Israel ordered to allow journalists into Gaza

Kim Sengupta
Wednesday 31 December 2008 19:09 GMT

Israel’s Supreme Court ruled today that the Israeli government must allow journalists entry into Gaza to cover the ongoing conflict.

The decision came in response to a petition by the Foreign Press Association which has been campaigning for access to the besieged Palestinian enclave since a media ban was imposed more than two months ago.

The legal battle highlights the propaganda war being waged behind the bombs and rockets of the latest conflict. Israel cites as one of the main reasons for blocking foreign journalists from Gaza its belief that the reporting has been unfair and one-sided.

This is hardly the first time that the Israeli government has complained about perceived bias in the foreign media, but this time it is also putting unprecedented resources into getting its message across.

There is a consensus among many Israeli officials that the last war in Lebanon was, in many ways, a public relations disaster for Israel with Hezbollah winning the propaganda war. The same is not being allowed to happen with Hamas in Gaza. Israel has mobilised politicians, diplomats and supporters world wide to present its case.

Correspondents and reporters based in Israel are receiving dozens of SMS messages offering briefings, interviews, facility trips. One team has even been established to concentrate on bloggers.

A country which has fought its many wars by mobilising a citizens’ army has mobilised for the information offensive. A headline in the Jerusalem Post stated “Netanyahu Joins Gaza Op PR Effort”. At the invitation of outgoing premier Ehud Olmert, the opposition Likud leader is now part of the campaign, giving the first in a series of interviews about Gaza to Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News channel.

Meanwhile, foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who as the Kadima party’s candidate will run against Mr Netanyahu in the forthcoming elections briefed more than 80 international representatives at a media centre set up by the government at Sderot, a town which had become totemic after receiving daily Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza.

Ms Livni also undertook a telephone marathon stating the Israeli justification for the Gaza attacks to Condoleeza Rice, David Milliband, Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General, the foreign ministers of Russia, China, France and Germany, and the European Union’s foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

Foreign ambassadors to Israel had been taken on a guided tour near the Gaza borders and Israel’s own diplomats, serving and retired, are being pressed into service. Ms Livni declared: "many voices are making themselves heard throughout the world today in English, French and Arabic, and in a clear, strong voice. We are telling them all the truth that is not broadcast on television in the Arab world - and this is the truth that needs to be voiced from this podium to the entire world.”

Some of the interviews with Israeli politicians and officials for the international media have been organised by pro-Israeli think tanks such as BICOM (British Israeli Communications & Research Centre) based in the UK and the Israel Project with its HQ in America.

Mark Regev, the urbane spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister, has been one of the most prominent advocates for Israel in the world’s media. Earlier this week the Israel Project gathered 600 journalists for a telephone interview with him.

Mr Regev complained that claims by Hamas on casualties are being reported without questioning by news organisations. “There was a guy in Gaza, supposedly a doctor, who said that only 10 per cent of the casualties were combatants and the rest were innocent civilians - and this was put out as fact on the news” said Mr Regev. “Why was no attempt made to find out whether this was true or not ?”

One obvious reason, of course, is the ban on journalists going into Gaza. Mr Regev argues that this has happened in international conflicts. However, his sympathies, he says “ are intrinsically with the media and hopefully the situation will change in the very near future. We would welcome the examination of the claims that Hamas have been making.”

Hamas has, in fact, its own relatively efficient information system which is superior to that of rival Palestinian faction Fatah. The organisation has demonstrated that it understands the needs of the media and knows how to exploit them.

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