Hamas’s PR War Against Israel Has Misfired, Too

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The shooting war between Israel and Hamas is on hold, but the intense public relations battle continues.

It is not a new battle. In the summer of 1982, during Israel’s war against the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Lebanon, Prime Minister Menachem Begin came to Washington. Western media coverage featured nightly footage of Israel’s invasion and exaggerated casualty figures supplied by the Palestinian Red Crescent (run by the brother of the late Yasser Arafat).

Begin was concerned enough by these images that he flew to Washington to explain them. There he met with a receptive President Ronald Reagan but an inflamed Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Paul Tsongas, a Massachusetts liberal, told the New York Times that supporters of Israel should be concerned that “support for Israel in this country is eroding.”

“The majority of the senators criticized one or more aspects of Israel's policies” the Times reported. “The bitterest exchange was said to have been between Mr. Begin and Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, who told the Israeli leader that he was not critical of the Lebanon operation but felt that Israel had to halt the policy of establishing new Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He said Israel was losing support in this country because of the settlements policy.”

After the session, Begin wondered aloud at the naivete of his Senatorial critics. How could they imagine that he would jeopardize what he considered Israel’s security interests? He was sure that Democratic senators would not support terrorists over a democratic ally.

That has been true since 1982 but was called into question again recently. At the start of the fighting in Gaza, the New York Times reported that Israel was in danger of losing its bipartisan support. Allegedly, “ascendant” young progressives were in the process of overturning the party’s commitment to the once sacrosanct alliance.

The theme was echoed by the Washington Post, National Public Radio and other reliably Democratic media organs. They rely on charges by a handful of left-wing members of Congress (described by some of their Congressional colleagues as the ‘Hamas Caucus’) that Israel was committing war crimes with a disproportionate air assault on innocent civilians. The mainstream Israeli press embraced the opportunity to criticize Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for alienating Democrats by making a partner out of Donald Trump.

The war crimes story itself has taken a serious hit. Matthias Schmale, Gaza Director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), admitted in a televised interview that Israel’s effort to silence Hamas and Islamic rockets had been “precise” and that, with some exceptions, Israeli bombs did not hit civilian targets. (He later retracted those words under intense pressure from Hamas.)

Hamas’s own statistics reflect the truth of Schmale’s original statement. Its health ministry counts 243 deaths during 11 days of Israel’s air campaign. This number includes Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters, Gaza residents killed by defective Hamas and IJ rockets and innocent civilians. This is a figure that demonstrates careful restraint, not carpet bombing.

This has been understood in some surprising corners of the globe. None of the six Arab nations with which it has diplomatic relations has recalled its ambassador, and several are actively engaged in diplomatic efforts to calm things down. The EU, often a critic of Israeli policy, has been loath to blame a democracy for fighting back against rocket barrages by a hostile neighbor. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Greece, Slovenia, Slovakia and Germany have been outspoken in their support for Israel. And the anti-Jewish slogans of pro-Hamas rallies in European cities appear to have alarmed more people than they have converted.

Israelis, who tend to suffer from a “the whole world is against us” syndrome, are mostly concerned about solidarity in the U.S. But President Biden, who has often witnessed the durability of Israeli popularity in his long career, made this clear at a press conference. “There is no shift in my commitment to the security of Israel. Period. Not at all,” he said, adding that there is no change in the pro-Israel stance of the Democratic Party. “Until the region says unequivocally that they acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as an independent Jewish state, there will be no peace." 

A few days later, Sky News’s Middle East correspondent Mark Stone paid a visit to Mahmoud al-Zahar, a co-founder of Hamas. Al-Zahar bragged about the Hamas strategy of firing rockets at crowded civilian targets in Israel and said that it was just a matter of time before Israel reached a breaking point.

Stone asked his host if the state of Israel has the right to exist. Al Zahar seemed surprised by the question. “No,” he answered plainly, making Biden’s point, and Israel’s, perfectly.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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