Gaza City – Israeli F-16 warplanes fired a missile at the Shawa Hossary media building in the early hours of Saturday morning, directly targeting the offices of Al Quds TV, a Hamas-affiliated satellite channel. The building was damaged, the channel transmission halted, and at least six journalists were injured. But many believe Israel’s foremost concern was sending a warning message to the government of Gaza.
Seen as the mouthpiece of Hamas, Al Quds broadcasts content that serves to promote and glorify the image of the political and military arms of the movement. Since Israel launched its ongoing offensive in Gaza, Operation Pillar of Cloud, Al Quds has provided minute-by-minute updates on rockets fired into Israel and losses incurred on the Israeli side, boasting the increased size and reach of the military capabilities of Palestinian armed groups – mainly Hamas’ armed wing, the Qassam Brigades. Footage of hundreds of masked fighters marching in a show of numbers or conducting simulated raids, and grainy amateur videos of fighters attacking Israeli targets are played in a loop.
The underlying issue in Hamas’ aggressive self-promotion on its satellite channels, as well as its official websites and other online platforms, is the media war that is taking place on the sidelines of and in correspondence with the military conflict.
There are two levels to the PR approach employed Hamas. The first is addressing the local audience, the population of Gaza – and the second is propaganda aimed at Israeli decision makers.The portrayal of the Hamas movement as having a strong, well-equipped military force with a solid organisational structure serves to increase its authority and popularity among Gazans, while sending a clear message to Israel: Hamas is an adversary to be reckoned with, rather than an unrecognised regime that can be forcibly removed.
Israel doesn’t need to exhibit its might to the population of Gaza remotely. Like Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, Pillar of Cloud is of a scale that extends to every neighbourhood in the Strip, and images of the dozens of civilians killed and hundreds injured quickly make the rounds on social media websites or local channels. Nor does Israel need to make its case to the world; many Palestinians believe western media supports the Zionist cause.
When it comes to managing news of Gaza fighters’ attacks on Israel, more often than not the Israeli military has either refused to confirm or delayed confirmation. Israeli military spokesperson Avital Leibovich denied that Fajr-5, a long-range rocket newly acquired by the Al Quds Brigades, the military wing of the Islamic Jihad, had targeted Tel Aviv on November 15.
The rocket was later reported to have fallen in the city of Rishon Letzion, refuting Avital’s claims that the news was “Hamas propaganda”. The next day, confirmation of a similar attack was put off until finally eyewitnesses and the media reported news of sirens going off in Tel Aviv and the Israeli military had to confirm the attack.
The Israeli military admitted to the loss of an F-16, but denied reports that armed Palestinian factions had downed it, leading one to question to where Israel suggests the aircraft disappeared. The Israeli military also denied the Qassam Brigades’ claim that a drone was downed on November 15.
It is understandable that the Israeli government would want to shield the public from the consequences of military strikes. On the very first day of the attacks, Defence Minister Ehud Barak announced that the Israeli military had destroyed most of Hamas’ long-range missiles. Four days and hundreds of rockets later, Hamas is still firing Fajr-5s daily. Vying for reelection, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu cannot afford to look weak. In a weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday he said: “We have extracted a heavy price from Hamas and other terrorist organisations, and the army is prepared to significantly widen the operation.”
And yet neither can he afford to enter a losing battle. A land invasion would be unlikely to find support from the US; paying the price of yet another war is not on America’s list of priorities. Many believe Israel cannot afford to be investigated and put under the microscope as per Operation Cast Lead; the scale of death and destruction in that offensive drew international condemnation.
From a military standpoint, a large-scale operation is simply not plausible. Operation Cast Lead was supposed to be a short operation aimed at annihilating Hamas. During the three weeks it lasted, the Israeli military shifted the stated goals of its operation several times, until it realised it had bitten off more than it could chew. Despite the immense losses on the Palestinian side, Israel failed to achieve its goals. Repeating the same plan four years later against a stronger, more heavily armed body of fighters would have disastrous consequences for Israel.
Unable to proceed with a ground offensive, and too far in to turn back, the Israeli military is buying time with threats. Arab, Israeli and western media report almost daily that the Israeli military is on the verge of mobilising 75,000 reserve troops for a ground invasion of Gaza. On Saturday, Hamas spokesperson Mushir el Masri responded by saying that “if the Zionist regime conducts a ground incursion, Gaza will turn into a graveyard for Israelis”. The defiant response is not new to a movement that was created with the purpose of military resistance and the defeat of Israel.
But as Hamas gradually fell into its role as a member of a new regional order, the group has realised it is in its interest to present itself as a viable entity. Since the 2008-2009 war on Gaza, Hamas has developed its outreach strategies and honed its PR skill.
However, it is the social media boom among young Palestinian activists that has had the largest effect in changing public discourse on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Mike Giglo writes that in the latest assault, “while Hamas’ social media efforts have been clumsy, independent activists have driven the narrative on the Palestinian side, as young Gaza residents rush to hospitals to take and upload photos and video of the carnage”.
Some of the pictures have become symbolic of Israel’s disproportionate use of force, and perhaps the reason that Palestinian citizen journalism has proved more effective than Israeli “advocacy” campaigns, launched by volunteers from Israel to New York, is because Israeli bloggers, micro bloggers and social networkers cannot compete with the content coming out of Gaza.
Gaza’s internet traffic, phone calls and radio waves are routed through Israel. The reason Gaza has not been cut off technologically, according to Anshel Pfeffer, an Israeli contributor to Haaretz, goes back to PR considerations and because “the security establishment doesn’t want to relinquish the intelligence opportunities from having access to Gaza’s communications”.
The Israeli military used Israel’s control of Gaza telecommunications to infiltrate Hamas radio waves and television broadcasts, and even residents’ cell phones with messages warning of an imminent ground invasion. A security source told Haaretz that Israel is “busy all the time with psychological warfare of this kind”, a method that was picked up by Hamas. Access to digital communication allowed the Qassam Brigades Intelligence Unit to respond by allegedly hacking the phones of 5,000 Israeli soldiers and sending them threatening text messages, a claim that has not been denied by Israeli authorities.
Global information network accessibility is key to the rising visibility of the Palestinian narrative. Online activism is emerging as a powerful tool in shaping public perception. And as Israeli leaders ponder the best course of action in the highly publicised assault on Gaza, Palestine advocates, propagandists and armed groups are capitalising on the digital media platforms to make headway in the information race.