By Roger Aronoff
The conclusions of a high-level group of military men and legal scholars examining the details of last year’s 50-day war between Israel and Hamas run counter to many of the media assertions made at the time. The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) report’s authors concluded at a recent event I attended that Hamas effectively used an “information campaign” during the Gaza War to convince the public that it was the victim, not the aggressor, causing Israel to adopt rules of engagement that may continue to bind the hands of policymakers for future wars.
“Hamas thinks they won this thing, and a lot of people in the world think Israel lost this thing, and a lot of people in the world think the Israelis were the aggressors and Hamas was the aggressed upon—and they had the narrative,” said Retired General Charles Wald, former Deputy Commander of United States European Command.
To win a military battle is to save lives by reestablishing peace. But the peace won by the Israelis is unstable if the aggressors continue to believe that their attacks secured them a public relations victory.
The media bear some responsibility for this outcome. As I pointed out last July, during the conflict, “The Washington Post and CNN have been reporting on the Palestinian death toll in a causal vacuum.”
“What should be reported is that the deaths are the responsibility of Hamas, which is committing the double war crime of targeting civilians with their missiles, and using their women and children as human shields,” I wrote. Similarly, these experts found, after examining primary source material and meeting with “senior Israeli, Palestinian and United Nations (U.N.) officials,” the central issue should not have been the presence of civilian casualties, but who was responsible for these deaths. Israel went to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties and was very casualty aware, South Texas College of Law Professor Geoffrey Corn argued.
Professor Corn said he thought the report “does a wonderful job of highlighting” the difficulties of confronting an enemy who “views your compliance with the law or your commitment to comply with the law, as a tactical and strategic enabler for its own objectives.”
When examined in the context of responsibility, it is more than clear who bore the blame for the disproportionate number of casualties on the Palestinian side. The responsibility lies with Hamas, which used civilians as human shields, and was attempting to kill Israeli civilians.
The media were made aware of this evidence during the Gaza War, but ignored it because such conclusions didn’t fit their own preconceived narrative about this conflict.
These experts conclude that Hamas adeptly manipulated the international community as part of an information campaign to exert pressure on the Israelis for attacking Hamas at all, even if it originated as self-defense. “And it was interesting to me that it was almost as if the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] was fighting a combat campaign with a supporting information effort, whereas, for Hamas, they were fighting an information campaign that was enabled by military operations,” said Retired U.S. Army Major General Michael Jones, Former Chief of Staff at U.S. Central Command.
He suggested that Hamas adeptly used social media to get its message out while sending different messages to Western and Middle Eastern audiences. But it was also the mainstream media that were taken in by these claims, spreading Hamas’ assertions far and wide.
For example, as I previously noted, the civilian casualty numbers fed to the media came from the Gaza Health Ministry, historically run by Hamas, or the United Nations, which was partially relying on this ministry’s numbers. In other words, the media allowed one side of the conflict to dominate its headlines by controlling and feeding them data about the casualties.
At the event I raised the question of why the media weren’t giving the same treatment to the war against ISIS, in terms of focusing on civilian casualties, and these experts made some revealing conclusions.
Jones noted that you have to be in Iraq to see the collateral damage against ISIS, and the “history of western journalists with ISIS is not good.” In other words, since the media have experienced their own casualties they may be more hesitant to champion this particular set of aggressors.
Jones found that the Israeli military seemed to have the attitude “almost as if they’d given up on the information domain, feeling having been treated unfairly for so long it was almost an attitude of why bother, we know that people have written this story before they’ve gotten the facts, and that kind of thing.” But, he concluded, you still have to fight.
There are reliable reports that very little reconstruction is taking place in Gaza, largely because of a deadlock between Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls Gaza. Hamas is rebuilding its tunnels, and rockets, apparently in preparation to go to war with Israel again. In the meantime, the false media narrative continues in The New York Times this week through a column by Nicholas Kristof, who puts most of the blame for the Gazan’s plight on Israel. Not completely, but he leaves little doubt how he feels about it. But CAMERA, the pro-Israel media watchdog, takes Kristof to task for the many facts that he ignores, including significant efforts Israel has made to help alleviate the suffering in Gaza.
Given the status of our corrupt, biased media on this issue, it may be necessary for Israel to engage more aggressively in the information campaign by taking its message directly to the people and largely circumvent the mainstream media.