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How the media helped Hamas in the third Gaza War

By Missing Peace

This article was written by professor Richard Landes, one of the founders of Missing Peace Information and first appeared at The American Interest

Hamas’ PR strategy can only work if international news media follows the script, whether willingly or under coercion.
Published on August 5, 2014

In this most recent exchange of hostilities between Hamas and Israel, a number of commentators have noted Hamas’ unusual war tactics. Jeffrey Goldberg asks, “Is Hamas Trying to Get Gazans Killed?” Even Mahmoud Abbas queried, “What are you trying to achieve by sending rockets?” As Bob Schieffer put it with a touch of euphemism:

In the Middle East, the Palestinian people find themselves in the grip of a terrorist group that has embarked on a strategy to get its own children killed in order to build sympathy for its cause—a strategy that might actually be working, at least in some quarters.

The dark strategy has even inspired Israeli Children for Peace to appeal to Palestinian children and a Francophone Israeli to reach out to a bereaved Palestinian mother.

It appears to some, like Michael Oren, that Hamas deliberately maximizes its own people’s suffering for PR. To others, such a strategy would be so base and unthinkable, that they consider the very suggestion of it “racist and reprehensible.” Hamas’ Khaled Mashaal officially denies that Hamas engages in such a heinous policy, even as other Palestinian Jihadis brag about media-assured benefits derived from their own civilians’ deaths. And now, the IDF has possession of a Hamas training manual that advises its combatants to use civilian shields.

According to its critics, Hamas’ war strategy works like this:

– Episodically attack Israel’s civilians in such as way as to provoke a counter-attack.

– Hide behind Palestinian civilians (preferably in crowded neighborhoods, schools, and hospitals), while encouraging them, even forcing them, to stay, guaranteeing that the return fire wounds or kills civilians and damages civilian structures.

– Encourage the Western news media to play up the civilian suffering, play down Hamas’ role in it, and accuse Israel.

– Conjure a firestorm of outrage around the world that eventually pressures Israel into desisting from counteroffensive measures.

– Survive to reap the propaganda victory and prepare the next round of hostilities.

– Repeat, with each exchange hurting Israel more, and each round of international news coverage further savaging the Jewish State’s international reputation.

No matter what the Israeli response, the Hamas strategy is win-win. If the Israelis abort a strike to avoid civilian casualties (as they often do), then Hamas is spared the blow; if an Israeli strike causes civilian casualties, Hamas has dead babies to parade before the cameras. And eventually, the bloodletting will get so bad, the pictures so damning, that Israel will stop. Hamas’ endgame goals, at least at this stage of its asymmetrical war, are actually threefold: tie Israel down with constraints on its use of power, delegitimize and demonize it in the eyes of the world, and stir an aggressive “Muslim Street” in the West, where genocidal chants can lead to pogroms against the Jews worldwide.

This time, however, this “dead baby” strategy, despite a pedigree of decades, has become increasingly apparent to the observant, perhaps because Hamas has resorted to ever-more obvious tactics to victimize their own people: storing its weapons and firing them from residential areas, hospitals, schools and mosques and even, hiding its leaders under Shiffa hospital. Asked about this, UN official John Ging readily admits: “Yes the armed groups are firing their armed rockets into Israel from the vicinity of UN facilities and residential areas, absolutely.” Indeed, in some cases, while journalists speak to the camera, often following Hamas’ script, Jihadis fire rockets right nearby—live, as it were.

The pattern consistently demonstrates what one Gazan from Tal Awad described to an Italian journalist in 2009 during Operation Cast Lead: “They wanted the [Israelis] to shoot at the [the civilians’] houses so they could accuse them of more war crimes.” The importance of these rockets is not where they’re aimed, but whence they’re fired. They’re a reverse target, designed to create the carnage that will rouse Western indignation.

Israel, operating in these terrible conditions expends considerable resources on an elaborate and multi-staged system of warnings encouraging civilians to leave, right down to calling the residents of houses on their cell phones. Hamas in response calls on people to make themselves human shields, and when they demur, Hamas orders and coerces them to stay. When refugees do flee to UN Schools and other shelters, Hamas follows them there, firing at Israel repeatedly from their midst, drawing Israeli fire toward the shelter. Almost every Israeli strike on or near a hospital or school was a direct result of fire emanating from the facility.

At the same time as Hamas draws Israeli return fire down on Palestinian civilians, Palestinian Jihadis fire their own rockets so wildly that 10-25 percent of their own rockets land in Gaza.

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This happens so often that Hamas has cleaners who clear out their own munitions debris before the Western media are allowed on the scene. During Operation Pillar of Cloud (2012), a Hamas rocket misfired and exploded among civilians. AP reporter Karen Laub noted at the time: “Neighbors said local security officials quickly took what remained of the projectile, making it impossible to verify who fired it.” The same crews get a mention in a tweet by an Italian journalist, offered as “proof” of Hamas’ responsibility for the shelling: “militants rushed and cleared debris.” With all these own-goal rockets, casualties pile up: people not just trapped into getting killed by their purported enemy but getting killed by their supposed “defenders.”

In Beit Hanoun and Shati Refugee camps, own-goal strikes kill dozens of Palestinian men women and children. The news media run images of their suffering on the presumption of Israeli guilt. But when the dust settles and analysts do an honest reckoning of the casualty figures, sifting out the impact of propaganda on the statistics, even the most pro-Palestinian figures will show that Hamas killed many more Palestinian civilians with their rockets than they have killed Israelis. Where Palestinian casualties caused by Israelis will likely approximate a low urban warfare 1:1 civilian/combatant ratio, those caused by Hamas will have a much higher ratio.

The Western News Media’s Scripted Role

Of course, Hamas’ strategy, what Elie Wiesel characterizes as child sacrifice, can only work if it has the sustained cooperation of the international news media, which must fulfill two key tasks in the strategy: 1) broadcast to the outside world the suffering the conflict causes; and 2) implicitly or explicitly blame Israel for that suffering. Without the first, there is no sense of outrage and urgency. Without the second, the world might not intervene on the Jihadi side.

Hamas shows full cognizance of the media’s importance. It has even issued detailed directions to Gazan “social media activists.” And although Hamas addressed them to Palestinian social media activists, the guidelines clearly apply to their media “fixers,” who direct all the foreign journalists working in Gaza. One might call these directives the “Hamas media protocols.”

  • not to show Hamas fighters, certainly not firing from hospitals and schools;
  • to attribute all the casualties to Israeli attacks;
  • to call all dead “civilians”;
  • to give the statistics Hamas supplies as facts, emphasizing how the “vast majority” of casualties are civilian;
  • to show the face of Palestinian suffering 24-7;
  • to give voice—their own and those of invited guests—to indignation and outrage over the appalling carnage.

So consistently has the media played these scripted roles that it has become a mere pawn in a predictable game. Jeremy Bowen explains: every conflict plays out between the time the Israelis go in to stop the rocketing until the time that Western outrage at civilian casualties gets them to stop. The more victims, the greater the pressure. Anticipating the ground invasion, Christiane Amanpour asks Tony Blair during Operation Cast Lead: “The civilian casualties in Gaza are obviously going to put huge pressure on Israel. How long can Israel withstand this pressure?” It is a main goal of the activist media to emphasize Palestinian suffering to such a degree that Israel will stop.

And that emphasis indeed pervades the coverage: all the news Hamas sees fit to print. The overwhelming majority of the images on the television screens feature injured and dead Palestinians. As Michael Oren explained Hamas’ media strategy to CNN, for example, the viewer saw wall-to-wall Palestinian suffering, especially children. No one, apparently not even the State Department, can watch this coverage, no matter how inaccurate, without succumbing to its subliminal message.

Take, for example, the shelling of Shaati refugee camp in Gaza City and adjacent Shiffa Hospital on July 28. Newsrooms featured the ten innocent refugees, including eight children killed. The IDF denied responsibility for this carnage. But it didn’t matter what Israel said, nor did it matter that its evidence involved the tracking technology of Iron Dome. UN’s Ban Ki Moon called it “shameful, outrageous and unjustified,” while UNRWA’s General Commissioner lamented “the world stands disgraced” (presumably by Israel’s wanton slaughter of innocents). The belated tweet of an Italian reporter (to which we shall return below), confirming that Hamas rockets had hit the school, excited the Zionist blogosphere, but had no effect on the mainstream discussion.

One gets the distinct sense that these journalists don’t think they’re assisting Hamas in maximizing the human casualties. Some seem to think that their aggressive rush to judgment, invariably against Israel, is a form of “peace journalism,” designed to end the carnage as quickly as possible. They take for granted that their job is to nail the Israelis for their disproportionate brutality. Journalists publicly exult in their victory: “Gripping Gaza images upend balance of PR power in Middle East.” And in so doing—whatever their reasons—they not only thoroughly misinform their audiences, but do so precisely as Hamas would want.

Intimidation and Advocacy Motivate Media’s Cooperation

The single most compelling reason for the near-unanimity of the media’s cooperation with Hamas is not advocacy, which alone could not create such a consensus, but rather intimidation. Like all systems of omertà this one covers its tracks. Some observers have pointedly asked, for example, why the mainstream news media has conveyed so few images of Hamas “militants.” The New York Times responded that out of the hundreds of photos from weeks of warfare, their award-winning photographer and his crew had provided only two blurry ones. Is this sheer incompetence? Or is it because, as one journalist, just out of Gaza told an Israeli off-the-record: “If we ever dared point our camera at them, they would shoot at us and kill us.” Asked to say that on camera, the journalist “refused and almost ran away.”

But in the Twitter age, evidence of cover-up abounds for those who care to look. Several journalists have reported receiving a wave of SMS threats when they even tweet about Hamas using human shields. Accused of being informants or fifth columnists who are lying and fabricating for Israel, these journalists rapidly learn how seriously Hamas considers their trade a weapon of war and their non-compliance a form of treason. The subsequent disappearance of many of those tweets indicates just how far Hamas’ threats reach.

Occasionally, a really telling piece of evidence appears. Two days after the shelling of Shaati and Shifa, that had “disgraced the world,” an Italian journalist tweeted:

Out of #Gaza far from #Hamas retaliation: misfired rocket killed children y[ester]day in Shati. Witness [proof]: militants rushed and cleared debris. 

So, just as Israel had claimed, jihadis had killed their own women and children, cleaned the site, and then brought in journalists to blame Israel. It was indeed disgraceful on many counts, none of which concerned Israel. And yet we only know about this, if we do at all, because this one journalist felt himself beyond Hamas’ reach.

In a dramatic episode, Palestinian-born French journalist Radjaa Abou Dagga found himself summoned to Hamas offices (inside Shifa hospital), alternately accused of working for Abbas or the Israelis, and expelled from Gaza with instructions to work no more. Libération published his account, which makes it clear that such intimidation is common. Indeed, a colleague refused him shelter for the night because he, too, had received these threats: “You don’t mess with these people during a war.” Three days later, Libé took down Dagga’s article at his request. With family in Gaza, he clearly did not feel beyond Hamas’ reach.

If true, why does this terrible tale of civilian victimization and journalistic intimidation go untold? Some answer, because it’s not true: “Hamas does not use human shields,” BBC’s Jeremy Bowen assures us. Nor, insists CNN’s Karl Penhaul, do “any of the militant movements and factions here in Gaza,” give journalists “any form of instruction.” For one CNN analyst, it’s “complicated”, but, insists James Fallows, we owe our reporters respect. After all, would they all misinform us? Or is their intimidation and cowardice a public secret they won’t admit?

Missing Corrective: Media Self-criticism

Reporters thrown into the Gazan PR furnace must go through a great deal of mental anguish. On the one hand, as journalists who want to be taken seriously, they cannot avow the threat for violating Hamas Protocols (including forbidding the mention of these rules). Imagine Western audiences viewing a segment from Gaza while below a streamer informed: Report produced under severe conditions of Hamas censorship? On the other hand, they have to live with the knowledge that they daily violate their vocation’s fundamental principles, and that, in so doing, they turn a blind eye to terrible deeds, betraying both their audience at home and the Palestinian people (not to mention Israel).

It is should be one of the great agenda items of professional journalists to develop a special branch of research and ethical discussion on the problems of covering 21st-century asymmetrical wars in which the weak side systematically intimidates journalists and the strong side has democratic commitments to a free press. We can’t ask journalists to seek out martyrdom in the cause of Truth (even if their code does call for courage), but we ought to be able to hope that they would let us know, subtly if necessary, just how deep the intimidation goes.

Most of the time, it seems like the media reacts to criticism of its forced collaboration with Hamas’ war strategy with indignation and a rapid call to change the subject. Instead, they depict Israel as trying to censor, intimidate, and kill journalists, and themselves as bravely resisting this intimidation. CNN’s Karl Penhaul rejected as “obscene,” the mere suggestion that “we [journalists] would show dead, wounded, and dying to make headlines,” then denied any Hamas “instructions” on what to and not to report. On the contrary, tweeted one beleaguered journalist, Western journalists in Gaza feel bullied not by Hamas, but their Zionist critics in cyberspace who accuse them of doing Hamas’ bidding.

In a recent op-ed Michael Oren warned:

Just as Israel must relentlessly scrutinize its military actions in Gaza and their consequences, so, too, must journalists take a hard look at the way they cover this conflict. They must not allow themselves to act as accessories to Hamas’s murderous strategy that delegitimizes Israel and prolongs the Palestinians’ suffering.

When Bill Clinton told an Indian journalist that Hamas “knows it cannot lose politically with this strategy” of forcing Israel to kill its own people, he assumed (as does Hamas) that the media will always cooperate. Were our journalists to recover even a fraction of the courage and honesty that we assume they, as professionals, exercise on a daily basis, things would look very different on this troubled planet of ours. They might start the sobering task by answering the following questionnaire from Harry’s Place.