Donald Macintyre: Israel ruled the airwaves as it did the seas

Analysis: The PR battle

Tuesday 01 June 2010 00:00
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Jonah's Hill overlooking the port of Ashdod is rich in history, the look-out point from which British officers during the Mandate used to scour the sea below to prevent illegal Jewish immigrants from entering Palestine.

Yesterday journalists peered across the same stretch of water, a slight heat haze visible on the horizon, looking for a very different kind of vessel – those whose passengers had been arrested on the high seas in the early hours and were now being brought under Israeli command one by one to port.

It was near as we could get – and reminiscent of the so-called "hill of shame" from which we were forced to watch Israel's bombardment of Gaza during the 2008-9 war, having been excluded from entering the territory.

Once again we had no access for most of the day to those on the other side – then it was the Gaza population, now it was the passengers. And this time even telephone contact was impossible, with the passengers' mobile and satellite phones having been temporarily blocked or confiscated.

Whether intentionally or not, the quarantining of reporters from the several hundred activists brought ashore at intervals of several hours yesterday helped to underpin a sophisticated and comprehensive Israeli media operation that ran through the day.

For the most part, Israel commanded the air waves as comprehensively as they had commanded those of the south-east Mediterranean in the early hours of the morning.

At Jonah's Hill, officials from the Israeli military and government departments fanned out among the reporters, relaying with courtesy and fluency their version of events.

This in turn was reinforced by a stream of analysis and explanation by politicians and sympathetic analysts in the live television coverage throughout the day and, by late afternoon, there was the aerial black-and-white film, supplied by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), of commandos landing aboard the Mavi Marmara.

The core message was that the deadly violence was started not by the Navy but by activists on board the vessel who had attacked Israeli forces.

And that Israel was within its legal right to carry out the operation in international rather its own territorial waters because it could not be sure that the flotilla did not pose a threat to its security.

Whether or not that account is vindicated by any independent investigation of the incident, if there is one, is a matter for the future, but, for yesterday at least, Israel moved with impressive efficiency according to the American political maxim about media rebuttal and counterattack: speed kills.

At Jonah's Hill, the Israeli media handlers were favoured with a supportive crowd of flag-waving members of the public and right-wing activists keen to show their support for the operation against the flotilla. "Well done the IDF" said one banner in English and Hebrew.

One of those who had come to show his appreciation was a 52-year-old business consultant, Haim Cohen. Wearing the tell-tale orange bracelet of those who opposed Ariel Sharon's withdrawal of settlers from Gaza in 2005, he said had seen television images of an activist thrusting a knife into the stomach of an Israeli serviceman.

"I came here to support the IDF," he said. "The IDF is the best army in the world. In any other country they would have killed everybody. Here they only killed 15."

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