This past Monday, the third day of Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip, my mother received a response to the email she had sent the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. It had taken a total of three days for Tzipi Livni’s intensified public relations crusade to reach her computer.
Livni had ordered the intensification on Saturday, in anticipation of the flawed manner in which the impressionable international community might interpret media coverage of hundreds of dead people and smashed buildings in Gaza. The Israeli Foreign Ministry was tasked with staging a global PR assault to match the physical assault on the Palestinians; according to an article in Haaretz, one component of the assault was the forced exodus of all ministry officials presently vacationing in Israel, and their reinstallation in their respective foreign outposts. The Haaretz article also outlined the Ministry’s plan to recruit speakers of various languages—namely Arabic, Italian, Spanish, and German—such that these speakers might explain the situation in Gaza to visiting media representatives, who were incapable of making judgments based on their own eyesight. (There did not appear to be arrangements, however, for a Maxim magazine spread featuring female veterans of the Israel Defense Forces who happened to be supermodels; this PR tactic had already been exhausted in the summer of 2007, when it was decided that—in order to gain the understanding of the international community—war was going to be equated with cleavage.)
My mother had faithfully emailed Barack Obama prior to emailing the Israeli embassy in D.C. but had yet to hear back from him, as Obama’s current PR campaign was focused around the mantra that there could only be one president at a time—a mantra conveniently applicable not only to George W. Bush but also to Mahmoud Abbas. Obama’s lack of attention to his constituents additionally suggested that he may have internalized Tzipi Livni’s view on political accountability, which—she informed the Knesset—was that commitment to democracy could not get in the way of protecting Israeli citizens.
My mother’s electronic missive to the Israeli embassy began with the suggestion that perhaps the embassy staff was unaware of the butchery being committed in Gaza, followed by a collage of excerpts from BBC News with choice passages highlighted in yellow. This strategy underscored the hazards of an international media unsympathetic to Israel’s continued existence. In an address to foreign diplomats in Sderot on Sunday, Livni attributed the naïveté of the global masses to “the pictures that the radical elements spread,” but did not deny the content itself of the radically spread pictures. Rather, she announced her expectation that Hamas be blamed for it—and that they be blamed not only in Hebrew but in English, French, and Arabic, as well. Not explained in the speech was the role of the Foreign Ministry’s Italian-, Spanish-, and German-speaking recruits, or why the radical elements and their pictures had not prevented most major media outlets from referring to Israel’s killing spree in Gaza as a “response.”
As for the response to my mother’s email by the Israeli embassy’s Public Affairs Department, it began by thanking “to whom it may concern” for their “concern about the current situation.” A brief regional history was then provided, the main events of which were as follows:
Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005. the “thousands of rockets and mortars…fired into Israeli civilian populations” since the disengagement (which managed to kill less than thousands of Israeli civilians). Israel’s “self-defensive…series of airstrikes against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip,” magnanimously accompanied by “truck loads of humanitarian aid [sent] into Gaza on a daily basis.”
Similar magnanimity had previously been exhibited by the United States Air Force, which had dropped both bombs and packets of food on the citizens of Afghanistan—the only difference being that the US had not sealed the Afghan borders to humanitarian aid prior to attacking.
The next section of the Israeli embassy’s communiqué was devoted to Tzipi Livni’s ruminations on the “terror infrastructure in Gaza,” which presumably resembled the terror infrastructure in Lebanon in July 2006, primary components of which had been power plants, national highways, and milk factories. Livni then condemned Hamas for exploiting Palestinian suffering for propaganda purposes—purposes that were being gobbled up by international news agencies as they hoisted themselves in throngs onto Hamas’ PR bandwagon—and the embassy concluded the email by thanking my mother for her “interest in the State of Israel,” as though she had been writing to apply for a job.
On Tuesday morning I checked the English-language website of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to see how Livni’s PR epicenter was holding up. Lest Palestinian suffering interfere with Israel’s own propaganda purposes, the number of dead tabulated on the main page was currently four Israelis. Other tabulations consisted of the number of trucks with humanitarian aid that had been permitted to cross into Gaza, along with some ambulances donated by Turkey; not tabulated was the amount of hope the ambulances entailed for wounded Palestinians, given the history of contact between—to choose one example—Israeli missiles and Red Cross emergency vehicles in Lebanon.
Two video options were provided on the Foreign Ministry’s website. One was of the aid trucks, with a spokesman explaining that aid materials included flour and sugar. Given that the latter material was also a standard feature in Qassam rockets, only Israeli altruism could explain the failure to introduce sanctions on dual-use items.
The second video link was also a testament to the PR surge, and invited web visitors to “View footage of rocket landing in Ashkelon soccer stadium.” It is possible that viewers more acquainted with the town of Ashkelon might not have expected a rocket landing in its soccer field to be on sensational par with a rocket landing in the Astrodome in Houston, but they surely would have expected to view the rocket landing. As it turned out, the link might have more aptly been labeled: “View footage of street in Ashkelon with air raid sirens in background.”
Eventually the street gave way to footage of bystanders looking at the sky in a disoriented manner, followed by footage of a bulldozer digging in a patch of dirt in the middle of the soccer field—thus adding Qassam rockets to the list of items that could be bulldozed, which already included:
Palestinian homes. foreign intruders opposed to the demolition of Palestinian homes. Israeli traffic. (This last item had so far enjoyed a monopoly by Arab citizens of Israel.)
The video ended with an interview with an English-speaking survivor of the rocket attack, who described the soccer field dirt as “grass,” in defiance of the fact that the Zionists had not made this particular section of the desert bloom. The failure of the video to live up to its title—or the failure of the title to accurately describe its video—could be forgiven in the context of the Israeli struggle to wrest control of the media industry back from the abusive paws of radical elements spreading their pictures.
(Note: When I checked the website again on Tuesday evening, the initial street scene had been whittled down and a segment had been tacked onto the end, featuring still shots of crying and wounded children and damaged houses, with appropriate musical accompaniment. When I checked back half an hour later, the video was no longer there, having presumably been removed to make room for the next bout of enhanced PR.)
Another suggested link on the Foreign Ministry’s website was to an article on Ynetnews about the “radical Islamic bill” recently passed by Hamas, which authorized whipping, dismemberment, and execution as acceptable criminal punishment—as the Palestinians had apparently not yet learned that extrajudicial killings were more morally sound. The article posed the question “Where are the human rights groups?” in bold type, the answer to which is undoubtedly that they are out recording Israel’s every honest mistake—such as application of electrical current to the genitals of detained persons—and conveying them to the media for immediate worldwide consumption.
The Ynetnews article stipulates that dismemberment is reserved for thieves and that it affects mainly the hands. A bending of the rules can be observed in Israel’s dismemberment of Gaza, in which the Gazans are not the thieves.
BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ is currently completing a book entitled Coffee with Hezbollah, which chronicles the 2-month hitchhiking journey through Lebanon that she and Amelia Opali?ska conducted in the aftermath of the July 2006 war. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.