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Israelis sink again on new medias high seas

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By Anton Harber

(source: Businessday, Wed,9-06-2010, pg11)

The activists on the flotilla that sought to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza last week had multiple video cameras beaming live40from their ships on to satellites, and from there to the internet, and it was made available to any television network that needed images. They had media people posted in third countries, available to answer questions and feed information.

The Israelis appeared to be armed with almost as many cameras as guns when they raided and seized the boats. One of the first things they did was to cut off the activists’ international media links.

The Israelis quickly released their own — carefully edited — footage to show that their soldiers were attacked as they landed on the boats. They seized all the cameras, film and video they could from journalists and activists on the boat, and edited it before releasing those bits that matched their own version of what happened.

They held journalists and others caught on the ships until their own version had been given play in the international media. The subsequent claim that the Israelis had fired on the boats even before boarding cannot now easily be tested, as the evidence has been tainted.

There was never any doubt who would have the upper hand militarily in the showdown. The greater issue for both sides was who would win the international media battle and which side’s narrative would gain global dominance in the crucial 24 hours after the incident. It was war as international media spectacle. It was war fought with bandwidth and Photoshop rather than guns and bombs. What decided the outcome was not who controlled the boats, or the high seas, or the borders, but who controlled the imagery and the narrative.

Israel has puts its energies into showing that those on board the boats had batons, knives and catapults. That misses the point: what mattered was that they had cameras, cellphones, 3G and Twitter accounts. Those were the important weapons in a war where guns were not very effective.

Jerusalem Post editor Amir Mizroch wrote that the Israelis’ error was not to read Wired magazine. If they did, he said, they would have known that the speed and ubiquity of new media channels were all that the flotilla activists needed. Israel could spend millions on their military and propaganda arms, but they failed to see that the new media was cheap and fast and would set the media agenda which mainstream media would follow.

“Social media,” he wrote, “is cheap and antithetical to centralised bodies and subverts their authority. It is, so far, proving to be one of the most asymmetrical weapons of choice for grassroots activists.” He concluded: “Our enemies have cntrl-alt-deleted us.”

The amount of video available from both sides has not clarified the situation. We have two contradictory versions of what happened, both with some evidence to back them up. But it is all so partisan and so tainted that it is difficult to give credence to any of it.

What is missing is a sense that there is a neutral, balanced voice that can provide a version of what happened with some authority and credibility — the traditional role of journalists. This incident symbolises not just the ubiquity of media around an incident of international conflict, but the prevalence and power of mutual media manipulation. Greater technology has made things murkier, not clearer.

Also clear is that Israel can continue to win on the military side, but has lost control of the narrative. Attempts to portray themselves as victims — as the country did for the first 40 years of its life — doesn’t cut it anymore. Israel used to be portrayed as smart and savvy — with “seichel”, to use the Yiddish word for a shrewd and wise person who relies on brains rather than brawn. Now they are seen as the neighbourhood thugs.

Those with “seichel” will be telling the Israeli leadership that you can’t carry on winning militarily if you consistently lose the media battle, which will sap strength and morale and increase international isolation. But those with “seichel” are not in power in Israel.

  •  Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University.