens is described at some point as a ‘media war.’ Gaza is another, but the restrictions imposed on this occasion, and the hearts and minds which all sides are trying to influence, make this a particularly heightened battle of images.
It’s also, particularly on the Israeli side, a sharp-edged struggle over news management.
The most difficult reality confronting the foreign news media is that we have been prevented from entering Gaza to cover the conflict.
The Foreign Press Association did win the right to enter Gaza in a hight court action, but the government hasn’t effected that result, and in any case only ten journalists in total would get to enter.
For the moment the horrific images of ambulances ferrying the dead and injured to the Shifa hospital in Gaza, or of fathers crying over their dead children are all provided by a handful of mostly Palestinian and Arabic camera crews still working in Gaza.
They’re putting their lives at risk to record the war, and some have lost family members while they try to do their jobs.
But the Arabic networks aren’t the only ones with video cameras. Hamas themselves run a TV network, Al Aqsa television, in the same way that Hezbollah runs Al Manar in Lebanon.
The Israeli army is also providing dramatic grainy, night-vision images of clashes inside the Gaza strip for distrubution.
But as always, truth may be the first casualty.
Take the appalling loss of life at the UN run school in Jabaliya, northern Gaza. 43 people, including many children, died when an Israeli tank shell struck the school which had been a shelter for people fleeing the fighting.
It provoked outrage across the world and seemed a serious blow to Israel’s efforts to get world public opinion on its side.
I phoned the Israeli defence forces media centre a few hours after the news broke. I was told that the army’s preliminary investigations had revealed that the school had, in fact, been used by Hamas to fire mortars at Israeli troops in the area, and rockets into southern Israel.
The spokesman even named two alleged Hamas operatives who had been found among the dead at the school. For the next 24 hours Israel heaped odium on Hamas for using civilians as a shield.
Then UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, issued a statement saying it was 99.9% sure that Hamas militants were NOT at the school.
Who do we believe?
In the Middle East, Arabs and Jews will probably believe what they want to believe. For the rest of the planet, it’s a difficult one.
But influencing the rest of the planet is a top priority, especially for Israel. When Israeli airstrikes killed over a thousand civilians during the second Lebanon war in 2006 world opinion was largely outraged.
Again Israel blamed the Shiite group Hezbollah for firing rockets from civilian areas.
This time, it seems, Israel is taking every effort to get its message across. It’s been putting images of surgical airstrikes on YouTube to show that they’re ‘not targetting civilians,’ and using Twitter blogs, or social networking debates, and even Facebook to get the message about Hamas rockets hitting southern Israel.
It’s a sophisticated operation and it also extends to journalists. The Israeli military have put a telegenic uniformed spokeswoman Major Avital Liebovich on most networks nearly every night. The affable and almost always available Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, has also been a regular on our screens repeating the mantra that Hamas started it and has to be stopped.
The Israeli embassy in Dublin has contacted me on several occasions offering contacts, information and any help I need. The Israel Project, a ‘non profit, non partisan organisation impacting world opinion to help achieve security and peace for Israel’ sends daily emails and provides booklets absolutely packed with the mobile phone numbers for almost every municipal, police, and hospital official within range of Hamas rockets, even the mobile numbers of countless ordinary residents.
These are all legitimate practices, and most governments would do the same. And having easy access to government and military spokesmen and women is always to be welcomed.
But so long as foreign journalists aren’t allowed into Gaza – and therefore have to remain within the sphere of Israel’s careful news management system – journalists working in the field need to be careful about maintaining their independence of judgement.
The reality for the Israeli government is that world opinion is probably more influenced by images rather than by spokesmen. And during this conflict the images coming out of Gaza are pretty gruesome.
Charles Tripp, professor of Middle East politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, told the AFP news agency: ‘As far as the Arab world is concerned, clearly, there is no question about who's winning the propaganda war… In Europe, 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.’
Israel will continue to argue that they have a right to defend themselves and many people across the world will agree. How they exercise that right, though, is a question many people will not be able to separate from the images they see on television, on the internet, and in newspapers.
- Tony Connelly