Israel’s PR(opaganda) machine is backfiring

Both Hamas and the Israeli government are cognisant of the importance of winning over international public opinion

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

I have been visiting family in Cheyenne, Wyoming this last week. It is a time of the year when this small Wild West town becomes the world capital of rodeo and country music. The war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza seemed, at least on the surface, of very little interest for the thousands of cowboy hat and boot wearing men and women, who came early in the morning to the town’s Depot Plaza. They arrived for a massive communal breakfast of pancakes with maple syrup accompanied by strong coffee. Yet, even there as everyone was enjoying their food and listening to old country music favorites, the loudspeakers of the local radio broadcasted an interview with an Israeli official doing his best to explain Israeli policies in this tragic war. It sounds anecdotal, but it was just another piece of evidence, in my eyes, of the relentless PR(opaganda) machine, trying to win over people around the world.

Both Hamas and the Israeli government are cognisant of the importance of winning over international public opinion in support of their cause and methods. They flooded social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, with information that contains more than a slant of bias, in an effort to convince the world of their just stand in this war and in the conflict as a whole. Official, and less official, spokespersons have become familiar faces and voices on all media outlets. The Israeli PR machine is very sleek. It employs many people who command a range of languages and are very well versed in presenting Israeli policies, while smearing and dismissing the Palestinian ones. Hamas’ media effort might not be able to match that of the Israelis in its sleekness, however, the strength of its website and Twitter presence is that it appears authentic for a government with little resources and under severe military attack. The irony is that this relentless competition on the hearts and minds of people, is very often surpassed by the millions of other pages of media outlets, organizations and individuals, who post verbal evidence and images that are often more impactful than those of the official ones.

Israel enjoyed the upper hand

At the beginning of the hostilities Israel enjoyed the upper hand in most media fronts, not to mention the support of the governments whose policies matter to her. This support has worn off gradually as the war increasingly claimed the lives of innocent Palestinian civilians, especially as a consequence of the Israeli ground invasion of Gaza. To a large extent, this erosion can be attributed to the role of the international media and especially the social media networks where much of this public relations war is conducted.

At the beginning of the hostilities Israel enjoyed the upper hand in most media fronts. This support has worn off gradually

Yossi Mekelberg

Increasingly the power of images has taken over the debate. The adage that “a picture is worth thousand words” is becoming even more powerful in the internet age. One of the most memorable photos from the Vietnam War is that of the nine-year-old Kim Phuc fleeing naked with a group of civilians from her village when the American war planes mistook them for soldiers and bombed them with napalm. Similarly, the image of the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square, standing in front of a column of tanks, dressed in a white shirt and holding a shopping bag, is still in the collective memory twenty-five years later. It epitomized the brutality of the regime against defenseless protestors and also the courage of individuals in the face of this brutality. Since the beginning of the war in Gaza, there has been a stream of disturbing images on Twitter and Facebook, depicting the misery inflicted on the people of Gaza. For instance, a picture in the Times of London shows a young person in front of massive flames, captioned “Nowhere to hide in Gaza attacks.” Even the American media, which are typically Israeli friendly, are dominated by images of distressed Palestinians. Time Magazine featured a photo of the 18-month-old Razel Netzlream, who was killed in an Israeli airstrike, being carried in the arms of her father during her funeral in Rafah.

This image brought home to many around the world the devastating impact of this war on civilians. Needless to say, the images of children and babies killed in the war are the most chilling reminder that war claims mainly the lives of the most innocent and vulnerable. This war in which capabilities and casualties are that lopsided evokes in my mind the story of David and Goliath, in which I believe that Israel has been cast in the unfavorable role of Goliath.

Public relations campaigns

Israeli official websites and those who support Israeli policies focus their public relations campaign on two main arguments. The first one is that the Hamas is a terror organization that apparently indiscriminately attacks Israeli towns and villages in an attempt to harm as many Israelis as possible. The other line of argumentation claims that the high number of civilian casualties among the Palestinians is the direct consequence of Hamas militants hiding among civilians and storing ammunition in schools and hospitals. Hence they say Israel is justified in her actions. While at the beginning of the warlike operation there was considerable sympathy for Israel’s position among foreign leaders and a large part of the media, not much of it is left as a result of the high level of civilian casualties among the Palestinians. Israel might have a more sophisticated and well-spoken PR machine, but it cannot win over public opinion when the images relayed from the battlefield are so disturbing.

Interestingly enough, the media is accused by both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian campaigners for showing bias, either for ideological reasons or to appease pressure groups. For many years Israel and her supporters have accused the BBC, for instance, of siding with the Palestinians, though with very sketchy evidence. This time around a demonstration was held in front of the BBC headquarter offices in London, accusing it of propagating an “anti-Palestinian bias” and for lack of context in reporting the war in Gaza. This claim was supported by a group of intellectuals and activists such as Noam Chomsky, Ken Loach and Brian Eno. The debate about the objectivity of the media will not be resolved easily. On more than one occasion the criticism reflects the critics’ dissatisfaction that their opinions do not dominate the headlines rather than a lack of objectivity by the media. Yet, it demonstrates the importance attributed by everyone concerned with the war in winning the public opinion battle. It is becoming more complex because there is a difference in messages that both belligerents are sending to their domestic constituency and the image they would like to portray abroad. These messages are many times contradictory and confusing. Both portray themselves as victims rather than aggressors, searching for peace rather than war, but at the same time taking pride in harming each other.

When the war is over, Israel will have to embark on a soul searching exercise on how it lost the support of public opinion in a matter of a few weeks. The answer might be quite simple. No spin doctor can convincingly sway public opinion to support a flawed policy. The need to gain support to stop rocket attacks on Israel resonated with many around the world, who were ready to ignore the context of these attacks. However, this was not a carte blanche for Israel to inflict destruction and carnage on many innocent Gazans in its war with Hamas and its allies. Taking these measures inevitably led to the media to turn against Israel and the loss of support vis–à–vis public opinion, support which will take long time to recover.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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