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Israel keeps tight leash on media

Learning from its mistakes, Israel works to limit leaks from the battlefield and control where journalists go and what they see.

January 09, 2009|Ashraf Khalil

SDEROT, ISRAEL — Everyone filed off the tour bus outside the police station in Sderot, less than a mile from the Gaza Strip border.

More than 30 journalists gathered around as police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld began his practiced presentation, complete with charts, graphs and weapon fragments, emphasizing the increasing range of rockets launched from Gaza and the 1 million Israelis living within the threat zone.

Suddenly, an alarm sounded, indicating an incoming rocket: an awkward squawk followed by a recorded female voice saying "code red" in Hebrew.

Everyone hustled inside the police station; seconds later a thud shook the building. Rosenfeld listened to his radio and reported that a pair of rockets had landed harmlessly, one of them about 330 yards away.

Within 10 minutes, a member of the police bomb squad dramatically clunked two mangled rocket stumps onto the sidewalk. The journalists crowded around to take pictures and touch the metal, still as hot as the muffler of a running car.

Drawing on mistakes made during its 2006 conflict with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Israel has revamped its information operations, presenting a unified message, bottling up leaks from the field and working to drive a wedge in Arab public opinion.

Israel and its proponents have used set talking points: emphasizing the eight years that southern residents have endured Gazan rocket fire, highlighting Israel's 2005 withdrawal of its soldiers and settlers from Gaza, and declaring the Gazan people to be hostages of a Hamas regime that cynically sacrifices their lives.

There's also almost always some variation on the theme of, "What would America do if Mexico was launching rockets at Texas every day?" An Israeli reporter said he recently heard the Mexico analogy three times in one day from a military officer, a government official and a civilian analyst.

"As a reporter, that's a bit unnerving because you realize you're dealing with someone who has been fed responses," said the reporter, speaking on the condition that his name or publication not be printed. "It's very clear Israel has heavily invested in its [public relations] machine since the Lebanon war."

Hamas media efforts are primitive in comparison. With its leaders in hiding and without the technical sophistication of the Israeli operation, the militant group is often limited to videotaped statements and news releases to Gazan reporters.

The Israeli media offensive, meanwhile, has extended onto the Internet and television screens of viewers in the Arab world.

Government spokesman Mark Regev and army spokeswoman Maj. Avital Leibovich have been daily fixtures on the Al Jazeera satellite TV network from the start of the Israeli air assault Dec. 27. The final television interview given by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert before the attack was with the Al Arabiya satellite news channel, in which he appealed directly to Gazans to overthrow Hamas themselves.

"We want to influence Palestinian thinking," Regev said. "We think there's a growing divide between Hamas and the Palestinian street."

A Dec. 31 article in the Jewish Chronicle, a London-based newsletter, noted the formation eight months ago of the National Information Directorate within the prime minister's office to coordinate the media activities of the government, army, overseas embassies and nongovernmental organizations like the Israel Project, the lobbying group that arranged the foreign journalists' trip to Sderot.

"The Gaza attack is the first major demonstration of Israel's total overhaul of its hasbara [information] operation following the Second Lebanon War," the article stated.

On Dec. 29, the third day of the air campaign, an Israeli army channel debuted on YouTube, complete with a daily video blog, presentations of the history of the conflict from an Israeli perspective and cockpit footage of missile strikes.

Elsewhere on the Internet, pro-Israeli students and bloggers created QassamCount, an application on the social networking sites Facebook and Twitter that posts an update every time a rocket hits Israel. Pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian hackers have also engaged in a back-and-forth battle against websites on the other side.

Israel has worked to prevent the leaks from soldiers and officers that plagued the war with Hezbollah, even taking away cellphones. In the 2006 conflict, calls from soldiers in the field influenced Israeli public opinion as reporters printed firsthand accounts of the soldiers' uncertainty in the mission and lack of preparedness.

"By Day 2 the leaks had started," said the Israeli journalist. "I know I was getting calls from soldiers saying, 'I don't even have a helmet. This is going to go badly.' "

Army spokesman Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu said phones were taken away this time to prevent Hamas from picking up the soldiers' location and to keep information from leaking out.

Another key aspect of the information campaign: preventing foreign journalists from entering Gaza to report on the conflict firsthand.

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