Analysis: Losing the propaganda war

The military still prefers to rely on the Foreign Ministry when it comes to the int'l media.

idf miri regev 88 idf (photo credit: IDF)
idf miri regev 88 idf
(photo credit: IDF)
Brig.-Gen. Miri Regev can sum up her first year as IDF Spokesperson with a great deal of satisfaction: her unit succeeded in its two main missions. The pullback from the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and Northern Samaria were packaged and presented to the Israeli public, with the help of a willing media, as a heartwarming demonstration of the army as a unifying force in Israeli society, under the brilliant slogan of "determination and sensitivity." Her other success was in selling her boss, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, as the nation's most responsible adult. She is responsible for building Halutz's image as the wise and resourceful "Mr. Security," nobly sheepherding novice Defense Minister Amir Peretz over the pitfalls of his new and frightening job. What both these successes have in common is that they were both accomplished on the home field, in the Israeli media. This is not written to belittle the achievement, as Regev's predecessor, Ruth Yaron, seldom managed to win over the local press. Rather it highlights the fact that the army's PR wing is geared mainly towards public opinion in Israel. The total failure of the IDF, by contrast, to counter the Palestinian propaganda campaign in the foreign press that began immediately after seven members of one family were killed at a Gaza beach on Friday afternoon, proves that after so many years of media warfare, the military still prefers to rely on the Foreign Ministry when it comes to the international media. The IDF Spokesperson unit has officers fluent in a wide range of languages, in charge of contact with the hundreds of foreign reporters working in Israel, but it doesn't seem as if the higher command of the unit sees such contact as a crucial task. The photographs flashing on TV screens around the world of 12-year-old Huda Ghalia searching frantically for her parents in the sand after the explosion on the beach, only to find their bodies, caught the army by surprise. It took 24 hours before official Israeli sources began saying, at first almost apologetically, that there was a possibility that the explosive that had torn apart the Ghalia family, might not have come from an IDF artillery shell but from a Palestinian device instead. By then, of course, it was too late. The images of Huda, expressing better than any words the extent of Israeli "brutality," had already transformed the Palestinian version of the events into incontrovertible facts. Whatever Israeli spokesmen were saying at that point seemed like a lame attempt at covering up. There is no excuse for this delayed reaction. The IDF employs the most advanced reconnaissance and radar equipment around and over the northern Gaza Strip. Land, air and sea-based devices are constantly monitoring and recording, UAVs are forever hovering above; even more so when the army is attacking a certain area. So if six artillery shells were fired in the vicinity of the beach, round about the time the family was blown up, there has got to be footage, perhaps from a number of angles. The IDF knew there were Hamas members doing something suspicious on that beach almost immediately. It had the pictures to prove that they were tampering with evidence. The army also had no conclusive proof that it was indeed a stray shell that had caused the carnage. The obvious thing would have been to release the footage as soon as possible to the foreign press. It might not have convinced anyone outright but it might have been enough to cast a serious degree of doubt on the Palestinian narrative; enough to hold the fort until a more exhaustive investigation had been carried out. Even if the results would have then been that it was an Israeli shell, the IDF would have still come out more honest and humane. But after being so slow on the uptake, the fact that the evidence now seems to be pointing in the opposite direction seems almost useless. The IDF Spokesperson unit has soldiers stationed within the advance command posts from which the battles against the Kassam missiles are being directed. They should have been busy feeding headquarters in Tel Aviv with the relevant information; the officers in Tel Aviv should have been demanding it of their own accord, but as one officer in the unit said on Sunday, "no one was even thinking along those lines, it's just not part of their consciousness, and that's why we lost the golden opportunity during the first few hours." The IDF has proven inept in the past at dealing with foreign press. It took months before the army put out an official version of the death of 12-year-old Palestinian Muhammad al-Dura, one proving he had been killed by Palestinian gunfire. By then he had become an international icon of Israel's cruelty towards children. A couple of years ago, the IDF tried to use footage taken from a UAV of terrorists using an UNRWA ambulance to ship Kassam rockets, only to fall flat on its face when it was actually a stretcher being loaded. That perhaps has made the army wary of revealing what it knows, or thinks it knows, but one failure shouldn't become an excuse. The IDF has all the equipment, resources and manpower needed not only to fight the shooting war against the Kassam launching gangs, but also to wage the propaganda war. No one else can do it for the soldiers. They are in a unique position to understand what is going on in the field and have direct access to the most compelling photos that would make for great TV images if only they were released on time. If only Miri Regev cared enough about getting Israel's story on CNN as she does about tomorrow's headline in Yediot Aharonot.