Goliath vs David: The 2018 Version

Is there anything Israel can do to avoid losing soft-power wars?

A Palestinian throws a rock towards Israeli forces on the Gaza border (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Palestinian throws a rock towards Israeli forces on the Gaza border
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli government officials and military leaders thought they were well prepared for the first round of Gaza’s “Return March” along the border, at least compared to previous confrontations with Palestinians over the past two decades. The scenario was understood in advance – indeed, Hamas leaders made no secret of their plan to stage a series of such mass confrontations, using thousands of Palestinians, including women and children, as camouflage for attacking soldiers and infiltrating terrorists into Israel. On this basis, the Foreign Ministry and other branches sent diplomats and journalists analyses, telling them not to be fooled by this cynical ploy, and the IDF practiced responses to breaches of the border that would prevent or minimize civilian deaths.
But, to understate the reality, even in the initial skirmish the results of these preparations were less than satisfactory – Israel’s image took a beating, with another round of condemnations and “war crimes” allegations. The headlines in media platforms and the accompanying photos again portrayed Israel as the Goliath in the drama, with the Palestinians in their standard role as the innocent victims. The pictures – featured on the front pages of many mainstream newspapers and leading the video news feeds – reinforced this slogan. The New York Times lead (before the number of dead reached 16) screamed “Israeli Military Kills 8 in Confrontations on Gaza Border.”
In later versions of the news stories, the detailed evidence which clearly linked at least 10 of the 16 dead to terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad was cited, usually briefly. This part of the reporting took the standard “he said, she said” format, as if Hamas and Israel were on parallel footings.
However, as always, the greatest damage was from the visuals of death and suffering that are deemed necessary to grab readers and for use as “click bait” on social media. These images, perhaps staged (a process known as Pallywood), all featuring Palestinian “victims” and without any Israeli parallels, gave editors their headlines in what is otherwise yet another predictable round of the ancient and immovable conflict.
Following the flood of images and headlines, politicians and foreign policy officials, particularly in Europe, recycled the standard condemnations of Israel for using “excess force,” and called, as always, for “independent investigations.” The solemn statement from Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign minister (her title is High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, among other jobs), mourned the loss of life, while failing to even mention Hamas or terrorism.
The string of clichés reiterated Palestinian victimhood and warned Israel that “the use of force must be proportionate at all times.” Either every shootout with terrorists in European cities is “proportionate” and every Israeli confrontation is not, or the EU is guilty of double standards and pandering to anti-Israel ideologues.
Into this mix jumped the network of self-proclaimed human rights NGO watchdogs, to advance the image of Israeli culpability and Palestinian victimhood. The inimitable Ken Roth, the leader of Human Rights Watch, whose personal animosity toward Israel is well documented, railed against the “irrelevancies offered to defend Israel’s killing Gaza protesters.” The language used in condemnations from Amnesty International as well as the Palestinian and Israeli organizations was more of the same.
With these forces arrayed against Israel on the soft-power battlefield of manipulated images and perceptions, perhaps any Israeli strategy designed for effective counter-attack is doomed to failure. Similarly, with Palestinian leaders eager to use women and children as covers for terrorism so that Israel loses regardless of the response, perhaps the situation is hopeless.
This conclusion is overly pessimistic and misses some of the less obvious trends and gradual improvements in the situation. The government and military were not taken by surprise, and without the preparations the political damage might have been worse. To get comparable headlines in the repeat matches during the coming weeks, Hamas will need to escalate the confrontations, also meaning more deaths among key terrorist leaders.
It is possible that the Israeli “disproportionality” in targeting these key officials surprised the terrorist groups, and created some deterrence. It is also possible that in the upcoming rounds, the IDF will use more non-lethal responses, such as tear gas, to prevent the would-be infiltrators from entering, and thus generating less emotive images and headlines.
At the same time, the damage from the first round will not disappear, and the images that drive demonization, antisemitism and boycotts on university campuses, churches and other vulnerable soft-power arenas will be reused at every opportunity. After the Israeli government and IDF belatedly woke up to these dangers and created a plethora of competing frameworks, the situation improved, but not enough. Instead of struggling to respond to short-term confrontations where Israel is automatically at a disadvantage, the need for a serious long-term and coordinated strategy remains unanswered.
The author is Professor of Political Science at Bar Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor.