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How to control the message

I recently submitted an article (see below) to the Weekend Argus, a Cape Town newspaper, for publication. I’m not sure whether it will appear or not but I would like to make some additional comments and bring some interesting references, here and especially here, to your attention (with thanks to friends who sent them to me).

A few point around the Gaza intifada:

The reportage in the Western MSM has been clearly anti-Israel. Some of them have been open collaborators in a Pallywood production. Despite their evident bias, which has been documented repeatedly, they persist, clearly believing they can rely upon an generally ignorant and prejudiced audience. That does not automatically let Israel off the hook but it makes rational debate very difficult and, regrettably, also permits Israel to use the bias to disguise its own shortcomings.

ANC-orientated South African politicians can be expected to run with the most extreme and radical anti-Israel sentiments. This does not necessarily reflect the views of the majority of our population but it does feed into the ideological and political agendas of the political-sphere and their media allies.

But even strong pro-Zionists like myself have misgivings about Israel’s apparent  ineptitude in PR and more especially its apparent lack of commitment and ingenuity in developing non-lethal means of controlling mobs. I wrote my article below before I received the links in para one, but I’m not entirely sure they drastically change the gist of what I had to say.

I understand this is a fraught issue and written in a context which is seriously and dishonestly biased against Israel. International politics is a cynical game and playing by the rules is not an option most states faced with existential threats see as top priority. Nevertheless, I do believe that Israel does make an effort to minimise suffering where that is compatible with a clear message to her adversaries: “don’t mess with us.”

Many argue the following

  • There are no fail safe, non-lethal ways of stopping a breach of the border by a determined armed operatives camouflaged by smoke and a mob of civilians, otherwise Israel would have used them.
  • Most of the dead were known Hamas operatives as admitted by Hamas. Thus the fire was not indiscriminate as was falsely implied in the news reports.
  • If the border had been penetrated it would have been a major propaganda victory for Hamas and would have set a precedent for similar operations in the future. Thus it was vital for Israel to prevent that happening and to send a clear message to Hamas that public pressure won’t deter them. The number of Hamas dead and relatively low civilian count must have also given Hamas pause for thought.
  • If Hamas operatives had got through in significant numbers they would have destroyed Israeli faith in their military besides the deaths and panic amongst  the Israeli civilian population. Thus the stakes were very high and Israel could not permit the operation to succeed whatever the PR cost.
  • Finally, it is very difficult for Israel to get an honest balanced hearing in the international media, so it is not possible to prevent the bad publicity by pre-emptive steps.

I’m not in a position to argue effectively against or for these claims without detailed knowledge which I do not have. Nevertheless, it is my impression that Israel has not paid sufficient attention to these recurrent and predictable tactics but relies unduly on economic, intelligence and  military-technological superiority –  namely, hard power. These are clearly essential but it is vital that Israel does not dig itself into an intellectual and diplomatic laager but actively works to widen all avenues – non-lethal methods, soft power, creative PR and diplomatic initiatives and so on.

The fact that I’m questioning its commitment to these avenues of influence is itself a reflection of Israel’s failure to communicate effectively. If I have these doubts why does Israel believe the ordinary man in the street will have the answers? I’m not advocating cheap propaganda, I am advocating effective and honest communication, as reflected in the links above published after a great deal of damage had already been done.

I would appreciate comments but, in the meantime, here is the article I submitted to the Weekend Argus –

“To get some sort of objective handle on political violence in Middle East I googled Wikipedia which lists nearly 90 conflicts in the region over the last century (since WW1), with cumulative death tolls running into the millions. One perennial, the Palestinian-Israel struggle, has burst into the news recently, ignited by the staged theatrics of the Gaza border “suicide-riots” as described in the Weekly Standard, USA.

This conflict has been going on for about a century ever since Jewish ‘refugees’ from East and West Europe and the Middle East-North Africa started to resettle their ancestral home in the Levant. It has generated less than 10% of the total conflict-related deaths in the region, probably less than 5% were I to do the arithmetic. But judging by the regular furore in the media (and the UN etc)  one would believe the Middle East would be an oasis of peace other than for those pesky Jews.

The struggle was initially Jewish vs. Arab-Muslim but eventually, due partly to the failure to dislodge the Jews who had by then recreated their national homeland, Israel, most of the Arab nations got on with other more pressing matters. But, courtesy of their leaders and supporters in the West, the Palestinians have become captured by the role of heroic victimhood.

The strategy, the only strategy, of the terror group Hamas rests upon Gaza’s misery. With Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, they had every chance of becoming a model for Arab-Muslim democracy and economic development, but they chose victimhood as a way of life. In an age of inexhaustible moral outrage and identity politics, fuelled by an all-too-pliable media, they aimed to tap into the ideological currents roiling the West to leverage victimhood into a strategy for victory.

It entailed using ordinary Palestinians as human shields (‘human sacrifices’ is a better term), literally and economically. It was hoped that Muslim birth rates, Palestinian misery, divisions within Israel plus Western hostility could be exploited to yield total victory at some indefinite future date. The bloody Gaza theatrics are simply another tactical battle in this long-running series but it seemed eminently winnable for various reasons:

  • It could channel the rabid anti-Trumpism among Western elites against Israel, especially following the Embassy move. Judging by the media response this was entirely an accurate assessment of the current state of Western politics.
  • It could be used to test Israeli resolve in the face of a predictable diplomatic and PR relations fall-out should Palestinian casualties mount. Of course, to achieve that Hamas had to ensure that there would be sufficient Palestinian youths ready to martyr themselves for the cause. But the steady roll-call of suicide missions over the past couple of decades attests to the ability of Jihadists to elicit the ultimate sacrifice from their followers, so a shortage of volunteers seemed unlikely.
  • And if Israel responded as expected to this act of war using primitively armed, suicidal soldiers Hamas could translate the inevitable casualties into PR ammunition.

It must be said the whole event was brilliantly staged. The burning tires and billowing smoke, the old women and children, the youths with scarves and slingshots dramatically posed against the demonic backdrop and the sudden collapse of someone shot (or not shot – who can tell?). The ever-present journalists/cameramen could be absolutely relied upon to play their part in this premier Pallywood production; no such thing as embarrassing questions or a revealing shot from a media all primed and eager to do their part in the scripted narrative.

Such is modern political warfare: public theatre with actors willing to pay the ultimate price for a starring role. In the deadly cockpit of the Middle East it appears only blood has real currency and  Israel accepted the PR fall-out in order to send an unambiguous message to Hamas and others wishing to test its resolve.

While the riots and casualties are entirely the responsibility of Hamas who instigated, scripted and staged them, I would also hope that Israel will use its famous ingenuity to avoid playing according to rules devised by Hamas and others like them in future. Netanyahu is rightly respected for steering his country through extremely dangerous shoals but Israel also has the moral and pragmatic duty to broaden its arsenal of responses to a predictably recurrent scenario.

Besides the development of effective non–fatal weapons to deal with homicidal mobs it needs to make use of pre-emptive diplomacy and publicity to ensure that militants are unable to use the cloak of martyrdom – or woman and children to disguise their intentions. They will get no help from the MSM in this endeavour and will need all the innovation at their disposal. Ultimately prevention is better than reaction.

The world is on the cusp of a massive transition and it’s time we  widened and deepened our perspectives if we are not to destroy all that has been built over millennia of painful progress.”

Mike Berger