Israel gains in media blitz, but for how long?

JERUSALEM Tue Jan 13, 2009 4:45pm GMT

JERUSALEM Jan 13 (Reuters) - The advertisements in the international press couldn't be clearer: a map of London with an outline of the Gaza Strip alongside, missiles raining down onto Britain's capital.

"Imagine if Hamas terrorists were targeting you and your family," reads the text under the map, overlayed with concentric rings showing the range of the rockets Hamas militants fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel.

The ads, which ran in the International Herald Tribune on Monday and were sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, a pro-Israel group, form part of Israel's effort to explain itself and a war in which Gaza medical officials say over 900 Palestinians have been killed, including nearly 400 women and children.

Israel has focused its assault on daily Hamas rocket attacks that have severely disrupted life in its south.

"No country would allow such danger on its borders, and neither will Israel. That's why Israel is fighting back," the ad, which would have cost about $60,000 to run, concludes in bold capital letters. A website address underneath included the words "Israelstrikesback".

Israel, which has fought a half-dozen wars since its creation in 1948, often worries it doesn't do a good enough job of communicating its motives, either to the world or at home.

That was never truer than in 2006, when it fought a 34-day war in Lebanon against the Hezbollah guerrilla group that had seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

Hezbollah fired more than 4,000 rockets into Israel during the fighting and the Jewish state emerged with its pride dented and its enemy claiming victory.

A commission that looked into that conflict concluded that one major shortcoming was Israel's "hasbara" -- a Hebrew word that translates as "public diplomacy" or "explanation".

As a result, Israel set up the National Information Directorate to coordinate its domestic and global message.

Formed eight months before the Gaza war, it kicked into high gear as soon as the conflict began and scored early success, although there are growing signs the campaign may be stalling.

Through traditional media and everything from YouTube to Twitter and Facebook, appointed diplomats and spokespeople have flooded the airwaves and the Internet with Israel's position.

"We use all the possible ways of communication that the modern world is giving us in order to convey our message," said Yigal Palmor, director of the Foreign Ministry press department, who works alongside the National Information Directorate.

"I don't expect any news outlet to really give me a whole tribune, you know, a whole page in a paper, or half an hour on TV... But I can do that on the Web," he told Reuters.

STALLING CAMPAIGN?

While much better funded, planned and coordinated than its opponent's, Israel's media campaign has not gone entirely uncontested. Hamas has fought back, posting videos of its own on YouTube despite difficulties of communicating from Gaza.

The virtual media battle has produced what Michael Dickson, the director of Stand With Us International, a pro-Israel public affairs group, has called "the first social media war".

Israel feels that so far, 18 days into a conflict in which 10 of its soldiers and three civilians hit by rockets have been killed, it largely has been successful in its media blitz.

But while the message was clear in the early days of the war -- with some governments reciting almost word-for-word Israel's carefully crafted talking points -- the battle for public opinion has steadily become more of a struggle.

The killing of more than 40 civilians in the shelling of a school compound in Gaza on Jan. 6, the decision to fight on despite a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire, and the overall number of Palestinian dead may have combined to stall Israel's media effort.

Time magazine, read by more than three million people in the United States, Israel's closest ally, had a cover last week showing the blue Israeli Star of David behind barbed wire, an image that conjured up the Holocaust to condemn the war.

Palmor acknowledged the Time cover was a hard blow and that the early success of the media blitz may be waning.

"The more the operation continues, the more the reports focused on the immediate news ... the whole context was forgotten," he said. "I think this accounts for the whole phenomenon you have indicated, that the support is eroding." (Editing by Michael Roddy)

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