How Israel got out its message about the Jenin raid

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: IDF operations are almost always a response to terrorism, yet making a big announcement with a name makes it look like Israel is launching a war.

 IDF SOLDIERS take up a defensive position in the Jenin refugee camp on Tuesday during this week’s large-scale IDF operation in the area. (photo credit: YONAH JEREMY BOB)
IDF SOLDIERS take up a defensive position in the Jenin refugee camp on Tuesday during this week’s large-scale IDF operation in the area.
(photo credit: YONAH JEREMY BOB)

The IDF launched its largest raid on Jenin in 20 years on Monday, striking with drones and helicopters at 1:15 a.m. Over the ensuing two days, about 1,000 soldiers entered the northern Samaria city, from which many recent terrorist attacks had emanated.

It looked very dramatic, evoking Operation Defensive Shield that quelled the Second Intifada.

The Foreign Ministry and IDF were coordinated on messaging; Alon Lavi of the Foreign Ministry’s Public Diplomacy Department said that by 2:30 a.m. he had sent materials to Israeli embassies in Asia, where people were waking up to the news. 

They conveyed with text, images, and video what Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said later in the day – that Jenin “has become a center for terrorist activity. [Jenin] shelters those responsible for carrying out terror attacks against both the civilian population and security forces.”

Yet, at the same time, the initial messaging from the IDF and Israeli officials was an attempt to downplay what was happening. They would not call it an operation, nor would they call it by the name the IDF was using internally.

 Palestinians hold funeral for those killed during an Israeli military operation, in Jenin. (credit: REUTERS)
Palestinians hold funeral for those killed during an Israeli military operation, in Jenin. (credit: REUTERS)

That morning, a senior Israeli official said “this is not an operation. It’s not semantics; I’m not saying that for no reason.” An operation usually takes many days and even weeks, while this is meant to be “very focused on targets in Jenin found by our intelligence.”

Soon after, Cohen called it a “large-scale effort to thwart terrorist activity in Jenin,” at a briefing to foreign press.

Both emphasized that Israel has no intention to start “Defensive Shield 2,” as some politicians have said is necessary to stop the wave of terrorism of the past two years. The high-level source characterized the action as a “brigade-level raid.”

A short raid 

The IDF raid on Jenin “won’t be too long, but we don’t know if things will get complicated. We didn’t commit to a certain timeline, but it’s not an operation; it’s a few days of battle,” he said.

Israel is “operating in a targeted manner” and “making a conscious effort to prevent harm to the local civilian population,” Cohen said.

Foreign Ministry sources and Israel advocates celebrated the lack of a name. Multiple figures in the public diplomacy sphere told The Jerusalem Post that giving military action a name may give Israelis a cause to rally around in support of the IDF, but it tends to hurt Israel internationally. 

IDF operations are almost always a response to terrorism, yet making a big announcement with a name makes it look like Israel is launching a war.

Professionals in this sphere lament that the IDF and Public Diplomacy Directorate care almost entirely about domestic messaging and give very little attention to international messaging, but this time they at least tried.

STILL, THE “no-name not-an-operation” message didn’t last very long. By midday, a document calling it “Operation Home and Garden” leaked to the press, and by the evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the name in his speech at the US Embassy’s Fourth of July party – though he only used it in Hebrew, not English.

For those wondering why the IDF chose a name that evokes Better Homes and Gardens, Jenin means “gardens” in Arabic, and the city is built on the site of a town mentioned in the Book of Joshua and Book of Kings called Ein Ganim, Ginat – both referring to gardens – or Bayit Vegan, which means “Home and Garden.”

Nameless or not, in the IDF’s final hours in Jenin the following evening, Netanyahu once again emphasized the message Israel sought to convey: “We will continue as much as necessary to cut off terrorism. We will not allow Jenin to become a haven for terrorism.”

Behind the scenes, that was the message that Israeli diplomats across the world had been sending for weeks to the governments and media in the countries in which they are stationed, ensuring that the operation was not a surprise, Lavi said.

“A lot of terror attacks came out of that city. We made it clear that an Israeli military intervention was necessary,” and that it would be “short and focused,” Lavi stated.

Surveying the response from much of the world, it seemed that the messaging was effective. Of course, it helped that the messaging was true: The operation was about 48 hours long and the IDF said that the 12 Palestinians, including five minors, who it killed were all combatants. They also destroyed sites in which the terrorists were building rockets and IEDs (improvised explosive devices), as well as weapons stores, including one under a mosque.

Statements from Western governments did not pressure Israel to end the operation. Overall, they were boilerplate: Israel has the right to defend itself against terrorism, Israel should avoid civilian casualties, Israel and the Palestinians should cooperate. That was the gist of the statements coming from the US, UK, EU, France, and Germany, among others. 

Some waited until after the terrorist attack in Tel Aviv on Tuesday to even say anything, at which point they led with condemning the attack, as opposed to starting with the IDF action in Jenin.

At the same time, Arab countries, including those with which Israel has peace agreements, always condemn Israel when it acts against Palestinian terrorists. Even the United Arab Emirates, which is the friendliest in the region, sent out a sharper message than usual. 

The uptick in violence in Judea and Samaria over the past six months, which has been rooted in Palestinian terror attacks, has strained ties between Israel and Abraham Accords states at the higher levels, and the latest action in Jenin is no exception. Despite this, trade continues to grow.

UN professionals also had the expected reaction, unequivocally condemning Israel for not turning the other cheek to terrorists. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk, for example, accused Israel of “willful killing” and said that “standards do not change simply because the goal of the operation is stated as ‘counterterrorism.’”

When it comes to the media, Israel was able to convey its message effectively, since by lucky chance Cohen had scheduled a briefing to the Foreign Press Association for Monday morning, long before anyone knew that was when the operation would happen.

Plus, the Foreign Ministry published more than 150 social media posts in six languages that garnered over 2 million views.

THERE WERE, as always, exceptions, such as the blood libel spread by the BBC’s Anjana Gadgil who said, while interviewing former prime minister Naftali Bennett, that “Israeli forces are happy to kill children,” and refused to acknowledge that a teenager shooting at civilians is a terrorist.

“We dealt with a lot of fake news,” Lavi lamented, pointing to three false stories that spread: that Israel was preventing ambulances from entering Jenin, that the IDF intentionally destroyed civilian infrastructure, and that soldiers were expelling populations from their homes. These messages resonated on social media and in Arab media, but less so in the mainstream Western media.

“We made sure to respond immediately. The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories denied the fake news right away, and so did we… bringing images and videos to support what we were saying,” Lavi said.

The images of thousands of Palestinians leaving the Jenin “refugee camp” were called “the second Nakba” (“Catastrophe Day,” the term Palestinians use to describe the 1948 War of Independence) on social media, but the IDF immediately denied that they had told anyone to evacuate. As Lavi pointed out: “The soldiers left Jenin and everyone can go back to where they wanted. It doesn’t hold water.

“The false stories about Israel “are part of what we deal with all the time,” he said. “We’re careful not to create more conversation about it through our reaction – but we make sure to react.”