The Flotilla in the Israeli Press

Not many atrocities can be less controversial than Israel’s attack on the Turkish-based flotilla heading to Gaza yesterday. Like Somali pirates, Israel attacked the boats in international waters. Like the darkest regimes, Israeli forces opened fire on unarmed civilians who had not posed a threat to anybody, except to the siege that Israel (with Egyptian co-operation and U.S. backing) imposes on Gaza. Condemnation of what the Turkish prime minister rightly termed “an act of state terrorism” has been global, except for the shameful mumbling of the American government (but what can you expect from the complicit?).

In any normal place, you would expect masses to take to the streets and protest. Indeed, precisely this happened all over the globe. Not in Israel. A few hundred people did demonstrate in Tel Aviv and in several other towns, but then again a few hundred gathered to throw eggs at the Turkish embassy. On the internal front, the Israeli government has nothing to worry about.

How is this consensus achieved? How can you turn millions of fairly educated citizens into silent lambs, or worse, into supporters of their own state’s terrorism? If we concentrate on the short term, leaving aside, for the sake of brevity, decades of indoctrination, one can spot a few themes in the Israeli propaganda, which emerged during the first hours after the incident.

Recurrent Themes

The first theme was “weapons.” The peace activists were quickly portrayed by Israel as “armed.” The details changed with the minute: some media channels claimed they snatched a gun from an Israeli soldier, others said an empty ammunition magazine was found on board, others simply repeated the words “armed” or “carrying weapons” without bothering to explain. The adjective “cold” disappeared from yesterday’s Hebrew dictionary: every knife, stick, stool, or cushion turned their holders into dangerous killers – especially when facing Israel’s elite soldiers, who entered the boat peacefully and bare-handed (except for their unmentioned pistols, revolvers, hand grenades, tear gas, shockers, noise bombs, smoke bombs, protective vests, etc., etc.).

Soon after, an Israeli military spokesperson came out with the most lunatic theme of all: “lynching.” The Israeli soldiers, so official Israel shamelessly claimed, had to save themselves from being lynched by the activists. This is a direct continuation of the previous theme: when unarmed demonstrators are turned into armed killers, when armed elite soldiers kidnapping a boat become benevolent guests, one can describe the former as “lynching” the latter.

One has to be quite insane to describe armed soldiers as being lynched by unarmed civilians; it’s an insult not only to intelligence, but to the soldiers themselves. This is why an alternative theme was introduced: “battle.” The confrontation on the boat has been explicitly termed “a battle,” as if the poor Israeli army (vessels, helicopters, electronic thwarting, etc.) was facing a raging Turkish battalion. Obviously, all three themes – “weapons,” “lynching,” and “battle” – imply the Israeli soldiers were obliged to open fire; they were the victims of the ruthless attack of the Turkish grand armada.

A fourth theme was “trap” (or “ambush”). This, again, enables Israel to portray those who set the trap – the flotilla – as aggressors, while the Israeli army was, quite unfortunately, a passive, innocent victim of the hostile conspiracy.

Let’s see how Tuesday’s Israeli newspapers recycled these propaganda themes.

Tabloid One

The right-wing daily Ma’ariv put its headline in the middle of a blurred photo supplied by the Israeli army, worded “the harsh attack on the fighters: cudgels, axes, and a fighter thrown off the deck.” So now we know who the real victims are. The headline read: “The Failure (nine demonstrators killed, global rage, mumbling government, and exchange of accusations at the top) – And The Heroism (in spite of the intelligence failure and the hard violence, the commando fighters managed to take over the ships).” Criticizing the government is instrumental only to uniting behind the army, and the soldiers who spilled civilian blood are not less than “heroes.” At the bottom of the page there were two interchangeable pictures, one showing demonstrators tearing an Israeli flag, the other depicting police arresting a demonstrator next to a great fire. Titles, respectively or otherwise: “Turkey is boiling” and “The [Israeli-Arab] Section Runs Wild.” Both subtitles mentioned “Palestinian and Hamas flags everywhere,” “torn Israeli flags,” “furious mob,” “Molotov cocktails, fire, and injured policemen.” Once again, note who’s the aggressor and who’s the victim in this story. None of Israel’s newspapers, by the way, reported the demonstrations against the operation within Israel; at best, “riots” in Israeli-Arab towns were reported.

In addition, Ma’ariv gave six opinion and analysis columns, all starting on page 1. A whole spectrum of opinions. Journalist Ben Kaspit, under the hyper-critical title “Absolute Stupidity,” opened his column with the following sentence: “First of all, let it be clear: We are on the right side in this story.” The Israeli Daniel Pipes, demagogue Ben-Dror Yemini, scolded what he termed “A Leadership of Fools” for its “defeat in a battle against a ship of Hamasniks” – thus the activists were portrayed as Hamas terrorists and Israel’s piratical invasion as a battle, in line with official propaganda. Ofer Shelach, a critical columnist, added a new aspect to the soldiers’ victimhood: “From this day, the hands of the best unit in this army, whose combatants honestly join it in order to defend the state of Israel, are smeared with civilians’ blood.” That’s as far as criticism goes. Beneath him, Alan Dershowitz urged “Do Not Rush to Pass Judgment,” then immediately rushed to pass judgment that attacking the vessels outside Israel’s territorial waters was a legitimate act. What can you expect from this discredited joker? Still, Dershowitz’s imperative was polite compared to the two Israeli columnists beneath him, who directly commanded the readers to “Salute and Shut Up!”: “The pictures will not persuade the hypocritical world, but they should persuade every Zionist Israeli, right or left, to thank the fighters….” At the bottom, journalist Shalom Yerushalmi made political calculations. “But what about the lynching?” you may ask. Don’t worry: Ma’ariv‘s page 1 ended with a big headline at the very bottom: “Netanyahu: ‘Israeli Soldiers Were Defending Themselves From a Lynching.'” All the propaganda themes are here.

Tabloid Two

The right-wing daily Yediot Achronot took a completely opposite line, as far as placing the “lynching” theme is concerned. Here it wasn’t at the bottom, but at the very top of the page: “The Ambush: ‘We Felt Like in a Lynching,’ the Fighters Said.” The big headline was a single word: “The Trap,” theme number four. Within a big picture taken by Reuters (euphemistic wording for the kidnapping: “the marine commando boats escort one of the ships”) three smaller pictures were printed: one worded “a soldier thrown off the deck,” one worded “the weapons: knives and sticks,” and a third one depicting a green cloth with Arabic inscription, upon which two dozen knives were scattered, some of them small kitchen knives; no wording, no credit. Ma’ariv had the same picture on page 8, with credit to “IDF spokesperson,” who probably put the green cloth as a suggestive background.

Seven columnists made it to the front. Journalist Nahum Barnea said the “takeover” ended in “frustration”: “Israel yesterday made an effort to prove that the people awaiting the commando on board were not human rights activists but violent thugs. I assume this is true. Still, the question is why Israel gave those thugs precisely what they wanted.” Journalist Sima Kadmon paraphrased an Israeli cliché: “Where are the days when we were a bit less righteous but a bit wiser,” implying the action was perfectly right but simply unwise. Extremely militaristic journalist Alex Fishman said the same differently: “the takeover was right and necessary, and will be right and necessary next time too.” Analyst Sever Plotzker urged Defense Minister Ehud Barak to resign, not failing to name the true agent behind the maritime bloodbath: “the trap of Hamas provocation.” Senior columnist and political adviser Eitan Haber opened on a good note: “one could have tried to solve this problem peacefully.” Reading the rest of his article (page 8), one learns that he had been consulted in advance, but “I had no doubt that my suggestion as for how to deal with the flotilla of villains would be rejected.” Haber’s concern is in no way moral: he is just worried about Israel losing Turkey as an ally. Next, journalist Amnon Avramovitz explained that Netanyahu was repeatedly “unlucky,” and, last but not least, right-wing columnist Hanoch Daum concluded: “It wasn’t Israel that initiated the confrontation at sea, it wasn’t Israel that attacked fighters with cold and warm weapons. And it’s not Israel that should be held accountable. It’s Hamas’ fault. Instead of rejecting the world’s ludicrous claims, we all start a session of self-accusation.”

Quality Paper

How about Ha’aretz, Israel’s liberal quality daily? The headline revealed the focus: “IDF’s Failed Action Creates International Mess.” Underneath it, four small pictures, one taken by the army – “throwing a soldier off the deck,” the very same as in both tabloids (but decently smaller) – one by Reuters (same as in Yediot), one taken by the Israeli police, and one showing the defense minister with two uniformed generals. Quite unlike the tabloids, the word “lynch” here is neither at the top nor at the bottom, but in the small print in the center of the page: “Defense minister … said yesterday the soldiers confronted extreme violence, and justified the decision to open fire in order to protect the fighters who, they said, were facing the risk of lynching.” Four op-eds reached the front page of the Hebrew print edition: the editorial, columnists Ari Shavit and Amos Harel, and writer David Grossman. The former two can be found in English on the Internet; the latter two are missing as I write this. All of them were critical to some extent: the editorial demanded an investigation; Shavit drew an unoriginal historical analogy to the raid on the Exodus ship; Harel wrote that the army representatives had no real difficulty explaining the action to the Israeli public: given the “extreme violence” they met, the soldiers “had no other choice,” being “exposed to injury and surrounded by a violent mass hitting them with sticks; under these circumstances, no wonder they fired live ammunition to defend themselves.” What all three columns, though, highly regretted was the damage to Israel’s image. Not a word about morality or legitimacy: it’s Israel’s image which is at stake. Because of this single flaw, the world might err to think that Israel is no longer the peace-seeking, law-abiding, sane, moderate, and benevolent country it actually is.

The one mild exception was David Grossman, who used the word “crime” for the crime, and even though he too recycled the “trap” metaphor, he did distinguish between the “small, fanatic Turkish organization” behind the flotilla and the “hundreds of activists for freedom and justice” on board. Grossman also equated the action carried out outside Israel’s territorial water to an act of piracy. He saw the action in the broader context of Israel’s “outrageous” siege on Gaza, and his final paragraph can summarize not only his, but my own column as well:

“More than anything else, this crazy operation is evidence for the place that Israel has reached. There is no point in elaborating. Whoever has eyes in his head sees and feels it. No doubt, within hours some swift minds would find a way to turn the (natural, justified) feelings of guilt of many Israelis into a vociferous accusation against the entire world. The shame, however, would be more difficult to come to terms with.”

Author: Ran HaCohen

Dr. Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in computer science, an M.A. in comparative literature, and a Ph.D. in Jewish studies. He is a university teacher in Israel. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English, and Dutch). HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter From Israel" appears occasionally at