June 19, 2010
Israel’s propaganda war
By FR. RAYMOND G. HELMICK & DR. NAZIR KHAJA
Israel’s ability to shape public opinion regarding the flotilla massacre is intimately linked to its long-standing campaign to manipulate global public perceptions of what has been happening in Palestine all along since Israel’s birth in 1947.
Its policy remains consistent. It is a successful strategy always focusing on Jewish victimhood. The success is rooted in a political reality. Where knowledge is limited, and the desire and means to learn and understand the complex reality or issues doesn’t exist, public opinion can be manipulated and shaped by whoever generates the most powerful symbols. The precise truth or falsehood of this portrayal hardly matters. For most of the world thus far, the Palestine issue is poorly understood and not a matter of immediate concern. The manipulators intend to shape the perceptions of a global public with limited interest in or understanding of the issues, filling in the blanks with their own narrative. Their use of the media is a powerful political weapon designed to define perceptions. Using an amalgam of incidents and images to display, a propaganda war is being waged to create sympathy.
The moral question has been made ambiguous.
What seems to matter is the ability to identify the victim as victimizer through obfuscation and confusion thus helping form global opinion that would lead members of the international community to adopt political stances advantageous to the opinion managers.
Israel’s success in establishing its own narrative in the public sphere as the dominant one is in no small measure due to the excellence of the Jewish community in the media field. Moving stories made into movies like the “Exodus” and many others are poignant accounts of Jewish suffering. It is equally important to recognize the Palestinian/Arab inability to offer their own narrative in a coherent constructive way
Times have changed. Because of plethora of technologies now there are opportunities for many to present alternative ideas and counternarratives and be heard across this planet… The ground seems to be shifting.
The flotilla incidence has gotten the State of Israel in a pickle. Though all its faithful propagandists are out in public arguing that there was nothing wrong with the raid on the ships carrying aid to Gaza, and the American media are straining every which way and even very much against their better instincts, to cooperate, they are not succeeding in making a dent in the public perception. There remains in the minds of most people across the globe the perception that things truly shocking and fundamentally unacceptable took place out there on the high seas.
Eyewitness accounts have begun to come back from those arrested on the ships. With all clarity it is apparent that the Israeli forces did their best to pre-empt the account of the story, giving thereby prima facie evidence of careful planning for exactly what happened. They took care to cut off all communication from those ships at sea except their own. All cameras, electronic devices that could hold any pictures or video were confiscated and have not been returned. That was an accomplishment, as practically everyone on board had cameras and recording devices. It was only by hiding away a few of those tiny memory cards that passengers were able to retain any of the horrifying pictures and video that are now beginning to emerge. Even now, few people have seen those other than on Internet postings. Our America media are not publishing them.
Passengers were kept incommunicado for the period of the first few days during which these events could be expected to hold the attention of the news cycle. They were all initially detained at Ashdod, but quickly transferred to a special prison that had been prepared for them in advance near Beersheba, far from anywhere that outside reporters had accesses to.
Several journalists, now finally beginning to talk, were on the ship, and the Israelis’ first action was to put a gun to the head of the lead Turkish organizer of reporting, and kill him instantly. He was one of the five killed by shots to the head at point blank range. The one 19-year-old Turk among the killed, Furkan Dogan, who happened to have joint American citizenship, was shot five times at a range of less than 45 centimeters, once in the face, once in the back of the head, twice in the leg and once in the back. The main Internet man in the media room was also shot in the head. The Turkish forensic people who were able to examine the bodies of the dead once they were finally returned report that some had been shot as many as thirty times.
All the passengers were thrown into terrified panic as these events so suddenly unfolded. None had expected that the effort to prevent their getting to Gaza would be so savage and violent. Even the resistance put up by a few passengers as the first Israeli paratroopers arrived on deck was sporadic and unplanned. The descending soldiers were disarmed. The guns taken from them were not discharged but were thrown into the sea. The Israelis who had been overpowered – they had evidently expected no resistance – were promptly given medical attention by a Turkish doctor on board, Dr. Hasan Huseyin Uysal, and were turned over to the Israelis at once as more arrived from the boats. Wounded defenders were dragged by the Israelis below decks out of sight. Medical attention was denied to them for a matter of hours and several of the deaths resulted from this wanton refusal of treatment.
The terrified passengers were then confined on land in crowded facilities, refused access to toilets, many of them beaten and abused. It was demanded of them all that they sign confessions for entering Israel illegally, but they refused on the basis that they had had no intention of entering Israel but had been trying to enter supposedly independent Gaza. They saw themselves as kidnapped or abducted at sea and brought to Israel against their will. Holding them proved such an embarrassment to the Israelis that after a few days the Turks were allowed to land planes that took them out of the country.
More details of Israeli excesses are emerging and will continue. But the question is what is happening subsequently. Zeev Sternhell’s editorial in the Haaretz newspaper, titled “Time to pay the bill,” sees it as an unprecedented crisis, “the last link in a long chain of failures and acts of folly,” which deprives Israel of the standing it has so long held as “a responsible and level-headed power.” He cites acts of restraint by Israel in earlier conflicts, but regards Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Moshe Ya’alon and Avigdor Lieberman as belonging to a different species of politician, one that cannot be relied on, with the consequence that the world – even the United States – will no longer allow Israel to function without supervision and an effective kind of pressure. It can no longer be assumed that any action of Israel is justified by the very fact that Israel has done it. It is not surprising that Ehud Barak, defense minister and therefore responsible for the actions of the Israeli military, has apparently had to cancel a visit to Paris for fear of arrest over this episode.
The UN Security Council has deplored “the acts which led to” all this violence, leaving it a bit up in the air whose violence it was talking about, but the Obama administration has called the whole siege situation in Gaza unsustainable and called, in the words of the UN resolution, for a credible investigation, urging that it be more than an internal investigation of themselves by the Israeli military.
The Israelis, though, blandly announce that they will do just that, an internal investigation that will convince no one who is not already determined to be convinced… Netanyahu government’s decision to establish the Tirkel Commission which is supposed to probe the lethal raid on the Gaza Flotilla is a deliberate attempt to appease the international condemnation and outrage over the incidence. The commission is required to function only within the parameters that Netanyahu government has laid out. The commission is specifically and explicitly excluded from calling any soldier or officer to testify. It must place a blind trust in the army’s own investigation of its own doings, which is carried on secretly and whose pre-selected results will be presented to the commission. And it is highly unlikely that the commission would hear and seriously consider the eyewitness testimonies of the boat’s Turkish, European and American passengers, whom the State of Israel already branded as “terrorists”.
And in that context our President Obama, as clearly as he evidently sees all this and anxious as he is to have a proper and credible investigation by others than those who carried out the raid themselves, is now urged to temper any even implicit criticism of Israel over it and recite the Israeli propaganda line, with threats of political consequences if he does not obey. What a fearful new embarrassment for the United States should he do so, how discrediting before the entire world that knows better, how disheartening a real disservice to any good for the Israelis!
Hamas, of course, could make it very easy for Obama to bow this way before Israeli demands, by initiating some vengeful act that would further poison the world’s perception of them and their cause, or even some spate of invective or inflammatory rhetoric that would adversely color the situation.
The president hopefully will unequivocally endorse the demand of the international community for an independent inquiry. He should not be blindsided by the propaganda war or internal political pressures.
This should be his moral commitment.
– Fr. Raymond G. Helmick, S.J. is instructor in conflict resolution, Department of Theology, Boston College and author of Negotiating Outside the Law: Why Camp David Failed (London, Pluto Press 2004). Dr. Nazir Khaja is a peace activist, chairman of Islamic Information Service, Los Angeles. Nazir.firstname.lastname@example.org. Both authors have been members of Middle-East Peace delegations with Rev. Jesse Jackson and others on a number of occasions and have met the Palestinian leadership.