As Israel’s security forces remain embroiled in the ongoing conflict with Hamas along the country’s southern border, students at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya (IDC) are engaged on another equally important front: hasbara or public diplomacy.
The Student Union at the IDC opened a “Hasbara Room” on Thursday – the first day of Operation Protective Edge – with the purpose of providing factual information about the situation on the ground to people around the world, as well as countering the misinformation and lies being disseminated on social media sites.
“Israel is not very strong at hasbara, while Hamas and the Palestinians are very good at spreading the word in the media,” said volunteer coordinator Karen Yoseph, a 27-year-old masters student at the IDC. “We are trying to combat that and we are trying to expose that a lot of times Hamas is lying.”
Student Union chairman Yarden Ben-Yosef, Yoseph, and Lidor Bar David initiated the center two years ago under similar circumstances.
“During Operation Pillar of Defense we all worked at the Student Union and students were getting called up for reserve duty,” said Yoseph. “We thought, since we weren’t being called for reserve duty, why don’t we work on hasbara and help in the way that we can.”
Through the hasbara efforts during the previous round with Hamas, the IDC advocacy room was able to get their message out to an estimated 21 million people around the world. The students created a Facebook page and twitter account under the now-popular “Israel Under Fire” catchphrase, through which they conducted their hasbara efforts.
“We basically picked up where we left off [after Operation Pillar of Defense],” explained Yoseph.
“We kept a list in case something happened again and our user account and this time we know how to immediately get in touch with volunteers and contacts.”
According to Yoseph, since the launch of Operation Protective Edge some 400 people have volunteered in the hasbara room and hundreds more have offered their assistance and support. Currently their operations encompass activities in 31 languages in 62 countries and have so far garnered some 6,000 followers on Twitter and some 55,000 likes on Facebook. They have also opened a dedicated website available in 13 languages, with informative texts, videos, pictures, and testimonials – www.
“The IDC has a huge plus, because we have an international school with students from around the world who have offered to help and to translate documents and information into their languages,” she said.
Emanuele De Benedetti, a 21-year-old undergraduate at the IDC from Rome, is one such student.
“I felt the need to work for IsraelUnderFire, because growing up in Europe I saw how bad the Western news represents Israel, how partial the info given is, and I said ‘that’s not fair – especially in this day and age,’ ” he explained.
Every day De Benedetti dedicates his mornings to translating texts into Italian. “One of the hardest jobs I had to do was translating the Hamas constitution [into Italian], presenting how Israel really does not have a partner for the peace process,” he said.
De Benedetti says he joined the advocacy room in an effort to reach as many people as possible who remain undecided regarding the conflict and to persuade them not to take sides without understanding the situation and getting all the facts.
“Do not believe everything that you see and everything that you read,” he cautions them.
One of the challenges facing Israeli hasbara has been the constant stream of fake photos and images of dying and oppressed children – many of which are old pictures from the conflict in Syria being misrepresented by Hamas and others. Some are even pictures straight out of Hollywood films.
Tal Yaffe, an Israeli student at the IDC, explained that “the current situation forces us to fight on all fronts. Hamas doesn’t have the military capabilities to harm us, but they can harm our legitimacy in the world and also harm the motivation of the citizens of Israel.”
According to Yaffe, who is responsible for managing the website, social media has become one of the most important tools in the war effort. “When the truth is on our side and we can show that statements or images that Hamas has put out there are false, then the truth spreads faster than on any other media; and we see that what happens on social media also affects the international media,” he explained.
Asked whether hasbara is making a difference, Yaffe said he believes that public opinion is more on Israel’s side than in any previous operation, while De Benedetti replied that he hadn’t been convinced, at least not until recently.
“A couple of hours ago, a friend of mine that I haven’t talked to in ages messaged me on Facebook and said he had seen my posts about Israel and asked me to explain more to him, so I sent him posts from IsraelUnderFire,” he recounted. “Those that are pro-Palestinian – you are not going to convince them because they start from the assumption that their position is right, period; but the people who are undecided, we can try to reach as many of them as possible.”
Yoseph concurred, stating, “We should try to get the facts out there and even if we reach only a few people then that makes all the difference.”