RAMALLAH – Palestinians and Israelis are using the media as a new battleground in their war to win hearts and minds across the globe, even as the protracted conflict in the Mideast drags on with no apparent end in sight.
Israel has led the way for decades with its slick and professional hasbara, or propaganda machine. This has operated mainly from campuses, Israeli consuls, and embassies worldwide where they have first-class access to the world’s media.
In the last few years, though, international opinion has turned increasingly critical of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians, both in the occupied territories and within Israel proper.
Behind the legions of apparent Israeli supporters who make their presence strongly felt in the letters pages of newspapers, on talk radio, and on Internet sites is a lot of money and several carefully orchestrated campaigns. Journalists critical of Israel have often been on the receiving end of these maneuvers.
But the Palestinians are catching on fast to the uses of the media as a weapon in their war and are about to retaliate.
During Israel’s ferocious military assault on Gaza in 2008-09, a horrified international community watched as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) killed over 1,400 Palestinians, most of them civilians, who were trapped and had nowhere to run or hide.
It was at this point that Israel ramped up its hasbara campaign. The Israeli Foreign Ministry established an “Internet warfare team” as part of its annual budget.
More than $150,000 was set aside for the initial stages of this propaganda offensive carried out by government public relations departments as well as private organizations and groups. Their job was to try and counteract negative publicity in the media.
The Foreign Ministry’s undercover team of graduates and demobilized soldiers, fluent in several languages and adept Internet users, were paid to surf the Internet 24 hours a day neutralizing critical news and spreading positive views on Israel.
Ilan Shturman, deputy director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said in an interview with the Israeli business newspaper Calcalist last year that his team would be working undercover.
“During Operation Cast Lead we appealed to Jewish communities abroad and, with their help, recruited a few thousand volunteers who were joined by volunteers in Israeli,” Shturman said.
“We gave them background and hasbara materials, sending them to represent the Israeli point of view on news Web sites and in Internet polls.”
These activists worked in close cooperation with the Give Israel Your United Support service, which offered supporters a program called Megaphone. About 50,000 activists downloaded the software, which sends an alert to their computers when an article critical of Israel is published. They then respond by bombarding the site with pro-Israel comments.
The IDF’s YouTube Web site also became very popular during the war on Gaza and has continued to attract viewers, although critics question the accuracy of some of the videos posted.
The death of nine Turkish activists – part of an international flotilla attempting to deliver aid to Gaza – at the hands of Israeli commandos who stormed their ship, has brought on international criticism of Israel. And the growing Boycott, Disinvestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign of the Palestinians has further motivated the Israeli authorities to counter what they see as an attempt to “delegitimize Israel.”
A week ago the Foreign Ministry opened a conference which included 170 legal experts from 32 countries. They had come specifically to discuss tactics to challenge criticism of Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territories and its abuse of Palestinian civilians.
The conference focused on presenting Israel’s case vis-à-vis international law, as well as methods to adapt the country’s legal arguments for the international community.
This latest move by the Foreign Ministry follows two right-wing groups – the Israeli settler movement Yesha Council of Settlements, and the youth organization Israel Sheli – which recently organized a campaign to edit Wikipedia in favor of their ideology.
The council announced that the “best Zionist editor” who could incorporate the most Wikipedia changes would win a hot-air balloon trip over Israel.
However, the Palestinians are about to hit back. Abed Nassar, chairman of the Association of Palestinian Journalists, has his battle plan under way. He has called on Palestinian institutions to do their bit by making Wikipedia pages more pro-Palestinian.
It is doubtful whether Israel will be able to completely silence its critics, given how easy it is to access the Internet and the speed and freedom with which it operates when compared to established media groups.
The Israeli authorities also have to deal with a revolt from within as growing numbers of left-leaning Israelis begin attacking their own government.
Apart from the regular attendance of Israelis at West Bank demonstrations against the occupation and land expropriation, academics, authors, and writers are now joining the boycott fray.
Last week, 60 Israeli theater professionals announced they would refuse to perform at a new cultural center built in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. On Monday, over 150 Israeli academics and several dozen authors and artists signed letters offering their support to the boycotters.
(Inter Press Service)