The Washington Post

A reporter explains what it’s like being trapped in the Gaza propaganda war

GAZA CITY – The scene was too neat.

I had just arrived outside the shattered remains of a large mosque in central Gaza City last week. It had been pulverized by an Israeli airstrike. There was rubble, glass and metal everywhere. But on a patch of ground in front of the structure, visible for everyone to see, was a small, dusty carpet.

On top lay piles of burned, ripped copies of the Koran, Islam’s holy book.  The symbolism was obvious, almost too perfect. It was clear that someone had placed them there to attract sympathy for the Palestinian cause.  A television crew spotted the pile and filmed it. Mission accomplished.

In virtually every conflict, each side tries to manipulate foreign journalists into covering its grievances, to look at the violence and the destruction through its lens. But Israelis and Palestinians take this to a whole new level. To both sides, foreign news is as much a weapon of war as the rockets and the airstrikes.

The Israelis are more slick. From their media war room, they run one of the most sophisticated operations to sway journalists to their point of view. Every morning, a military press officer provides influential news organizations with an update of events overnight. And during the day, a large team of spokesmen can respond to media requests in half a dozen languages or more.

The Israeli military brings out generals, commanders and intelligence officers to brief journalists. They use social media to push out their messages; during the initial ground incursion last month, the military was live-tweeting propaganda, vowing to crush Hamas, providing pithy quotes for newspapers to publish. Everyone, from the receptionists to the prime minister’s spokesman, seems on point, as if they all get memos every day on what to say to the foreign media. I’m pretty sure they actually do.

In Gaza, it’s a different kind of manipulation, more raw, more visceral, and yet at the same time, more subtle than Israel’s media machine.

Take the attack in the Beach Camp neighborhood of Gaza City last week. Hamas militants blamed an Israeli strike; Israel declared that Hamas accidentally fired a mortar into the neighborhood. Children had died.

In the middle of the road, where the kids were killed, was a small pool of blood. At first glance, it evoked a sense of sadness and outrage. As I looked closer, I noticed a child’s slipper in the middle of the blood. The slipper was intact. There were no bloodstains. And next to the slipper, a black plastic toy gun.

Again I noticed a television cameraman drawn to this powerful image. I moved on.

Earlier that day in Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, as the dead and wounded were being rushed into the building, I saw a girl, no older than 7, dressed in a yellow and blue dress, speaking in front of a television camera.

“Bring back my brother and father,” she cried, visibly upset.

Her mother, seated next to her, whispered into her ear and nudged her.

“They were kids,” the girl continued, following her mother’s coaching. “They were just playing. What is their crime, for Israel to target them? They are just kids.”

A couple of days later, an Israeli airstrike obliterated the home of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. By the time foreign reporters arrived, loyalists had placed his portrait on top of the rubble and firmly planted a green Hamas flag, evoking a sense of defiance.

Sudarsan Raghavan is The Post's Cairo bureau chief. He was previously based in Nairobi, Baghdad and Kabul for the Post.
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