The Israeli media, or military mouthpiece?

As the death toll in Gaza moves closer to 1,000 in what is now the 18th day of the Israeli assault on Gaza, MENASSAT's Hasan Abed Alhaleem looks at the role of the Israeli media in the lead up to war, and asks what role the media will play once the war ends?
Ma'ariv - one of the leading Hebrew-language dailies in Israel. Critics in Israel accuse the paper of helping to beat the drums of war prior to Operation Cast Lead. R.R.

The Israeli media cannot be separated from the Israeli street. They mirror each other. In 2000, when Israeli public opinion started to lean towards the right and extremist policies and ideas gained more support, the media followed. 

We can’t ignore the fact that Israeli media in general is very critical and free when the state is not in a full-blown war. But the Israeli media is also fickle, and when a crisis erupts, critical media tendencies erode and the Israeli media tends to act as the mouthpiece of the military.

Take the 2006 war in Lebanon, for example. Israeli media supported the war, but as defeat against a much smaller guerrilla army - the Shia Hezbollah movement - became more apparent, Israeli media turned against the war makers and anger seeped through Israeli broadsheets and TV broadcasts.

During the few months preceding Israel's "Operation Cast Lead," the Israeli media completely ignored Israel's complete domination of Gaza by land, air and sea.

Instead, the media focused on the rockets being launched by Hamas and other affiliated militant groups. Countless interviews were conducted on TV with settlers living in the target areas of southern Israel, creating an intimate relationship with the Israeli public and those injured and harmed by the Qassam rockets.

Journalists became increasingly concerned with, for example, a broken glass window in an Israeli settlement, while completely ignoring the death Palestinians in Gaza due to the all-encompassing blockade - a crisis that before the Gaza war was described by British aid agencies as the worst humanitarian conditions in the Strip for 40 years.

Before the war

Columnists in the three major Israeli Hebrew-language newspapers (Haaretz, Yedioth Ahronoth, and Ma’ariv) were divided between those supporting the truce between Israel and Hamas, and those calling for the eradication of the Islamist movement from Gaza.

An Op-Ed in Ha'aretz came out a few weeks before the offensive began calling for Israel to extend the 6-month ceasefire agreement with Hamas. But, a few days prior to the December 27 air assault of Gaza, the left-leaning daily changed its editorial course.

On December 25, two days before the strikes on Gaza began, one op-ed called “We can’t go on like that" discussed the launching of rockets from Gaza into southern Israel. It said that, “No government, even if its ministers are in the middle of their election campaign, can accept this situation for long.”

Meanwhile, Ma'ariv and Ynet were clearly pushing for the war a few days before the start of the attack.  On December 21, a front page article on Yedioth Ahronot read, “Gaza Trap – a military operation or staying cool?”

On December 22, Ma’ariv stated, “Hamas takes advantage of the political paralysis. Hamas has rockets that could reach Kiryat Gat, Ashdod and even Bir Sabaa,” while Yedioth Ahronoth said,  “One of every eight Israelis is in danger of being bombed. It is now official, Hamas’ missiles can reach Bir Sabaa.”

Columnists and analysts in the three main Hebrew-language newspapers began publishing stories that focused on war strategies, war plans and even setting goals for the Israeli state, while crying over the Israeli deterrence capabilities, justifying and even pushing for a war.

In fact, Operation Cast Lead began after Israeli media began their war cry. Newspapers welcomed the assault, as did most columnists, except for the few considered to be part of the Israeli left, such as Gideon Levy and Amira Hass, both of Haaretz.

The violent war on the Strip was embraced by Israel’s most renowned columnists, who presented advice to decision makers, and emphasized more than ever, the suffering of the citizens living in Israeli settlements and towns near Gaza, while dealing with Palestinian deaths as mere statistic – even as war achievements in some cases.

Nahum Barnea, a senior political columnist with Yedioth Ahronoth, wrote that the operation came a bit late, “But better late than never.”

He added, “This operation should have taken place before, to face the continuous damage to the Israeli army, for a state that fears Hamas can’t stop Iran or protect its interests against Syria or Egypt or Jordan or the Palestinian Authority.”

Military columnist, Alex Fishman, wrote that what affects the size of the operation and its success is the patience of the people, not the high capabilities of the army, nor the international pressures or the mistakes that might occur.

He also said that, “Operation Cast Lead” is a test for the capacity of the Israeli army in ‘succeeding’ in Gaza and for how far it can go, while maintaining the support of the majority of the leadership and Israeli society.

The war is also being used by some as a tool for regaining political strength.

“The beginning of the operation held the prints of Barack’s twisted and misleading ways,” said Yossi Verter of Haaretz. “He is the one holding the most military medals, but that doesn’t mean he is the most fit to take the post of Prime Minister. This operation could save him and his party for the humiliating expected crash.”

During the war

During the first day of the offensive on December 27, the Israeli media ignored the deaths on the Palestinian side, and portrayed them as victories for Israel.

TV stations and newspapers didn’t broadcast or publish pictures of people who were affected by the bombings nor did they show pictures of the destruction in Gaza.

Channel 10, the most watched Israeli station, focused on the missile bombings of Israeli villages, completely ignoring the massacres on the other side.

Interviews were conducted with Israelis who suffered from panic attacks from Hamas rockets instead.

Other TV stations and newspapers followed the same path.

Ethan Haper from Yedioth Ahronoth went far enough to say that this war is, “existentialist.”

On day two of the ground attack, when the army began phase two of its offensive a new phase also unfolded in the Israeli media – that of asking questions.

Barnea started asking about the capacity of the army to achieve its goals of stopping Hamas from firing rockets into Israel. He said that the expectations of the war were limited and the fears great.

Others followed, looking for an exit to the war.

Media responsibility

The Israeli military also imposed a complete blackout on their operations in Gaza, banning foreign journalists from entering the Strip to cover the events.

The Israeli police arrested al-Alam satellite channel’s cameraman for taking pictures without permission, as well as a photographer and reporter from Yedioth Ahronoth when they tried to enter Soroka hospital, which treats the Israeli army’s injured.

Censorship in this case has prevented people from seeing what is happening on the ground, with the aim of ensuring the support of the general public. Media managers throughout Israel’s media establishment are very aware of this fact.

After the Gaza war ends the Israeli media will likely go back to taking on a more critical role in questioning their leaders – both political and military, and if the “achievements” of the war are not enough for the columnists in the three mainstream newspapers, tough questions and harsh criticism will begin – as was the case with the war in Lebanon in 2006.

Look for this to effect the upcoming Israeli elections.

Still, when the next war comes the question remains: will journalists revert back to tooting horns and being the mouthpiece of the military or move to that critical voice necessary to stop war?