Israel makes sure its pen is as mighty as its sword

In 2004 the Glasgow University Media Group published a study of TV coverage of the second intifada and its impact on public understanding, analysing 200 programmes and questioning more than 800.

Our conclusion: Israeli accounts dominated reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Since then many journalists have told us of the intense pressure that limits criticism of Israel. They speak of “waiting in fear for the phone call from the Israelis”, of the BBC’s Jerusalem bureau being “leant on by the Americans”, of being “guilty of self-censorship” and of “urgently needing an external arbiter”.

The Israelis have increased their public relations effort, as the Arab spring has put democratic demands at the heart of Middle East politics and technology has created problems. Graphic images of war can now be brought immediately into public view, including the deaths of women and children.

When Israel planned its Gaza attack in December 2008, it developed a National Information Directorate, while restricting possible material by stopping reporters from entering Gaza during the fighting. In 2010, when Israel attacked the Gaza aid flotilla, it issued edited footage with its own captions about what supposedly happened. TV news programmes swallowed this highly contested account and a United Nations-sponsored report contradicting the account was barely covered.


The intention was to coordinate specific messages across all information sources, repeated by every Israeli speaker. Each time a grim visual image appeared, the Israeli explanation accompanied it.

In the United States messages were exhaustively analysed by The Israel Project, which, said Shimon Peres, “has given Israel new tools in the battle to win the hearts and minds of the world”. In a 100-page document, labelled “not for publication or distribution”, an enormous range of possible statements about Israel were categorised into “words that work” and “words that will turn listeners off”. Avoid religion; Israeli messages should focus on security and peace; distinguish between the Palestinian people and Hamas (an elected party).

The Israeli message on the images of casualties was that the attack was a necessary “response” to Palestinian rocket attacks.

In a new project we analysed more than 4 000 lines of text from the main bulletins in the United Kingdom of the Gaza attack, which contained no coverage of the killing of more than 1 000 Palestinians, including hundreds of children, in the three preceding years.

In TV coverage Israeli statements on the causes of action overwhelmed those of the Palestinians by more than three to one. The Palestinians’ underlying grievances, such as being driven from their land when Israel was created, were absent.

A majority among the audience groups we interviewed believed the Palestinians broke the cease-fire that existed before the December attack and did not know Israel had attacked Gaza during the cease-fire, in November 2008, killing six. —

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