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Thursday, August 21, 2014

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Israel’s image war

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A Gaza rocket that fell in an Eshkol Regional Council field in Israel during the ongoing conflict. [Ronit Minaker photo]

The Israel Defense Forces is bombing the Gaza Strip and the world is, for the most part, 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 have so far had a much easier time than they did during Operation Cast Lead, in 2008-9. The IDF 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 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 were broadcast of sites in Ashkelon, Ashdod and Kiryat Malachi that had been hit by Hamas missiles. 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.

The IDF’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 the IDF accidentally killed large numbers of Lebanese civilians in both 1996 and 2006)?

Also, the diplomatic clock is continuing to tick. The French foreign minister is hurrying to come here, ahead of the United Nations secretary-general. The world’s support is conditional and time-limited. Israel is walking on very thin ice.

The first days of the operation have been very successful, even with the air raid sirens that sounded in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem over the weekend. 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. But the current military operation is meant to bring quiet to the south, restore Israel’ss deterrence and weaken Hamas. As a bonus, Israel is receiving support from the West and understanding from 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.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in Israel Hayom and is distributed with the permission of that newspaper.

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