The PR War over Gaza: Israel Battles to Influence Global Opinion

By in Erez

The Israeli government appears to have learned from its public relations disaster during the 2008 Gaza war. This time around, the country is seeking to court journalists with a charm offensive -- a tactic that seems to be working. The new face of the army is more international and is doing a better job of liaising with the foreign media.

Photo Gallery: Jerusalem's Beefs Up Its Media Strategy Photos
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Major Arye Sharuz Shalicar seems genuinely concerned. "Please go inside the building. If rockets come, you will be safe there," he tells international journalists gathered at the small army post at the Erez border crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Erez is the Western media's gateway to Gaza -- and Shalicar is the door man. As he himself says, he's the "only person in Israel who has the authority to allow civilians into the Gaza Strip." He then smiles and apologizes if that sounds a little arrogant. It is almost impossible not to find the 35-year-old charming. Indeed, he seems to have been perfectly moulded for the job as Israeli army spokesman.

Israel, it would seem, has learned a lesson from the media debacle during the last war the Gaza Strip in 2008. Four years ago, the government forbade journalists from traveling to the Palestinian region and only a handful of reporters were present during the offensive. Furthermore, the New York Times reported that Israel also blocked mobile phone traffic so as to prevent the transmission of photos from Gaza. Such heavy-handed measures, though, didn't prevent the world from learning that thousands of civilians died in the war and Israel came across like a criminal caught in the act. Although Israel may have won the war, international resistance to the country's policies in the Palestinian territories increased.

This time around, the situation is much different. The doors have been opened for Western journalists and it feels like the red carpet has been rolled out as well. Shalicar says that hundreds of journalists have traveled into the Gaza Strip in recent days. Journalists who arrive in Jerusalem to get their press accreditation for the region are even offered coffee and tea. "You learn from your mistakes," says Shalicar. "It's not just a matter of what happens on the battlefield, but also the 'Dat Kahal,' the public opinion."

'We're Like Germany '

Shalicar got hired as army spokesman six months after the last Gaza war because of his ability to liaise between foreign journalists and Jerusalem. Originally from Berlin, he is in a unique position to help Westerners understand Israel. "We're like Germany, " he says. The meaning -- that Israel is part of the West -- is clear.

The Israeli major didn't always consider Germany to be a country Israel should strive to emulate. Shalicar was born and raised in the immigrant Wedding district of Berlin, the son of Iranian emigres. As a teenager, he got into trouble for petty crime before succeeding in finishing his high school education. He says he didn't feel accepted anywhere. To the Germans, he was a foreigner. To the youth of Turkish or Arab origin in Wedding, he was Jewish. He even wrote a book about his experiences growing up there.

Then, a visit to a kibbutz changed Shalicar's life -- and he finally found a place where he felt accepted. At 22, Shalicar decided to emigrate to Israel, becoming the only member of his family to do so. Shalicar had already performed his mandatory service in Germany's military, but he then decided to serve a second time in the Israeli military, as well. While in the military, he continued to study, learned Hebrew and eventually landed a job as Army spokesman.

"In my European department, we have mother-tongue Danish, Norwegian, English, French and German speakers -- and these are all important languages for us," Shalicar says. Like him, they are all young immigrants. "You need soldiers who don't just speak the language, but also understand the culture," he says.

Success on the Media Front

Israel's new media strategy takes into account the cultural differences and tries to make sure that nothing gets lost in translation. And the name of the latest Gaza offensive alone, Pillar of Defense, is already easier to process than the chunkier official title, Operation Amud Anan, a biblical reference to the pillar of cloud that God transformed himself into in order to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and protect them from the Pharoah's army.

When asked to comment on the root of the conflict or on Israel's Gaza Strip blockade policies, Shalicar says only, "I'm not a politician." Presently, the Israelis are focusing their PR strategy entirely on the course of the current offensive. Anything beyond that is being pushed aside -- lost in a flood of videos, tweets and briefings addressing the most recent rocket attacks.

So far, Israel hasn't been faring badly on the media front. Some 120 Palestinians have already been killed and another thousand injured, most of them civilians, but the kind of international outrage seen in 2008 hasn't materialized.

Indeed, it has been difficult this time around for Hamas to play a role in the propaganda war. Its members have had to go underground as a result of the Israeli bombings while journalists are free to move around within the Gaza Strip.

Often, it is a single image that determines how a war is remembered. But for the current Gaza conflict, no obvious photo has emerged as a candidate. Will it be images of women and children who have been injured in the bombings? Or will it be the suspected traitors who have been executed by Hamas and dragged through the streets?

Shalicar, for his part, hopes that Israel will ultimately profit from its new openness. Whether it will, remains to be seen.

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1. Mass media trivialization of violence is the game of Israel
titus_norberto 11/22/2012
Contrary to popular opinion linking the 1012 Gaza genocide to Iran, I do believe that the main reason is to avoid a VOTE in the UN to grant Palestine an “observer” status (whatever this euphemism might mean) that would put red faces on the very few (less than 10 per cent) Israel supporter nations, and perhaps make them administer another VETO on behalf of Israel (even though is free it has a PR and diplomatic cost though). I do believe that USA and UK are well aware of the military offensive and probably they requested it in order to save faces. It is a PR not a military problem, this is the quid of the question. Not seen this aggression as a result of a PR issue, Israeli’s actions and USA-UK’s aloofness (Syria, Thailand and Burma) and disinterest make no sense, this is its corollary. Another vote like the one that admitted Palestine at the UNESCO is a public embarrassment that neither USA-UK nor the so called western mass media in general can afford… It is extremely difficult for the American and English mass media to explain to the American middle class why there is such a slim support for Israel over the world to the point that they might even need to use the crude unfair and blatant prerogative of the VETO (once more) while they constantly report exactly the opposite, namely that USA and its best allies Israel and UK et al are widely respected around the world as democracies and human rights champions, and this is not a small problem for them… As a researcher I do search for news, I do decide where the news would be, I hunt them, I compare them, I get them but I do not let them getting me… that is the trick to be well informed, if the news reach you unaware is because most likely are PROPAGANDA… This is not a common approach, most people just sit in front of the TV and choose to be enlightened by someone they do not know, on many issues such as what is important, what is not, and what does not even deserve to be mentioned… and so on, this is Mr. AVERAGE. The problem with this approach is when the news are both, impossible to censor, and two, so blatantly in contradiction of what has been recently “informed” that might make people THINK… Very dangerous thing… as Alexander Pope warns US in his Pierian Spring... For example, I've noticed in western mass media that news were saturated with the Gaza struggle when Israelis were dying, as soon as it become apparent that the rockets were neutralized, the EMPHASIS died immediately, the Gaza number of casualties, now all Palestinians, came after the cricket news… I’ve checked American news (20 Nov 2012) such as McClatchy and the Gaza war was below the Petraeus affair and obesity problems in Mexico… Therefore, the assassination of a Hamas leader AT THIS PRECISE MOMENT in time (apparently he was involved in promissory peace negotiations), was a deliberate and criminal attempt to prevent UN voting. On the other hand, it is clear that Israel is interested in continuing to have Gaza and Palestine in a legal LIMBO for as long as possible, a handy situation to violate the letter and spirit of the Arafat-Rabin treaty sponsored by Bill Clinton, easily dismissed with the Monica affair by Netanyahu (Mileikowski), where Palestine is not and independent nation (otherwise she would be able to strike alliances and arm herself), nor an Israeli city, but is under SIEGE and their borders controlled by Israel… Then, what is Gaza ? It can be bombed by Israel at will but people cannot leave the city without Israeli formal permission, her borders are closed, a democracy in which people cannot vote for the party they like because Israel placed it in a terrorist list in USA... (Israeli "patriots" were put in a terrorist list by the UK and it did not had the same effect...) a form of perverse UN sponsored STATE TERRORISM. Therefore, I think this article is, by chance, since it starts in the right direction but takes the wrong turn in the end, a matter of OPINION but not GLOBAL, western mas media cannot give a fig for global opinion (2.2 billion Muslims for example), it is the people with money and INFLUENCE which counts, since they know that the vast majority of people in this world regard Israel the AGGRESSOR and Israel an Eastern European colony…, perhaps the last colony in this era… and they positively know that their opinion is the voice of the street (even in the west) and it is impossible to change... therefore they work on IMAGE... Thus, the 2012 Gaza genocide is a war for IMAGES in which women and children die, in REALITY... Can it be something more perverse than this ? Norberto
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