The arrival of Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, a.k.a. Joe the Plumber, at the Israeli border town of Sderot on Sunday caused a minor sensation among the members of the foreign press who were camped out there. Wurzelbacher, who got his first 15 minutes of fame as a prop for John McCain during last year’s U.S. election campaign, has swapped his plunger for a reporter’s notebook on a mission to cover the Gaza war for the conservative website Pajamas TV. Unable to see much of the fighting himself, Wurzelbacher — who during the election campaign warned that a vote for Barack Obama was a vote for the destruction of Israel — picked a fight of his own. Turning on his new colleagues in the foreign press corps, he groused, “You should be ashamed of yourself. You should be patriotic, protect your family and children, not report like you have been doing for the past two weeks since this war has started.” His complaint, it seemed, was that he was seeing too many reports of civilian casualties inside Gaza.
But the reality is that Western reporters have done little reporting from the front lines of this latest phase of the world’s most reported conflict. Barred by Israel from entering Gaza even before the firing started, most foreign reporters can only get near the war zone by chasing down the occasional rocket sent by Hamas into Israel. Still, the press has once again found itself caught in a different kind of cross fire: the propaganda battle, across all media platforms, between Israel and Hamas (and the supporters of each) for international sympathy. And the reason Joe the Plumber is angry is that, despite (and perhaps also because of) Israel’s overwhelming military superiority, the Jewish state is losing on the propaganda front.
The Israeli government’s media operations are the most sophisticated in the region, and its extensively planned hasbara campaign of public advocacy swung into high gear almost as soon as the current offensive began. Israel and its advocates are stressing a broad theme to frame the conflict — rocket fire from Gaza is an existential threat from which Israel has a right to defend itself, they argue — and they are seeking to limit reporting on civilian suffering in Gaza by challenging how much time or space media outlets devote to such images and by emphasizing the great care being taken by Israeli soldiers to avoid hurting the civilians behind whom Israel’s enemies are hiding.
Meanwhile, Israeli politicians and pundits are constantly on the air painting Hamas as an implacable, genocidal foe. Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Fox News, “For us to be asked to have a cease-fire with Hamas is like asking you to have a cease-fire with al-Qaeda” — despite the fact that Israel and Hamas had, in fact, agreed via Egypt to a six-month cease-fire just last June. And Israeli military spokeswoman Major Avital Leibovitch is constantly reassuring TV audiences worldwide that Israeli troops are going the extra mile to avoid collateral damage in Gaza. However, some Israeli officers speak more bluntly when their audience is domestic. (“We are very violent,” the commander of the Israeli army’s élite combat engineering unit, Yahalom, told the Israeli press. “We do not balk at any means to protect the lives of our soldiers.”) When Israeli forces shelled a United Nations school that left more than 40 dead, the Israeli military initially did its best to back its claim (denied by local U.N. officials) that the school was being used by militants to fire at Israeli forces by releasing video footage from 2007 showing militants fighting from the compound.
Hamas’ propaganda efforts are cruder and rely on the civilian casualties inflicted by the Israelis to win international sympathy. Hamas fighters have shed their uniforms and blended into the civilian population, hiding weapons and communications systems in houses and mosques. That may have contributed to a death toll so lopsided that it speaks louder than any Israeli press officer — and weakens Hamas’ political rival, the moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel’s decision to keep the Western press out of Gaza may also have backfired, because it’s given a monopoly of coverage to the more inflammatory reporting of Arab satellite television stations such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyya, which maintain bureaus in Gaza. And while there are many excellent Palestinian journalists working for the Western press in Gaza, there have been some examples of doctored photographs and suspicious-looking videos showing civilian suffering. Conservative blogs have singled out one video of doctors trying to resuscitate the brother of the CNN cameraman actually shooting the video, and suggested that it was really a re-enactment.
While media wars are par for the course when Israel and the Palestinians clash, this time they seem to be following the traditional media’s migration to the Internet. The Israeli military spokesman’s office has its own YouTube channel (it has recorded more than 1.5 million views), while Hamas is trying to counter with a website displaying its videos and images. Bloggers have joked that this is the first war to be covered by Twitter — the Israeli Foreign Ministry has in fact been conducting public debates on the social-messaging service — while hackers have been infiltrating Israeli websites and leaving anti-Israel slogans.
The more limited role of traditional media in covering this war hasn’t protected it from criticism by Israelis. The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday published an article alleging world media bias against the Israeli operation in Gaza and accusing TIME magazine of leading the charge with its cover story this week.
Ultimately, of course, the perception of Israel’s military campaign will be determined by events on the ground. Even then, images will play a vital role, which is why the fighters of both sides are well aware of the need to produce what they hope will be the defining picture or video clip of the war. For Israel, that might mean images of a recognizable Hamas leader killed or captured, while for Hamas, photographs of a burning tank or captured Israeli soldier would be a great prize.
As much as each side seeks to spin the war as advancing their overall vision, Israel has yet to articulate a clear, workable exit plan that will achieve the war’s objectives without reoccupying Gaza. Meanwhile, Hamas can stack civilian bodies like cordwood for the cameras and proclaim the virtues of its “steadfast resistance,” but it has offered the Palestinians no explanation of how this fight will advance their national goals. To many a foreign journalist, then, this war conjures an image with which Joe the Plumber will be familiar: the proverbial pig whose nature can’t be disguised by any amount of lipstick.
— With reporting by Jamil Hamad / Jerusalem