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Friday, February 16, 2007

Israel losing the Internet propaganda war

A very good article in Omedia shows the problems Israel has in getting its message across:
Yonatan Dahoach-Halevi, who is a former head of the IDF’s Department of Information and Public Affairs, is responsible for the IDF Spokesman’s website, is a political content consultant to the ministry of defense, and an associate researcher with the Jerusalem Center for Public and Political Affairs, sees the internet as a world of unlimited possibilities. Israel, explains Halevi, does not exploit it correctly, even in the most basic sense of publishing official data, using the internet as a creative tool through blogs, forums, etc. “Israel doesn’t publish information in a free and flowing way on the internet. There is no Israeli database that academic researchers can use to write articles, or for researching the subject of Israel. If an academic researcher wants to write a position paper he goes to the internet and only finds Palestinian information and no Israeli data. Any information published by Israelis is put there by the Betzelem organization and other human rights organizations. The information they publish isn’t always accurate, but given the lack of other resources, the academics will use that data. The UN also uses their information. This creates a situation where the falsehoods and misinformation put out by the Palestinians becomes reality, their perception of reality”.

Dahoach-Halevi’s opinion was supported by one of the conference participants, who reported that she had contacted the IDF Spokesman’s Unit on numerous occasions to request information and had received no reply. Betzelem on the other hand had answered her inquiry quickly and supplied the information efficiently. It is only natural that journalists or academics carrying out research will ultimately use that information.

No Pioneers, No Brakes

Lately Dahoach-Halevi has been working in Canada and knows the Canadian media up close. As someone who can see the Israeli conflict through foreigners eyes, it is important for him to put across points which seem clear to us but aren’t clear abroad. “The Israeli approach” he explains “namely, that it is enough if we just tell the truth, is wrong”. For example, he recounts, incidents like time when left wing activist Rachel Corey was run over by a bulldozer have not gone away. They are alive and kicking on the internet, where Israel’s opponents are sure not to let their side of the story fade away. Borrowing an image from the world of football, Dahoach-Halevi, says that Israel is playing on the internet without a proper defense.

Dahoach-Halevi warned that the Palestinians are using the internet to rewrite history and to create the past through their eyes. They fastidiously post historical documentation in scrupulous detail of their narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict thus putting Israel’s very existence in question. Eli HaCohen, the professional director of the Netvision Institute for Internet Research, refined the problem; “We should consider not only the fact that they are rewriting the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are also rewriting the history of the Jewish People. By this I mainly refer to the various websites denying the holocaust, which have recently sprung up all over the internet”.

Dahoach-Halevi doesn’t just bemoan the situation he also suggests ways to correct it: “If we want to succeed in the information war on the internet against the Palestinians, it would be very good if we copied how they do things. I mean, for example, the Israeli sites should appear in more languages. Exactly like the Hamas site which appears in a large number of languages, not like the foreign ministry site which is in very few languages”. Dahoach-Halevi also suggests ways of using blogs, video clips, and RSS updates. Above all, he thinks that the IDF Spokesman, Israeli Intelligence, and the foreign ministry should join forces and work together on the internet as information agencies in every sense to tell the Israeli side of the conflict.

It is worth reading the whole thing.

Part of the reason that this blog exists is because I try to put things in perspective in ways that Israel's government does not. It is indeed frustrating that there are no central databases for things that I end up doing - why isn't there an official count of Kassam rockets or of PalArab self-violence? Where can one look up any specific Israeli action in the territories and find out the reason and context? Beyond that we have the problem of Israel accepting responsibility for various PalArab deaths prematurely (like al-Dura).

As the article mentions, there are also plenty of things that Israelis take for granted that the world does not understand. While the Israeli response to the Mughrabi gate digs wasn't terrible, in reality the best responses were from the Israel Antiquities Authority and it took way too much time before anyone even thought about creating a map or pictures to show how absurd the Arab claims were.

I only have a couple of hundred readers, and it takes a lot of time to keep this blog going. It is frustrating to know that in many ways I, and other bloggers, are doing a better job than the government of Israel itself in bringing historical perspectives and objective context to the conflict.

It is true that the Israeli government is somewhat hamstrung by the fact that it has to be accurate in everything it says. But even that problem can be solved - a central database that keeps track of issues and events, even with incomplete information, would be tremendously helpful especially for journalists who are otherwise clueless.