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War on Gaza: Why is Israel losing the public relations war?

As Israel faces numerous military setbacks in Gaza, it is also struggling to inspire global support for its indiscriminate bombardment of Palestinians

Mohamad Elmasry, Middle East Eye, 27 December 2023

Supporters of Palestinians in Gaza protest outside the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on 28 November 2023 (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)
Supporters of Palestinians in Gaza protest outside the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the US Capitol in Washington on 28 November 2023 (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

In its current war on Gaza, Israel has been unable to make significant progress on its primary military objective: to eliminate Hamas.

After more than 80 days of fighting, Hamas remains largely intact, continuing to launch rockets into Israel and inflict heavy casualties on Israeli military personnel inside Gaza.

Israel has further failed to make good on its secondary military objective: to free all Israeli hostages taken by Hamas as part of its 7 October attack.

Judged purely against its own stated objectives, things aren’t going as well as planned for the Israeli army. While the outcome of Israel’s military campaign remains to be seen, there is little doubt that Israel is decisively losing the public relations war.

Israel’s PR losses are being acknowledged even by Israeli analysts writing in the Jerusalem Post and the Times of Israel, as well as by Israeli sympathisers at the Washington Post and White House, among others.

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And it isn’t just people in the Arab and Muslim worlds, or more broadly in the Global South, who are turning on Israel. Increasingly, citizens in western societies, especially younger people, are becoming more critical of Israel.

Live-streaming genocide

Public opinion polling from Western Europe is illuminating. Polls have found that only 35 percent of Germans support their government’s pro-Israel stance, people in Spain are more likely to support Palestine than Israel, and an overwhelming majority of the Irish oppose Israel’s military operation in Gaza.

In the West, mainstream media, which have historically supported Israel, no longer have a monopoly on information dissemination

Britons are effectively divided on Israel-Palestine, a reality that represents a departure from prior, overwhelming British public support for Israel.

Polling data from the United States tell a similar story. For example, a recent Harvard-Harris poll showed that Americans in the 18 to 24 age bracket are split evenly between supporting Hamas and supporting Israel.

More tellingly, perhaps, about 60 percent of American youth aged 18 to 24 feel Hamas’s 7 October attack on Israel was justified, with nearly half of those in the 25 to 34 age bracket and 40 percent of those aged 35 to 44 feeling the same way.

There is likely a correlation between media consumption and public opinion. In the West, mainstream media, which have historically overwhelmingly supported Israel, no longer have a monopoly on information.

Hundreds of millions of westerners, and especially western youth, are plugged into social media sites such as TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, and X (formerly Twitter). These social media users have seen, often in graphic detail, the carnage inflicted by Israel on innocent civilians in both Gaza and the West Bank.

This kind of social media imagery has become so widespread and is so damning of Israel that the Israeli government complained to TikTok and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, asking for thousands of posts to be removed.

Israeli censorship efforts have apparently borne fruit, with systematic censorshipof pro-Palestinian content now becoming pervasive.

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For at least two reasons, however, censorship efforts will be of little avail, at least in the short term.

First, the proverbial damage has already been done – graphic posts shared millions of times can be removed, but not unseen. Second, and more importantly, pro-Israel censorship is likely to trigger even more anti-Israel anger among precisely the demographics that Israel wants to win over.

Why is Israel losing the PR war?

There are at least three primary causes of Israel’s PR troubles. First, there are basic difficulties associated with doing PR for an occupying apartheid state actively carrying out genocide. Second, some Israelis have gone rogue and delivered messaging harmful to their country’s PR efforts. Third, official Israeli PR efforts have suffered from basic incompetence. I’ll discuss each of these causes in turn.

Cause 1: PR can’t work miracles

Organisations, including governments, have damage control plans in place but hope to never have to use them. One useful PR guideline advises the avoidance of negative behaviours that will necessitate damage control.

For more than 80 days, Israel has indiscriminately bombed densely populated civilian areas and killed more than 21,000 people, 70 percent of them children and women.

In many instances, Israel has directly targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, shelters, schools, homes and so-called “safe routes”.

More than 100 United Nations workers have been killed, the most of any conflict in UN history, in addition to nearly 70 journalists killed in what the Committee to Protect Journalists described as the “deadliest period for journalists” since the watchdog began gathering data in 1992.

What makes PR matters worse for Israel is that its military bombardment was preceded by numerous statements by top officials suggesting genocidal intent.

For example, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said he ordered a “full siege” of Gaza, blocking all food, water, and fuel from reaching the Strip; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared his intent to turn Gaza into a “deserted island”; and President Isaac Herzog indicated Israel made no distinction between Palestinian civilians and Hamas fighters.

Gallant also said Israel would “eliminate everything”, while military spokesman Daniel Hagari said Israel’s military emphasis would be on “damage and not on accuracy”.

Israel has also prevented medicine from entering Gaza, and the very few medical facilities left operational have been forced to carry out surgical procedures, including amputations, without anaesthesia.

A recent World Food Programme report says Gazans are now suffering from “catastrophic hunger”.

Numerous international humanitarian law experts have said Israel’s destruction of Gaza, combined with official statements showing genocidal intent, suggests Israel is carrying out a genocide according to international law. Raz Segal, an Israeli associate professor of holocaust and genocide studies, has said Israel is carrying out a “textbook case of genocide”.

Even the best PR professionals would find it difficult to polish a genocide. As the old adage says: “You can put lipstick on a pig; it’s still a pig.”

Cause 2: Rogue communication

Immediately after the 7 October attack, a journalist for Israel’s i24 News channel reported that Hamas militants had beheaded Israeli babies. In her report, she sourced an Israeli commander.

The story was picked up widely by mainstream western news outlets and was even mentioned multiple times by US President Joe Biden, who said he had “seen” the images himself. Both the Israeli government and the White House were forced to walk back this claim, which was demonstrably false.

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In November, a video purporting to show a Palestinian nurse denouncing Hamas went viral. Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs retweeted the video.

The Israeli government was later forced to delete the video, however, because it was found to be staged by an Israeli actress pretending to be a Palestinian.

Throughout the war on Gaza, Israeli soldiers have filmed and circulated videos of themselves committing grotesque human rights violations against Palestinians. These videos, as well as similar videos posted by Israeli soldiers in the occupied West Bank, have further damaged Israel’s image.

Human rights activists have posted the videos as evidence of Israeli atrocities. In recent days, the videos have also generated critical media coverage.

Cause 3: Incompetence

At least some of Israel’s PR woes can be blamed on sheer incompetence. Two weeks ago, the Israeli military staged an alleged mass arrest of Hamas fighters, who had been stripped down to their underwear, blindfolded, and video-recorded surrendering themselves to Israel.

Israel lost further PR points when investigations concluded that Hamas was not using al-Shifa as a command centre or for any other military purpose

The event was seemingly intended to show the Israeli public that the military was making progress in apprehending “terrorists”.

Investigations quickly revealed two important details, however. First, the men were ordinary Palestinians, not fighters. Second, the event was staged, with Israeli soldiers ordering the Palestinian captives to perform multiple takes of an apparent weapon surrender. Due to widespread outrage, Israel was ultimately forced to distance itself from the video.

In another incident, the Israeli military provided a video-guided tour of Gaza’s al-Shifa Hospital, which it had attacked and ransacked. Military spokesman Daniel Hagari starred in the video, intending to show evidence that Hamas had been using the hospital as a “command and control centre”.

At one point, Hagari pointed to an Arabic calendar, claiming it showed a terrorist shift schedule. Pointing to the calendar, Hagari said: “This is a guardians’ list, where every terrorist writes his name and every terrorist has his own shift.” As Arabic viewers quickly noted, the calendar was a simple wall calendar containing only the days of the week. The video went viral on social media, with thousands of posts and memes mocking the failed PR stunt.

Israel lost further PR points when investigations, including one by the Washington Post, concluded that Hamas was not using al-Shifa as a command centre or for any other military purpose.

Does failed PR matter?

Israel realises it is losing ground in the battle for public opinion, especially among young people. This is likely why the Israeli government is flooding social media with paid advertisements and is going heavy on TikTok, Instagram and other social media sites.

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If Israel were a corporation, celebrity, or a country not allied with the US, there would be serious consequences for such miserable image management.

Over the long term, there is a real risk that Israel will lose whatever standing it has left, something that could impact on-the-ground political realities.

In the short term, though, Israel can be reassured that it is convincing the only people that matter – US officials. As long as the US continues to use its weight to shield Israel and promote its narrative, Israel can afford to fumble its image.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Mohamad Elmasry is Professor of Media Studies at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.


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