The storyline of the Gaza embargo has been written by now, defined by the Turkish so-called “peace activists,” clearly a misnomer if ever there was one. But misnomers and public relations is in large part what the convoy and the attempt to break the Israeli embargo was all about. In terms of information warfare, the activists have won so far, hands-down. Israel needs to do all it can to capture the information offensive. This can be done in several ways if only the media would be responsible enough to listen: Perhaps most important of in terms of changing the narrative will be showing world what Israel is and has been doing in terms of humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza and in terms of acting with moderation towards those who want to break its embargo, which of course it shares with Egypt.
In this, Israel faces an uphill battle, for one things because international organizations like the U.N. are dominated by its critics and file knee-jerk condemnations, and secondly because the world media reflects a similar bias. Therefore, Israel’s public diplomacy strategists have a tough job, even under the best of circumstances. In the case of the assault on the Turkish convoy, the problem has been exacerbated by an intelligence gap that left the Israeli commandos ill-prepared for the well-armed resistance from activists in search of a confrontation.
Israel’s public diplomacy deficit has not exactly been a secret. The Gaza crisis that erupted into the summer war with Hezbollah in 2006 was a public diplomacy set back for Israel, and caused the Israeli government last year to devote new resources to its communication’s strategy. Particularly the use of the social media by Hezbollah and Hamas has made a more deliberate strategy an absolute must. Unfortunately, there seems to have been little forethought given to the need to capture the information battlefield before the inception of the raid on the convoy of Turkish activists seeking a propaganda victory against, which they have clearly gotten, even though the price was high – the loss of nine lives.
In the context that Israel needs to project to the world is that despite the rocket attacks on its citizens originating from Gaza, Israel maintains an ongoing access for the transfer of food and humanitarian supplies to Gaza. This is used by internationally recognized organizations like the United Nations and the Red Cross.
Over the last 18 months, over a million tons of humanitarian supplies have entered Gaza from Israel. This amounts to nearly a ton of aid for every man, woman and child in Gaza. International food aid continually flows through the Israeli humanitarian apparatus, ensuring that there is no food shortage in Gaza. In fact, markets in Gaza city are supplied with merchandise of every kind, and a brisk business in smuggled vehicles has developed from Egypt into Gaza through a network of tunnels.
Accordingly, the Israeli/Egyptian blockade is not in place to keep out food, medicine or building supplies. In the context of this effort to minimize the deprivation of the Palestinian population through material supplies, the maritime blockade is in effect off the coast of Gaza to prevent the smuggling of weapons. Hamas has continues to fire rockets and mortars at civilian targets in Israel and the weapons used are smuggled into Gaza via the sea.
Prior to the assault on the flotilla, Israel had offered to off load the contents of the six ships in the Israeli city of Ashdod, where the contents would be screened, and transferred to Gaza with the members of the flotilla being allowed to travel with it. According to Agence France Presse, the response of the leadership of the flotilla was, “This mission is not about delivering humanitarian supplies, it’s about breaking Israel’s siege on 1.5 million Palestinians.”
Pushing for a robust public diplomacy is new to Israel. According to Bar-Ilan University professor Eytan Gilboa, soft power is not a concept that Israeli governments have ever properly understood. As a primary aspect of shaping and influencing understandings of Israel, public diplomacy is badly needed in a country where 91 percent of Israeli’s believe that their country has a bad or very bad image overseas. Furthermore, Professor Gilboa has encouraged an increased budget for information campaigns to approximately $100 million. These campaigns will be targeted towards Arab countries in the region as well as Europe and the United States where Israel believes it as lost significant support under the Obama administration. As a country that often finds itself in hostile territory, Israel’s most recent campaign is a necessity that has to be taken seriously even as Israel considers the demands of survival as a state.