Israel’s image war
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Israel’s image war

Tzahal (the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF) is bombing the Gaza Strip, and the world, for the most part, is silent. In fact, the IDF is bombing Gaza and the world is, for the most part, supporting Israel.

How is this happening? Wars today are fought not only with bullets, but also with images. During Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel has succeeded in appearing as the victim, even though it is acting with strength and determination. But don’t get too excited. This could turn around in a moment.

Israel’s advocates so far have had a much easier time than they did during Operation Cast Lead, in 2008. Tzahal has focused on attacking specific terrorists and has been extremely careful to not harm innocent civilians, even if this has meant calling off planned strikes. The government’s instructions on this have been clear.

Israel understands that wars today are fought not only on the physical battlefield. The war of images is no less important than the war of bullets. Israel’s public relations officials gained enough experience from the days of the second intifada to internalize the equation that fewer civilian casualties lead to less criticism and more international legitimacy.

The start of Operation Pillar of Defense went well. Israel opened the operation by killing Hamas military wing chief Ahmed al-Jabari and taking out long-range missile sites. It would be hard for the West to criticize strikes on such targets.

At the same time, Israel asked the West this question: What would you do if Paris or London were attacked? Pictures of sites in Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Kiryat Malachi that had been hit by Hamas missiles were broadcast. This time, the world saw an injured Israeli baby, not just a Palestinian one. In the world’s eyes, the heroes in Israel are not the country’s pilots, but the civilians taking cover in bomb shelters. An image of a civilian huddling in a bomb shelter is received much more favorably than one of a pilot in a fighter jet.

Tzahal’s pinpoint attacks have spoiled Hamas’s public relations efforts. Hamas, along with its allies in the radical Arab world, can continue to talk about “barbaric” IDF attacks, but it has no photos to back up such accusations.

There is no cause for euphoria, however, because everything can change in an instant. One mistake and the picture is reversed. Do you remember Qana (where Tzahal accidentally killed large numbers of Lebanese civilians in both 1996 and 2006)?

Also, the diplomatic clock is continuing to tick. The world’s support is conditional and time-limited. Israel is walking on very thin ice.

The first days of the operation were very successful, even with the air raid sirens that sounded in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Paradoxically, these long-range rocket attacks showed the limits of Hamas’s potency.

Israel will not resolve the conflict with the Palestinians in this round or the next one. The current military operation, however, is meant to bring quiet to the south, restore Israel’s deterrence, and weaken Hamas. As a bonus, Israel is receiving support from the West and understanding from many segments in the media.

In a war of images, victory does not necessarily come on the battlefield. So a ground operation must be considered cautiously. It may be tempting, but it would also be risky.

JNS.org

This column first appeared in Israel Hayom. It is distributed with the permission of that newspaper.

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