Beware of the Israeli Propaganda Machine PDF Print E-mail

Andy Rowell, 13 January 2009

Sometimes in conflict it is the little lies that expose the true depth of the deception that is being perpetuated. And the current conflict in Gaza is no exception.

 Late last month, the ship Dignity, which is run by the charity, Free Gaza, attempted to sail from Cyprus to Gaza. On board there were over three tons of desperately needed medical supplies. There were also three surgeons on the 20 metre boat, travelling to Gaza to help in the chronically under-resourced and over-crowded hospitals.

It was a dangerous mission and the Mediterranean seas that night were stormy and rough. Since August last year, Free Gaza had made five deliveries of aid to Gaza, defying a blockade imposed by Israel when Hamas took control of Gaza in 2006.

This time, though, the ship never made it.

The Dignity was attacked by the Israeli Navy in international waters, roughly 90 miles off the coast of Gaza. Several Israeli warships surrounded Dignity, firing live ammunition, intentionally ramming it three times. According to ship's captain Denis Healey, the Israeli attack came “without any warning, or any provocation.”

Statements from independent people on board the boat that night back up Healey’s version of events. One of the passengers was Cynthia McKinney, the former US congresswoman. According to McKinney, "Israeli patrol boats...tracked us for about 30 minutes...and then all of a sudden they rammed us approximately three times, twice in the front and once in the side...the Israelis indicated that [they felt] we were involved in terrorist activities.”

Karl Penhaul is a video correspondent for the news channel CNN. He was going to Gaza to film the conflict. Suddenly he says: “You hear this big bang. Out of nowhere one of these Israeli patrol boats with no lights on had moved to the front side of the boat and just rammed it. As it was rammed the wheel house shattered and part of the roof peeled off”.

Penhaul records that, as the boat began to take in water, crew members were issued with life jackets and told to get ready to abandon ship. Luckily the captain managed to get the bilge pump working and steady the ship, which limped into the port of Tyre in the Lebanon.  The boat was lucky to be afloat. The crew and passengers were lucky to be alive.

So what did the Israelis say had happened? They tried to blame the incident on Free Gaza, saying that the Dignity had collided with its boat and not the other way around. They also denied that there had been any shooting.  

Firstly it is remarkable that the Israelis even rammed a humanitarian boat and secondly that they then lied as to what caused the accident.  Compared to the carnage that Israel has unleashed inside Gaza itself, the Dignity is just one small episode in this tragedy. But it is vitally important because it tells us something: Israel is prepared to openly and calmly lie. If we cannot trust Israel to tell the truth over an incident with a boat carrying medical supplies, when can we trust it at all? The answer is: No.  

The day after the Dignity episode, the Jewish Chronicle carried an important article which wrote about Israel’s new propaganda offensive over the conflict, saying that “Israel claims success in the PR war”. 

The article revealed that Israel had totally over-hauled its public relations and propaganda machine since the Lebanese conflict in 2006.  For six months before the Gazan invasion a new public relations strategy had been devised to try and spin Israel’s side of the story.  Israel now has a new “National Information Directorate” within the Prime Minister’s Office, which coordinates the Israeli government’s message across all its government departments.

Israel had learnt from the Lebanese conflict, where it was widely criticised as the aggressor.  Not only was that conflict seen as a military disaster but Israel was seen as having lost the public relations battle too.

Never again was Israel going to let that happen. So now we have “Fewer military officers; more women; tightly controlled messages; and ministers kept on a short leash.”  If a military personnel did have to be interviewed often it was by female officer “to project a feminine and softer image.”

The result is that the media coverage is seen by the Israelis as “definitely less hostile” to Israel than during the Lebanon war, although this may be changing as civilian Palestinian casualties rise.  Yarden Vatikai, the head of the National Information Directorate, argues “In general, we think we are succeeding in getting the message across”.

Worrying, there is evidence to suggest that Israel’s propaganda seems to be paying off. An assessment by the Israeli Foreign Ministry of eight hours of coverage across international broadcast media reported earlier this month that Israeli representatives got 58 minutes of airtime while the Palestinians got only 19 minutes.

The Israelis have also taken their propaganda battle online with an army of bloggers and pro-Israeli websites. They have mobilised their supporters in influential cities like London and Washington, who have blasted the web, whether it be in chat-rooms, YouTube or on Twitter. For example, log on to the website of the British Israel Communications and Research Centre and it says: “Hamas has forced Israel to act militarily by abandoning the ceasefire.”

The idea that it was Hamas who breached the ceasefire is one of the key messages being put out by the National Information Directorate  – which really we should call the National Disinformation Directorate.

Another key argument is that Israel is the victim in the conflict, which is of Hamas’ making. Israel was only ever responding to the unprovoked missile attacks by Hamas, and therefore it was acting in self-defence.

The trouble with these arguments – like the one that it was not their fault that the Dignity was hit – is that they are lies, or at least a gross distortion of the truth.

The figures speak for themselves.  Firstly, we should not forget the crippling economic blockade that underpins the whole Gazan crisis. In November last year, a report from the International Committee of the Red Cross highlighted how the Israeli blockade of Gaza had had a “devastating” impact on the health of the population.

The blockade was causing “progressive deterioration in food security for up to 70 per cent of Gaza's population”, said the Red Cross. “Chronic malnutrition is on a steadily rising trend and micronutrient deficiencies are of great concern,” it concluded.

All through the supposed ceasefire between the two sides, Israel continued attacks on Gaza. Between June 2007 and June 2008, for example, Israeli attacks killed 68 Palestinians. In November – whilst the world celebrating a Barack Obama victory – Israel killed six Hamas fighters. Although Hamas did respond by firing rockets into Israel, it could hardly be called unprovoked.

Whatever words it uses, there is no justification for the overwhelming force that Israel is employing. Over the last eight years, Palestinian rockets have killed some 20 Israelis. Whereas over the last three years, Israel’s military operations have killed some 1700 Palestinians in Gaza. Since the new round of fighting the Palestinian death toll has topped 900, whereas four Israelis have been killed by rocket fire.  

Even then Israel has tried to justify that most of the people it has killed are Hamas fighters, when it turns out that a third of them were policemen. A significant number have also been civilians. According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, as of early last week, 106 children and 22 women had been killed. That was before Israel bombed two UN schools killing over 50 people, including an entire family of seven young children. Further children and women have been killed since then too.

Indeed, rather than responding to Hamas’ rockets there is evidence that Israel is using the political limbo of President Bush’s last two weeks in office to push for a removal of Hamas from power in Gaza altogether. Israel is going for a “regime change”. They have to do this whilst Bush is still in power, because Present-elect Obama may not support such brutal action.

There is other damning evidence against Israel too. You also know that people have something to hide when they ban the international press – just like Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Last week, Israel said it would only allow eight international journalists into Gaza and all of them would be vetted.  

Robert Fisk, the veteran and respected Middle East correspondent from the Independent newspaper noted.  “The reasons for the ban on journalism may be quite easily explained that so many Israeli soldiers are going to kill so many innocents”, he wrote. “The images of the slaughter would be too much to tolerate.”

So the next time you hear an Israeli military spokesperson argue that killing civilians was in self-defence, think of the crew of the ship the Dignity and how they nearly died delivering urgent medical supplies. And that boat is proof of Israel’s lies.