Analyze This: The PR war: Stumbling around in the darkness

Hamas was prepared to create a media-ready scenario in Gaza.

Gaza dark 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Gaza dark 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
On Tuesday afternoon, CNN International broke into its regular programming to bring what anchor Jonathan Mann described as dramatic breaking news from the Gaza Strip. The situation there was desperate, he informed viewers, as just a couple of days earlier supplies of food, medicine and electricity had run dry - all untrue, of course; it was helpfully corrected on-air just a moment later by correspondent Ben Wedeman. But Wedeman did begin reporting on a near-riot situation at the Rafah crossing, where hundreds of Gazan women had marched to the border gate demanding to be let into Egypt. The Egyptian border guards fired at the crowd, there were casualties, and the situation was tense. What happened next? Fortunately for those concerned about how media coverage of Gaza is affecting international public opinion of Israeli policies toward the Hamas terror regime, it was just at this moment that the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences decided to announce the nominees for next month's Oscar awards. Naturally, CNN cut right away from Wedeman's report in Gaza, to bring live coverage of the announcement. If one were an Arab conspiracy theorist, it might be tempting to view the timing as yet another sign that the Jews control Hollywood - especially since it turned out that the Israeli war film Beaufort ended up among the best foreign film nominees (maybe to make up for Paradise Now last year). As for those viewers who waited until all the nominees were announced in the hope that CNN or BBC would then turn back to Gaza, just at that moment their attention was drawn away by the news that the US Federal Reserve had decided to make a major cut in the interest rates (and don't ask who controls the Federal Reserve). Fortunately for those who wanted all-Gaza, all-the-time, there was still Al-Jazeera, which had been on the scene with live broadcasts and commentary from the very moment that Hamas had decided to cut the power in Gaza and send it into darkness on Sunday night. Indeed, so ready was Al-Jazeera with live coverage of candle-bearing Palestinian children and immediate reaction from across the Arab world, that Israeli officials said Tuesday they strongly suspect the Arab news network had coordinated its coverage in advance with the Hamas leadership. "They were so prepared, it's hard to believe they didn't know this was going to happen," said the official. "Although it's already dark in Gaza by 6 p.m., they waited two hours to shut their generator down so that the lights going out in Gaza could be carried live on Al-Jazeeera during prime-time viewing." The charge of pre-coordination was strongly denied by Al-Jazeera bureau chief Walied al-Omary. "Absolutely false," he said. "We are on the scene in Gaza, and all we are doing is reporting the reality as it happens. If politicians don't like the reality they see on their television screens, be it here in Israel or in the Arab states, then they blame Al-Jazeera." Whatever the "reality" in Gaza, there is no question that Hamas was prepared to create a media-ready scenario of ordinary Palestinians suffering in darkness the moment Israel carried through on its long-stated warning that fuel supplies would be cut if the Kassam rockets continued to be fired at Sderot and other Israeli communities across the border. As several Israeli officials pointed out after the fact, though, Hamas still had both sufficient fuel and enough electricity from Israel and Egypt to keep the Gaza lights burning. Unfortunately, less prepared was the Israeli reaction, which was again hampered by a lack of government coordination. As has happened too often in the past, the Defense Ministry failed to give advance warning to all the necessary governmental public advocacy offices (such as the Foreign Ministry) that the fuel supplies would be cut on Sunday. According to sources in the ministry, when they then decided on Sunday to try to bring the foreign press into the Ashkelon (Rutenberg) Power Station so they could see with their own eyes that Israel was still supplying electricity to Gaza, they could not get permission in time from the Israel Electric Corporation. Despite these setbacks, and some sharp criticism directed from former government spokesmen Rana'an Gissin and Zvi Mazel against current public advocacy efforts on the Gaza situation, much of the foreign media did not buy completely into Hamas's version of events. The hardships of the people of Sderot, the medical care that many Gazan residents continue (even this week) to receive in Israeli hospitals, and Hamas's apparent manipulation of the Gaza power supply, were noted by major media outlets such as the BBC and The New York Times that have been harshly critical of Israeli policy toward Gaza during the past year. These were the results, said one Israeli official, of improved efforts in the past year to better get out Israel's side of the story. Besides which, says one veteran foreign journalist about the coverage, "If you don't see Israeli troops or tanks in Gaza, or Palestinians being killed, the story just doesn't have the same impact abroad." The last few days again illustrated just how much of the current conflict with Palestinian extremists is an "information war" being fought on the battleground of the international media and other forums of global public opinion. The goal of Hamas in turning the lights off in Gaza is to whip up the "Arab street" against Arab regimes prepared to recognize Israel, and to pressure other foreign governments to rescind their political and economic boycotts of Hamas. And even though this particular Hamas production won't win any Academy Awards, rather than stumbling in the darkness Israel has to be better prepared next time the lights go out in Gaza. [email protected]>/b>