As the clock struck 8 p.m. this past Sunday night, prime time in the Middle East and Europe for TV news broadcasts, the Al Jazeera satellite TV network opened its top-of-the-hour news bulletin with a live scene from Gaza City. The footage was powerful and unforgettable: thousands of people gathered to light candles in a Gaza City plunged into darkness. The possibility that Hamas itself had switched off the lights in the densely populated city to create the impression of an urgent humanitarian crisis was likely not considered by many watching the broadcast.
The Israeli decision over the weekend to reduce shipments of industrial diesel fuel to the Gaza power station, still fresh in the minds of worldwide viewers, was presumably seen overwhelmingly as the cause of the outage. Never mind the fact that Israel's Ruttenberg power station in Ashkelon was still streaming electricity into Gaza and that there had been no Israeli action that shut the city's lights off. Never mind the fact that the sun began setting over Gaza by 6 p.m., and that the Strip had been totally dark for over an hour before the central news shows began at 8 p.m. The lights in Gaza were shut off sometime between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. and a candlelight protest was organized.
The Qatari satellite channel was not the only one to broadcast a live feed from Gaza that night. "Gaza in Darkness" was also the headline above the opening shot of both major Israeli TV news broadcasts at 8 p.m. - with both Channels 2 and 10 showing wide-angle shots of a dark Gaza City.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, the Foreign Ministry's public diplomacy team was frantically trying to get its own "money shot." In the absence of Kassam rockets landing in Sderot (Hamas had stopped firing at Sderot so the Palestinians would be in sole possession of the visual narrative), the team was hoping to send a TV crew out to the Ashkelon power plant to show that Israel had not shut down power to Gaza. "We even thought of putting a big 'Gaza' sign on one of the main switches, and show how [the switch] was still up," says one of the ministry's PR men.
What happened next is a classic example not only of Israeli bureaucratic buffoonery, but a sad indication that not much has been learned and implemented since the Second Lebanon War exposed how dire the need is for a unified communications apparatus as a tool in fighting modern wars.
Ilan Shtulman, a Foreign Ministry public diplomacy official, was frantically working the phones to try get permission for a Foreign Ministry camera crew to film at the Ruttenberg power plant. Shtulman called up the Israel Electric Corporation to get the OK, but the IEC said it couldn't authorize the plan and referred Shtulman to the National Infrastructures Ministry, which has authority over power stations. Shtulman called up the infrastructures people, who said they couldn't grant permission and suggested he call the Defense Ministry, as Ruttenberg is also classified as a strategic installation.
Meanwhile, the worldwide media clock was ticking and images of Palestinian children holding candles and huddling together for warmth and comfort were ruling the airwaves. Shtulman called up the Defense Ministry, and four hours after the first call was made to the electric company, the Foreign Ministry finally got approval to send a TV crew to the power plant to film evidence that Israel hadn't turned off the switch and that the Gaza blackout had a different source. Too late - the Gaza "money shot" was all over the place, even on YouTube.
This week's events surrounding the Gaza power outages and the way they were manipulated by both sides make for a telling case study in public diplomacy, known in Hebrew as "hasbara."
First, it was a "short fight," as a Foreign Ministry official put it, taking place between Sunday evening and Tuesday morning. And the Foreign Ministry PR people insist Israel didn't lose.
"The Foreign Ministry explains government decisions, it doesn't make them. How can they expect us to effectively explain government policy if we're not part of the decision-making process, if we're out of the loop?" a hasbara official says.
What is lacking, other hasbara officials say, is interagency cooperation, a malady well known in these parts and already addressed at length in the interim Winograd Report, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee report prepared by MK Amira Dotan, and the State Comptroller's Report on the Second Lebanon War.
The Foreign Ministry was not given prior warning of the measures to be executed against Gaza on Sunday morning. The ministry's PR team first learned about Israel's reduction in the supply of industrial diesel to Hamas-controlled Gaza through the local media. The PR team then contacted Defense Ministry officials for more information, as calls from foreign correspondents were starting to stream in.
The Defense Ministry had made no decision to prepare the Foreign Ministry for the possible (read: expected) media frenzy that was sure to follow the Israeli action. The Defense Ministry, staffed by hardened ex-generals and other security men, does not put much stock in hasbara, seeing guns and mortars as much more influential than images and sound bites.
Aryeh Mekel, former Israeli Consul in New York and now the Foreign Ministry's spokesman for the foreign press, began formulating a response and speaking to the international media on Sunday evening. He started with the major wire services: AP, Reuters and AFP. The message: The diesel reduction had nothing to do with the outage in Gaza City, as Gaza gets 70 percent of its electricity from Israeli power lines and those were still sending power through; the Defense Ministry was convinced that Hamas was faking the scene of a darkened Gaza City (why was Gaza City blacked out? Because that's where the lights are concentrated - black out Gaza City and people will see it for miles.)
The Foreign Ministry team started refining its message using precise wording: Hamas was fabricating the power outage; the outage and the candlelight protest were staged productions; Mekel even came up with the term "Blackfest" (not to be confused with an African American music and culture festival of the same name).
Next, Mekel and his team made sure that all 97 of Israel's embassies and consulates scattered across the globe received a document containing the messages the Jerusalem team had formulated. But it was Sunday, and in most countries, offices were closed.
By the time the embassy staff walked into their offices on Monday morning, they would have a document with talking points ready for them. But in the intervening 12 hours, the images of the candlelight protest and darkened Gaza City, both in video footage and photo stills, were left unchallenged on all major TV networks, news Web sites, Internet forums and Monday's newspapers - including Israeli ones.
Next, the Foreign Ministry begin putting out the word that Israel saw "several signs" that there may have been some coordination between the Arab satellite news TV stations and Hamas in Gaza. (Al Jazeera denies the charge.) The Israeli message: How was it possible for Al Jazeera to open its 8 p.m. newscast with a scene depicting the candlelight protest? How did it know where and when the "spontaneous" protest would be? How did it happen to have guests in place in the studios ready to give reactions to something that was supposedly unplanned?" Al Jazeera says its correspondents are on the ground in Gaza and are able to report very quickly on anything that happens.
What is obvious is that Hamas was thinking on its feet, being proactive, initiating campaigns tailor-made for powerful media images and taking full advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves. Hamas knew that as of Sunday morning, Israel was reducing the amount of industrial diesel being shipped to the Gaza Strip. Hamas also knew that the industrial diesel being withheld would not have an immediate effect on the flow of electricity into Gaza. It would take several days for the Gaza power station to run out of diesel and switch off power in Gaza City - but these facts were easily glossed over with images of human suffering.
The Foreign Ministry believes that Hamas choreographed both the candlelight protest and the blackout in Gaza, and is looking to prove it.
By Monday morning, Mekel had refined his message and was hitting the airwaves everywhere - APTN, Reuters, CNN and others - creating the all-important sound bites that are beamed across the globe and repeated in loops. The latest message: Hamas is faking it, it's a staged production; Israel didn't cut off electricity to Gaza and won't allow a humanitarian crisis to develop there.
By Monday night, largely because of pressure on Israel to relax its restrictions - pressure that was the result of the media images out of Gaza - the Defense Ministry decided to renew fuel and supplies to Gaza. But once again, it failed to notify the Foreign Ministry PR team, which learned about the move on the radio.
Only after getting the information from the Defense Ministry did the hasbara team have enough "ammunition" to start playing up Israel's humanitarian gestures. Israel would send 2.2 million liters of industrial diesel through to Gaza, as well as 50 trucks loaded with humanitarian aid, cooking gas and medicine. Once Mekel got his hands on these numbers, he went straight to the wires, which led to reduced media pressure and Tuesday morning's headline in the New York Times and on the front page of the International Herald Tribune: "Israelis to ease blockade of Gaza."
By Tuesday morning, the Foreign Ministry was saying openly that the fact that almost no rockets had been fired at Sderot on Sunday and Monday showed that, in fact, Hamas controlled the flames of escalation. The subtext of Israel's message, one its spokespeople could not voice in their own names: "We are letting diesel and humanitarian aid through just this once, but we're keeping our eyes on the situation. Should the rocket attacks start again, well, the Palestinians saw what we can do, what we're capable of. But in any case, we don't want a humanitarian crisis."
Speaking to the The Jerusalem Post Tuesday evening, Mekel's voice sounded a bit hoarse, and he had a light cough. Mekel did a lot of talking Sunday through Tuesday, conveying the messages he was largely responsible for constructing. He spoke at least once to almost every large foreign media outlet in the first 24 hours of the crisis. But, as even he admits, Israel was reacting to the message of the initial blackout images and the story of Israel's "culpability" in darkening Gaza that had ruled the airwaves since Sunday night. Trying his best to undermine the power of those images, Mekel was fighting a valiant but uphill battle.
Mekel could have used a heads-up from the Defense Ministry, a few hours' advance warning that would have allowed him to prepare reactions for possible scenarios. It could have been assumed that Hamas would want to exploit the situation. Israel passed up an opportunity to shape the message, instead handing the narrative over to Hamas. The group quickly pounced on the opportunity to show the world how Israel was causing a humanitarian situation in Gaza through its sanctions - even if there was no direct link - by shutting off the lights in Gaza and organizing a "spontaneous," peaceful candlelight protest.
In the final analysis, there has been only limited progress on integrating Israeli public diplomacy interests in the big decision-making picture, despite the recent findings of several committees that this lack of coordination damages Israel's ability to attain strategic goals. The government's decision of July 2007 to establish a National Communications Authority under the auspices of the Prime Minister's Office remains just that: a decision, without any operable, tangible measures undertaken.