ANALYSIS: A propaganda war can be disproportionate too

MENASSAT's Saseen Kawzally looks at the propaganda war being waged during the Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip.
A screenshot of the Israeli military's YouTube site launched during Operation Cast Lead.

Following the popular mantra "YouTube is today's television," the Israeli military has ventured into new territory by utilizing the Internet to wage a propaganda war to accompany its on-going war in the Gaza Strip.

Amid escalating casualties—700 total dead and rising—and as international condemnation of Israel's offensive mounts with each new day of bombing, Israel finds itself in urgent need to justify the apparent disproportionate use of force.

In the process, Israel has managed to brand practically all of Gaza's men as Hamas militants, thus making them legitimate military targets in the eyes of the world.

Using the same logic, any building described by Israel as "Hamas-associated" becomes a legitimate target as well, be it a mosque, a hospital, or even apartment blocks or schools.

This bombing then becomes acceptable regardless of the ensuing "collateral damage," a military euphemism for women, children and, yes, civilian men.  

Is it any surprise then that the Israeli military became the first national army to set up an official YouTube channel, featuring its own military videos?

Various military spokesmen have said that the channel is meant to verify Israel's claims of surgical bombing accuracy and impeccable intelligence on targets.

As the Arab media beams horrific images of civilians, women and children and body parts scattered over bomb sites, the YouTube channel is meant to counter these "sensational" images—a target of official Israeli criticism.

The YouTube channel was set up by the Israeli Defense Force's (IDF) spokespersons unit on the second day of Israel's air campaign against Gaza. It promises to provide "documentation of the IDF's humane action and operational success in Operation Cast Lead."

'The blogosphere and new media are another war zone' 

Major Avital Leibovich, Israeli army spokeswoman

And the channel is attracting lots of visitors, with 14,000 subscribers so far and 996,139 views of some 37 clips—most of them cockpit videos of Israeli air strikes on Gaza.

"The blogosphere and new media are another war zone," said Foreign Press Branch head Maj. Avital Leibovich at the launch of the channel. "We have to be relevant there."

BBC questions YouTube videos

But these efforts were almost immediately undermined and discredited by none other than the BBC.

In a January 5 BBC article titled "Propaganda war: Trusting what we see?" World Affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds questioned how we "see" videos taken from the air and how they are interpreted.

"Israel released video of an air attack on 28 December, which appeared to show rockets being loaded onto a lorry. The truck and those close to it were then destroyed by a missile," Reynolds wrote.

"This was clear evidence, the Israelis said, of how accurate their strikes were and how well justified... The YouTube video has a large caption on it saying 'Grad missiles being loaded onto the Hamas vehicle.' As of Saturday morning UK time, more than 260,000 people had watched it."

But then the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem released testimony by a 55-year-old Gaza resident named Ahmed Sanur who claimed that the truck was his and that he and members of his family and his workers were moving oxygen cylinders from his workshop. Sanur—whose son was one of the eight people killed in the attack—denied any connection to Hamas militants or military activity.

"The incident shows how an apparently definitive piece of video can turn into something much more doubtful," said Reynolds.

"The Israeli propaganda effort is being directed to achieve two main aims," he continued. "The first is to justify the air attacks. The second is to show that there is no humanitarian calamity in Gaza."

No revision of the official Israeli story took place, and the video remains on YouTube.

Limiting coverage

Israel's efforts to convince the world that it is acting "humanely" in Gaza are helped along by its banning of the international media from the Gaza Strip, during and ahead of the latest offensive—under the cynical pretext of concern for the safety of foreign journalists.

The ban has left the job of reporting the situation in Gaza mainly to those Arab or international media who had correspondents on the ground before the offensive started.

But many of these media—including Al-Jazeera—had previously and routinely been branded by Israel as "Hamas associated." In fact, Al-Jazeera was banned from official Israeli press conferences and interviews with Israeli officials well ahead of Operation Cast Lead.

As far as the Arab media are concerned, Palestinian journalists have done a pretty good job of replacing the vacuum left by Israel's ban on foreign media.
Al Jazeera has been reporting exhaustively on the Israeli siege of Gaza for the past eight months, and Lebanon's NEW TV's reporting from Gaza has been outstanding.

It is fair to conclude then that only the "western" media, and thus public opinion in the West, are feeling the impact of Israel's control over the flow of information—both on the Internet and in the mainstream media—which was probably Israel's goal in the first place.

'Online war, online resistance"

If there is obvious disproportion in the number of victims caused by either side, the Palestinian side is equally at a disadvantage in the online war being waged by Israel over Gaza.

Pro-Palestinian hackers did hack or deface some 300 Israeli websites in the first 48-hours of the attack on Gaza, but such efforts paled in comparison to the influence of the official Israeli message that was being delivered through the mainstream media.

Facing battalions of public relations experts and lobbyists with almost endless financial and technological resources, pro-Palestinian hackers are firing "virtual Qassam rockets" into a predominantly pro-Israeli cyber-world, and they are having about as much effect as the real Qassam rockets being fired at Israel by Hamas.

Hamas' Media Warfare Division, a branch of the Al-Qufs Brigade, claimed in a statement that is was able to hack and take over several Israeli websites, posting pictures of Palestinian leaders and resistance videos there to replace the Israeli narrative.

But Israel's Ynet news website, one of the sites hit by the pro-Palestinian hackers, was dismissive about the Palestinian cyber-war efforts. 

"Website defacement of this nature requires only basic programming know-how and usually boils down to changing the main page—a file easy to reconstruct.”

A more sophisticated and elaborate internet attack was claimed by a Moroccan hackers group calling itself Team Evil.

Team Evil hacked into DomainTheNet's registration system server, effectively hijacking various prominent domain names like and Bank Discount, and rerouted visitors to a page condemning Israel, and showing images of children killed in Gaza bombings, as well as images of Abu-Ghraib prisoners being tortured. Team Evil has previously hacked other Israeli brands such as Cellcom, Shilav and BlueSquare.

If Hamas' own cyber-warfare is the equivalent of a Qassam rocket, then the Moroccan initiative was the virtual Grad rocket attack.

Preemptive strike

Gary Warner, director of research in computer forensics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was the first to use the term "Propaganda war" on his blog referring to cyber-actions taken by both sides of the conflict, in support of their fighting on the ground.

The objective here is limiting and hindering "third party" media coverage of the war.

The assumption is Israel's credibility on the international scene should be enough for people to believe its official story. But the numbers and images are not playing in their favor, a sad fact, when it takes high civilian casualties to cast doubts on to the veracity of Israeli claims.

Still, the widening ground offensive is making it harder for Israel to maintain the moral high ground.

In an article
published on New Year’s Eve at Times Online, Lucy Bannerman cites a pro-Israeli lobbyist as saying, "The problem is that the numbers are not very flattering."

"The Jewish state is mindful of the public relations disaster of the 34-day offensive during the Lebanon war of 2006 and took one early measure to avoid a repeat," Bannerman wrote. "The Israelis have prevented foreign journalists from entering and reporting from Gaza, thereby limiting the scope of the coverage from the Palestinian side."

During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States decided to embed journalists with the troops. Israel, it seems, has decided to embed the entire Western public opinion—controlling most of the narrative while labeling the Arabic and much of the English-speaking press as naturally biased, partial, or even out right propagandistic for the other side.

Those who choose to believe sanitized media releases such as Israel's Youtube channel, will continue to do so.

But remember to draw from the experience of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. In the five years of war, it turns out that the U.S. also needed to sanitize the effects of war to galvanize public opinion around what has clearly been a public relations nightmare.

Thus, the media faces a historic moment of truth concerning its duties and responsibilities—reporting on behalf of the more than 700 Palestinians killed by Israel in Gaza, as much as on behalf of the ten Israelis, seven soldiers and three civilians, killed by Hamas.