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