(photo credit: )
"Anyone who thinks that on a day when a Palestinian mother and four of her children are killed, Israel is going to score a hasbara (public diplomacy) victory ought to have his head examined." So says a government official in response to the Monday events that spurred widespread negative coverage of Israeli military efforts in Gaza.
At Tuesday's cabinet meeting, in which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed sorrow for the deaths but said Hamas bears the responsibility, Shas Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai added, "We have to improve our hasbara apparatus so that Israel will be presented in a more positive fashion."
But the officials charged with this effort believe that in this case, given the circumstances dealt them, they did the best they could - in part by learning from past errors.
Part of the hasbara challenge was that the initial circumstances in which Miyasar Abu Meatak and her four children were killed in their Beit Hanun home early Monday were unclear.
Palestinian sources immediately blamed the deaths on an Israeli tank shell fired "without justification" on the Abu Meatak home. The airing of those charges, together with the horrific footage and pictures and footage from Beit Hanun, provided the initial coverage of the incident with a major hasbara problem for Israel.
Israel's first reaction was not to react until it had a clearer understanding of the facts. This is in contrast to the incident in June 2006 when an explosion on the Gaza beachfront killed seven picnicking Palestinians; the IDF Southern Command soon after sent out a message expressing its regret that was interpreted by the media as an admission of responsibility.
This time, before any statements were made, a phone conference between all relevant hasbara officials was held under the auspices of the newly formed Prime Minister's Office Information Directorate. It was decided that until the IDF could provide an accurate explanation for the Beit Hanun explosion, the only comment would be a general statement from the PMO's office to the major foreign news agencies declaring Israel's sorrow for the deaths, while firmly putting blame on Hamas for the overall "crossfire" situation in Gaza and declaring "we [Israel] make every possible effort to prevent innocent bystanders from being caught up in the crossfire."
One official said that whenever you have this number of civilian casualties on the Palestinian side, "it's a no-win situation, and until you have the facts, the less said, the better."
Also, in contrast to the Gaza beach incident two years ago, Israel has been much quicker to raise the possibility that its soldiers were not at fault. At that time it took two days until Israel first raised the possibility it wasn't responsible for the deaths there and would conduct a further investigation. But regarding Monday's event, by afternoon the IDF had released a statement saying the explosion that killed the mother and four children was actually caused when "the IDF targeted from the air two Palestinian gunmen who were approaching the soldiers while carrying large bags on their backs. A big explosion erupted on the scene following the attack against the two, indicating the presence of bombs and explosives in the gunmen's bags."
Although Palestinian sources continued to insist there were no Hamas gunmen near the Abu Meatek home at the time of the explosion, most of the major foreign media outlets did include the Israeli version of events after receiving it, and labeled the incident as "disputed."
Interestingly, Al Jazeera's English website, hardly the most pro-Israel media source on IDF actions in Gaza, this time at least conceded "there is a mixture of truth in both of these stories. The first [Israeli] missile targeted four fighters, armed with a Kalashnikov rifle and carrying a bag containing rocket-propelled grenades."
One way for Israel to settle this argument would be to release to the media aerial intelligence footage shot of the area at the time of the incident that reportedly helped the IDF identify the Hamas gunmen. Indeed, in the past, especially during the Second Lebanon War, criticism was directed at the IDF Intelligence Branch for its reluctance to provide such material in a timely fashion when it would have helped justify controversial military action.
But one source familiar with the footage in this case said it would be not be of assistance in this fashion, since without the tools and training used by intelligence personnel to parse such material it would not provide definitive proof, and would only create more argument.
It's possible that such footage could be eventually released as a result of the further official inquiry into the Beit Hanun incident that was announced Tuesday by OC Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, and is expected to conclude on Thursday.
Ordering this inquiry is a bit of a gamble, since it would be even more damaging if any of the conclusions contradict the initial IDF account, than if the military had waited until its finish to provide any explanation.
But as one hasbara source says, "We're damned if we do, and damned if we don't. We have to react more quickly than we have in the past, but also are obliged to check out the details thoroughly."
The phrase "damned if we do, damned if we don't" is an apt description of Israel's overall situation in Gaza as it confronts an enemy that doesn't hesitate to use the hapless civilians of Beit Hanun as cover for its Kassam and sniper fire. At the end of the day - or any specific day, to be more precise - there's nothing Israel's oft-criticized hasbara efforts can do to completely assuage the impact of images like those out of Beit Hanun on Monday.
The only answer is a sustained public diplomacy effort to demonstrate what the results would be if the IDF didn't act against Hamas - namely, an even greater increase in the attacks against Israeli civilians in Sderot and other communities along the Gaza border. That is war of a different kind, and certainly more than a day's work.