Learning from the past in Gaza

In this conflict, the battle with the media and over the media is essential.

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)
There will apparently be clashes again today along the fence separating Gaza and Israel.
The Gazans have become enamored with the idea and together with Hamas, which removed its mask and took part in the events, the Palestinian protest has resurfaced.
The question isn’t why this occurred – the question is why it didn’t happen until now. The basic idea was hanging in the air for a long time: masses of marchers challenging the walls that Israel has built around the Palestinians, in Gaza and in Judea and Samaria.
These walls have become a symbol, and they are drawn to this symbol.
The two sides view this symbol differently, of course. The Palestinians seek to rally against it and the IDF seeks to protect it, both as a symbol and as a physical barrier.
Why only now? Because for years the Palestinians have toyed with the notion that terrorism could defeat Israel. Thus, they launched the First Intifada 31 years ago. It was mainly based on civil protest, and it failed. Okay, they said, and in they 2000 launched the Second Intifada – violent and bloody.
They failed, again. Israelis showed extraordinary national resilience, went on with their lives, and the IDF returned to the West Bank in 2002’s Operation Defensive Shield and delivered a devastating blow to the terrorist organizations. Israel won and terrorist activity declined.
Now they have returned to the option of civil protest, though spiced with some terrorism, but the principle remains the same: Transfer the leading role to civilians, with an emphasis on women and children.
In the meantime, Israel and the Palestinians have done their homework.
The IDF realized that the Palestinians seek to win a victory in the battle for consciousness: breaching the fence, violating sovereignty, embarrassing the stronger side, and if possible incurring casualties (in order to stoke the fire of “massacre,” disproportional use of force and international commissions of inquiry), and harming the resilience and national unity of Israel, which is quick to engage in moral stocktaking and discuss its quandary, as in any liberal-democratic society.
THE PALESTINIANS have long felt that the world has lost interest in their struggle. The war in Syria, the internal conflicts, America under Trump and, above all, Israel’s ability to keep them in check by maintaining an iron wall in the air, on the ground and underground – have eliminated any real option for major acts of terrorism. Only the civil struggle remains, together with the hope that it will rekindle international support and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which is also in decline and largely forgotten.
Unfortunately, Israel last week repeated some of its mistakes from the past. It was prepared operationally, but the relatively high number of casualties immediately drew international attention, just as it did in early 2000. Moreover, the battle for consciousness should incorporate tools of statecraft, economics and information. Israel failed to employ these tools. The use of force, force and more force – is insufficient.
Aren’t we the ones who proclaimed the story of David and Goliath? How did we fail to understand that the conflict is asymmetric, where the smaller, weaker and inferior side will always be able to embarrass the strong, big and wellequipped side? The IDF has developed sophisticated measures for the battle over consciousness; it has built appropriate organizational frameworks and developed fighting methods.
However, at the critical moment, they fell silent and the situation at the end of the first round is reminiscent of November 2000, when pictures of Muhammad al-Dura featured prominently in news broadcasts around the world. In a precise reenactment, a seven-year-old girl was sent to confront the soldiers at the beginning of the clashes last Friday, with the undisguised hope of creating a new Muhammad al-Dura.
In this conflict, the battle with the media and over the media is essential.
It’s not something optional.
It’s a must. Experience teaches that in such moments the entire array of public diplomacy should be concentrated under a single roof in order to integrate, coordinate and deliver a uniform message. The new and influential players are social media and NGOs. What did we do in those arenas? How did we operate? Which systems did we require and what was the result? We’re in an emergency situation.
I know that this assessment does not conform to the sweet dreams of the prime minister, the government ministers and the political Right in Israel that the status quo is sustainable. Well, it’s not.
We’re at the beginning of the road. The response must be varied and integrated; this includes turning again to the diplomatic option and searching for solutions to the horrible, inhuman distress of the population in Gaza. The Palestinians are convinced that they’ve discovered Israel’s soft underbelly, and they will come back to strike against it. Israel must be ready with a swift response. Time is critical and does not necessarily work in our favor.
The writer is an MK (Zionist Union) and serves on the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. His book on Israel’s public diplomacy, Hearts and Minds: Israel and the Battle for Public Opinion, has just been published in the US.