Israeli Army Belatedly Courting Media : Sets Up Tours, Issues Unrest Status Reports to Foreign Press
“Relatively quiet today in Judea and Samaria, though there were a number of instances of public disorders,” an Operational Update on unrest in the Israeli-occupied territories advised Wednesday.
“Stone barricades were set up, and there were instances of stone throwing,” Wednesday’s update went on. “Two buses carrying workers from the territories were set on fire. . . . No one wounded, one of the buses totally destroyed. A curfew was imposed on the village of Sair.”
As part of a belated effort to counter the damage to its image abroad caused by weeks of unrest in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip areas, Operational Updates are being supplied to the foreign press by the Israeli government.
The day before, a visiting American reporter wishing to know “what it’s like” for Israeli troops confronting hostile Palestinians had found a polite young English-speaking soldier named Sivan who was happy to arrange for her to spend some time in the field with an army unit. “We’ll try to get you into one of those tours this week,” Sivan promised.
Media Information Center
The government’s effort to help the press includes the opening this week of a “Media Information Center on Events in Judea, Samaria (Israeli names for the West Bank) and Gaza,” the stationing of an army press tent at the main entrance to the Gaza Strip and the dispatch of a score of Israeli spokesmen to the United States to meet with opinion makers.
It is all part of what Israelis call hasbara, a Hebrew word translated variously as “explanation,” “interpretation” and “propaganda.”
In this case, hasbara is intended primarily to refurbish the reputation of the Israeli army, particularly after widespread reports in recent days that soldiers have been beating Palestinians indiscriminately, sending hundreds to hospitals with broken limbs and other serious injuries.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin acknowledged Monday that there have been “exceptions,” that some troops have exceeded policy guidelines covering the use of physical force. But Israeli press reports Wednesday suggested that beatings are more general than that.
The Hebrew-language daily Hadashot quoted an unidentified 20-year-old soldier serving in the Gaza Strip as saying that his unit had been ordered to beat young Arabs detained in door-to-door sweeps through refugee camps.
“Those who took their time at the door were beaten even harder,” the soldier was quoted as saying. “This was not a private initiative, but orders received from the company commander and his deputy. This was a general directive.”
An army spokeswoman said she could not comment specifically on the report because there was no way to check it. But she insisted that there is no general order to beat Palestinians.
Israeli officials and representatives of American Jewish groups stationed here say the country’s current hasbara problems began long before beatings and expulsions became an issue.
‘There Are Two Battles’
“In the first couple of weeks (after the disturbances broke out last Dec. 9), there wasn’t just a failure, there was a vacuum in Israel’s information policy,” said Harry Wall, director of the Israel office of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. “After that there was a tendency for Israel to shoot itself in the foot with some of its statements.”
According to Wall, it is a failure that Israel has experienced before. In any conflict, “there are two battles,” he said, adding: “One is on the ground, and the other is for public opinion. Israel tends to ignore the second, and it does so at its own expense, I’m afraid.”
The Israel Defense Forces came under particular fire from within the government for what was perceived in the first days of the unrest as its inexcusably slow response to requests and inquiries from the press. As a result, journalists turned increasingly to Palestinian and U.N. sources for information--information that turned out to be highly credible.
As the unrest has continued, officials say, the press has become more hostile. “The avalanche of coverage has given a certain license to anti-Semitic expression,” the Anti-Defamation League’s Wall said. “The (government’s) policy is a very difficult one to explain. You go up against a camera which shows soldiers pounding on Palestinians or firing into what appears to be an unarmed crowd, and all of a sudden you have David and Goliath, and the roles are reversed. If the Palestinians have scored a major success--and they have--it’s that they have turned themselves into David.”
A Lack of Perspective
One of the problems is the lack of historical and geopolitical perspective, Wall said. Smaller newspapers and media outlets without regular foreign staffs have sent U.S.-based reporters into the area without adequate background, he said. “They think they’re in the United States in the 1960s,” he said, “but Gaza is not Berkeley, and the Middle East is not Vietnam.”
Lt. Col. Arik Gordin, director of the West Bank and Gaza Strip Information Center, said it is too early to assess his organization’s impact. “Foreign journalists usually get the red carpet treatment from Palestine Liberation Organization information sources,” he told a local reporter. In theory, the center is run jointly by the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Israeli police, the government press office and the Israel Defense Forces spokesman’s office. In fact, several visits since the center opened over the weekend have found only soldiers on duty.
Camera Crew Kicked
Wednesday’s operational report referred to an incident that underscores the army’s continuing image problem. An Israeli camera crew working for CBS News was punched and kicked by soldiers in the Gaza Strip after making film of troops striking a Palestinian youth.
“They beat us with their hands, pulled our hair, choked the sound man, broke his recorder, and ripped the cables joining our equipment,” cameraman Moshe Ben-Dor said.
Soldiers from the unit acknowleged the attack, according to the army report.
“The unit commander and the spokesman’s office representative stressed the severity and the significance of the soldiers’ offense,” the report said, “and the soldiers subsequently apologized to the crew.”