From the moment that the Israeli naval commandos launched their attack on the flotilla aiming to break the siege of Gaza by carrying humanitarian aid to the territory, the struggle by both sides to dominate how the media covered the events – a struggle that began days in advance of the 4am attack on Monday – entered a completely new phase.
Soon after the commandos landed on the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship carrying more than 600 of the activists, the live satellite broadcasts from the vessel were cut. From that point on, the Israeli authorities seized almost complete control of how evidence of what was taking place could be made public. Video of the last footage broadcast by the journalists on board was immediately available from sources such as al-Jazeera and the IHH (the Turkish Foundation for Freedoms and Human Rights and Humanitarian Relief), but it showed a very confusing picture: there were badly injured passengers, yet it was impossible to know how they had been injured.
What the world has been watching since then is either edited video shot by the Israelis or other video shot by activists, confiscated by the Israelis and subsequently edited and made available through Israeli sources.
In an operation reminiscent of the first week or so of the Israeli offensive against Gaza in winter 2008-2009, the Israeli PR machine succeeded in getting the major news outlets to focus on its version of events and to use the Israeli authorities’ discourse for a crucial 48 hours. (One example of how this was being done is a leaked, sophisticated briefing paper with key talking points, compiled using official government sources and pro-government Israeli media, issued through the World Zionist Organisation on 1 June.)
This time, however, commentators in the Israeli media, on the left and the right, were immediately slamming the commando attack as a failure. The repeated screening of the video, taken from an Israeli assault craft, of the commandos abseiling down ropes onto the Mavi Marmara and then being set upon by the activists waiting for them on the deck, became the defining image of the capture of the boats. Posted by the IDF on YouTube, by Wednesday it had attracted more than 600,000 views.
The activists’ actions were described by Israeli spokespersons as a premeditated terrorist attack by al-Qaida sympathisers, using clubs, knives and guns, carried out with the intention of “lynching” the commandos who were carrying out an entirely legal and peacefully executed operation.
This Israeli version of events was very often given an uncritical airing. The fact that the video was a selected and edited segment, that the activists who witnessed what happened were being held incommunicado, that every bit of recorded evidence they may have had in their possession was being confiscated – this context was rarely highlighted, with BBC online and radio coverage particularly weak in this respect.
Of course, the media were not responsible for the Israeli clampdown – which continued even after the activists began to be seen in public being taken into detention at the Israeli port of Ashdod and when they were being deported – but there could certainly have been more attention drawn to the imbalance in the sources from which the media were obtaining their information. Even after first-hand accounts started to be broadcast, there seemed to be a belittling of their validity by describing eye-witnesses simply as “activists” or “pro-Palestinians” when some were writers, members of parliament and journalists.
By late Tuesday afternoon, Israel had still not provided a list of names or locations of the injured; there was no official number or list of the deceased; no official count of the numbers of the detainees and their locations; no report on the legal status of the wounded at the IPS medical facility and at hospitals across the country and extremely limited access to the wounded. And those arrested, detained or in hospital were still being denied unrestricted access to lawyers, relatives and consular representatives.
But once the testimony of the activists became available and the blogosphere got its teeth into the visual evidence, from whatever source, an alternative picture quickly emerged and the mainstream media struggled to keep up.
Prior to the landing of the commandos, the boats were probably softened up with rubber bullets, smoke bombs, tear gas; the provenance is in question of pictures of weapons supposedly found on the boats and posted on Flickr by the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs; the Americans appeared to confirm that there was no evidence to suggest that IHH was a terrorist organisation with links to al-Qaida. And the Israeli army all but admitted that the activists did not have guns of their own before the raid.
The truth is, however, that after five days, the mainstream media have moved on (the attack on the Gaza flotilla is no longer featured as a top story in the news box on the BBC’s front page). The news imbalance may have been partly redressed, but the Israeli version of the events and the presentation of legal arguments to justify Israel’s actions by friendly commentators continues to occupy significant media space. And given the fact that virtually all the visual evidence is now in Israeli hands, it’s almost inconceivable that we will ever know precisely what happened. At this stage, it seems fanciful to believe that any Israeli-based investigation will make available all the raw footage Israel has in its possession.
I suspect that the government of Binyamin Netanyahu and those responsible for the relentless effort invested in media management will judge their PR onslaught as a success, in spite of the fact that many Israelis and Israel’s supporters will rail at the media for being biased. That this is so only further confirms how blinkered and foolish the Israeli government has become.
Far from generating much sympathy for Israel’s action, the video images of the assault on the commandos only deepens the impression of an Israeli military as weak, unprepared and pathetic. It confirms that the decision to undertake such a disastrous action showed “hubris, poor intelligence work, and determined inability to learn from experience”.
And the fact that so much attention is paid in Israel to the PR and media implications, with even some critical commentators there viewing the action as right and only the PR result a disaster, is surely deeply troubling evidence, albeit not exactly new, of the lack of a moral compass among the country’s leadership.