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Israel's public relations policy: never apologise, always confuse

Originally published in The National with Jesse Rosenfeld

Never believe the Israeli army killed an unarmed civilian until it’s officially denied. This paraphrasing of Mark Twain’s “never believe anything until it has officially been denied,” should become a mantra for journalists operating in the Middle East.It is a point reinforced recently by the death of a West Bank Palestinian resident, Jawaher abu Rahmah, who died from tear gas exposure during the recent demonstration against Israel’s separation wall and land annexation in the village of Bil’in.

It has become an almost predictable pattern: a Palestinian civilian is killed during a demonstration or Israeli military incursion and the evidence and witness testimony clearly demonstrates Israeli culpability. Then, military sources give farfetched and contradictory statements that become the central focus in Israeli and American media reports.

Jawaher, the 36-year-old sister of Bassem abu Rahmah – who was killed in 2009 from a high-velocity Israeli tear-gas canister fired directly at his chest – was seen by demonstrators, family members and the ambulance driver that took her to hospital, experiencing asphyxiation from a large amount of tear gas. Immediately following her death on January 1, quotes from unnamed Israeli military personnel began saturating the pro-Israel blogosphere. Statements ranging from claims that she was not at the protests and had cancer, to her being released from the hospital and later dying at home moved seamlessly from unvetted blogs to the headlines of Israeli dailies, and then into the main focus of news coverage in the American press.

Rather than make an official statement from the spokesperson’s office, the Israeli military operated behind the scenes, briefing their right-wing English language activist support base to generate a counter-narrative of Palestinian conspiracy theories. Officially, the Israeli military only stated that the death needed further investigation, yet with the groundwork laid in their online networks and aided by complete disregard of journalistic ethics, Israel’s widely read daily, Maariv, accused Palestinians of a “blood libel.”

While the type of deflection was a display of public relations in the age of new media, the substance of the Israeli military’s response was part of a well-established strategy of misinformation and victim blaming designed to obscure the reality of the situation. Rather than try and make a case of legitimacy when it’s difficult to do so, the Israeli military’s PR campaign has been one of saturating the media with so many conflicting reports, innuendos and outright lies that the public doesn’t know what to believe and the main story is lost, effectively absolving the army.

This style of weathering scrutiny has marked some of Israel’s most controversial killings: from the death of 12-year-old Muhammad al Durrha in Gaza in 2000 – who the army first accepted responsibility for shooting and then withdrew it in 2007 amid a manufactured controversy – to its defense of killing activists on the Gaza aid flotilla in May of last year. It has also underscored how Israel has avoided being held accountable in a series of highly questionable killings such as the death of two Palestinian farm boys in the village of Awarta, near the West Bank city of Nablus in March of last year.

By most testimonies from villagers, the boys were working their fields near an Israeli settlement when they were detained by the army. Moments later, shots were fired and the boys arrived at hospital, riddled with bullets in what appeared to be a straight execution. However, when it was reported, the army and settlement council had put out multiple contradicting versions of events that ultimately buried the story and any investigation.

Underscoring this PR strategy is the assumption that Israelis are always more credible than Palestinians, regardless of who they are or the facts. It is a position based on the assumption that Palestinian claims are based on unstated nefarious intentions, while Israeli positions are fact. This creates a context where the medical explanation by Jawaher abu Rahmah’s doctor is presented as propagandised hyperbole, while the baseless, self-interested claims of the Israeli military are accepted as legitimate.

While this style of military information warfare is clearly exposed and condemned in western press coverage from Honduras to the Ivory Coast, where military claims are taken with significant doubt, what is surprising is the legitimacy that the Israeli military is granted by media at home and abroad.

It is this bestowing of false legitimacy that helps make sustainable what is otherwise an unsustainable military occupation.

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    1. maayan

      Israel accepted responsibility for the killing of Muhammad al-Dura, and eventually realized that it actually wasn’t responsible. The side which knew it wasn’t responsible never said anything and made a great propaganda push out of this incident. By the time, many years later, that it became clear that Israel wasn’t at fault, the issue became moot.
      In 2002 at Jenin, the Palestinian propaganda machine went into action again. Once again, for days and weeks, Israel was vilified for an operation that was called everything from a massacre to genocide. It turned out to be neither, but it took videos of “corpses” getting up from stretchers to make the point. By then, Israel’s reputation had been besmirched once again.
      In 2009, B’Tzelem put out a report claiming that only a couple of hundred Hamas men had been killed. It also counted Hamas policemen as a separate category. The point of the report, which had been picked up internationally and has been used extensively by Palestinian and pro-Palestinian propagandists, is that more civilians were killed by Israel than militants. Two years after the war, Hamas admitted that it lost the same number of fighters that IDF had claimed all along, did not address the policemen question at all, and essentially admitted that B’Tzelem was wrong. The silence that has followed, by B’Tzelem and all the parties and individuals who had used their numbers is deafening.
      Israel has every right to be extremely dubious and cautious about incidents where it is accused of crimes, because, whether you admit it or not, it has become part of the Palestinian propaganda game to accuse Israel falsely.
      Here’s the latest story: http://www.jpost.com/MiddleEast/Article.aspx?id=203280

      Reply to Comment
      • Maayan, ‘not responsible’ means that the child did not die from an Israeli bullet. But that’s really not the point. The point is that Gaza was under a military occupation and that Israeli soldiers were shooting live ammunition in an area where civilians were endangered. Instead of holding their fire, they engaged the gunmen. It could just as easily have been an Israeli bullet that killed Mohamed Al Durrah.

        Reply to Comment
    2. maayan

      In the B’Tzelem example I am referring, of course, to Cast Lead.

      Reply to Comment
    3. maayan

      Wrong, Lisa. There were Palestinians with guns there. Blazing away. The Israelis weren’t shooting for fun and they weren’t targeting civilians for fun and they weren’t trying to have a fight for fun or not for fun. That’s not what the IDF does, even if Dana wants to tell us otherwise. There was shooting at the scene because there were Palestinian fighters fighting Israeli soldiers.

      And the point is that IT WASN’T an Israeli bullet which killed him. It was a Palestinian bullet! Or else, he didn’t die. Which is a worse crime, Lisa, lying about the murderer or lying that a murder even took place? Either way, the fact you can’t give it up even after it’s been shown to have been a lie with which Israel was beaten up for years all over the world, is something you should think about long and hard.

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    4. Maayan, this is the reason I cannot take you seriously and find you merely irritating.

      There is a difference between a reflexive defense of Israel and an intelligent, informed defense of Israel.

      You choose the former, every time.

      Israel was not ‘beaten up’. Israel did, and continues to do, some beating – and shooting, which resulted in killing – and then refused to take responsibility.

      Reply to Comment
    5. maayan

      Lisa, you find me irritating because I respond with facts and truth to your views. If you don’t take me seriously, you should, since my defense of Israel is well informed. Israel was beaten up in the international press for months after al-Dura. Actually, it was for years because the reference kept coming up, as it does to this day on your site. Israel, to remind you, was involved in fighting with the Palestinians at the time of his (possible) death because the PA decided that the best response to the skewering they were getting for saying “no” at Camp David was to launch a war against Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Maayan, a person who tells another what he is thinking, rather than marshaling logic and fact, is a person who has lost the argument. And a person who persists in repeating the same talking points, over and over, a la Sarah Palin (“I’m not going to answer that; I’m just going to speak directly to the American people”) rather than responding in a factual manner, is as irritating as a buzzing fly. Please. Go buzz somewhere else. You are not offering any insight or any intelligent analysis. If I need government talking points, I’ll go to the hasbara site.

      Reply to Comment
    7. I have to say Maayan you have really helped confirm the title of my piece. I was hesitant to use such a bold title but reading you comments, they confirm the Israel propaganda strategy that you are using here. Never apologize and always confuse.

      Reply to Comment
    8. maayan

      Yes, yes, Joseph, this is all “propaganda strategy” and I’m a racist bigot who supports ethnic cleansing but is also stupid, uninformed, irritating and not to be taken seriously.

      Did I miss anything?

      Permit me to help you sort things out, though, since you seem to think you’re reporting something we should all know when we listen to Israel. Consider that this is a territorial war which is fought on several fronts, among them the media and informational front. The Palestinians, with the help of their excellent Israeli and Jewish shills, such as those at 972 who demonstrate with the Palestinians and then report on the demonstrations as if they are objective reporters, use the media extensively to further their own objectives. For example, stories such as al-Dura and Jenin are perfect examples. In your view, it is wrong for Israel to respond obliquely in order to contend or counter this Palestinian media/internet/informational strategy. How does that make any sense?
      Let’s take the death of Jawaher last week. I found (thanks to your site) no less than 4 conflicting Palestinian “eyewitness” reports as to what happened to her. Yet, according to you, Israel is confusing the issue by not accepting responsibility. Is it possible that Israel doesn’t know whether it’s responsible, doesn’t believe it’s responsible and doesn’t want to accept responsibility even if you and your friends are already demonstrating against the supposed murder? In other words, rather than lose a media battle, Israel is not fighting back with intent to confuse but with the truth as it knows it?

      Reply to Comment
      • If I had more time, which I do not, I would love to analyze your comment as it contains just some much information about Israeli PR strategy and how it is so successful in Israel. In the meantime, I think it is just perfect to let it stand by itself. All the best, Joseph

        Reply to Comment
      • I think the debate on +972 is lively and inclusive. However, your comments are noted. All the best, Joseph

        Reply to Comment
    9. maayan

      Well, thank you Joseph, I’m pleased that you accept my thesis. I especially like the way you don’t address any of the key claims I make. The truth is that I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, you are Jewish and an Israeli, so of course you are trying to dissemble by confusing the issue and without any intention of apologizing. Did I get that right? Isn’t that your theory?

      Reply to Comment
    10. BlightUntoNations

      …………………………………………….Not to nit pick, but the quote “never believe anything until it has been officially denied” is actually credited to journalist Claud Cockburn, (father of the fabulous Cockburn brothers—all wonderful journalists as well).

      ps: Maayan is a venomous bark pest.

      Reply to Comment