Friday, October 19, 2012

Hasbara Kills The Messenger On Gaza Blockade

Over the past few days, there has been much ado about a leaked Israeli presentation on providing a "minimum basket" of food to Gaza so as to prevent malnutrition which could be used to legally classify the blockade of Gaza as a "humanitarian disaster."  In particular, the pro-Israel community has largely downplayed the significance of the report.

Yesterday, the community took to task the Huffington Post, for suggesting - inaccurately - in its headline that Israel intended to force malnutrition on the Palestinians.  After blowback, the Huffington Post corrected the headline to read "avoid malnutrition" a phrase taken from the presentation itself.  

This headline was factually inaccurate.  It was therefore important to correct the headline so as not to unfairly imply that Israel was doing something that it was not.  The point of the calculations the Ministry of Health made was to maintain a bare minimum so as to avoid accounts of malnutrition from the Gaza Strip which would put Israel's blockade into more serious legal question.  To say it was trying to "force" malnutrition on Gaza is in fact the exact opposite of the truth.  Those who pointed out this inaccuracy clearly were correct in doing so.

However, what is also clear is that malnutrition was and remains a problem in the Gaza strip.  If the Israeli government's intention is to avoid malnutrition, it is failing.  The ICRC, FAO/WFP, AmeriCares, and Save the Children concur.  However, the pro-Israel community as a whole largely ignores these arguments, touting the millions of tons of aid which have entered Gaza and posting pictures of supermarkets in Gaza where food is available.  Yet it argues simultaneously that the blockade is necessary to engage in economic warfare against Hamas by limiting the goods available to Palestinians.  Arguing that Israel must limit goods while arguing simultaneously that such goods are getting through means that the blockade is either unnecessary or ineffective.

To be fair, building consensus on a pro-Israel message is hard because it requires coordination across a spectrum of different views.  The reason why most pro-Israel initiatives focus on media bias or egregious cases of anti-semitism is because these are the few cases where a critical mass of support exists for action.  Given the complexity of defining "anti-Israelism" and "anti-semitism," the initiatives of the community represent key points of agreement in an otherwise factional pro-Israel arena.  Whether formal or informal, the structure of decision-making institutions has an important role to play in policy outcomes.  The pro-Israel community is no different from others in this regard, but given the importance of defending Israel, the structural shortcomings of the community have important implications for Israel's future.

The problem is this: the current approach of the pro-Israel community towards the Gaza blockade fails to build trust between the pro-Israel community and fair-minded skeptics who don't oppose Israel on face, but have concerns about its conduct vis-a-vis Gaza.  When the pro-Israel community ignores an incontrovertibly real problem, it sends a tacit message to a critical support community that its opinions are silly or don't matter.  

Taking the Huffington Post to task for its "journalistic ethics" while refusing to engage seriously in the ethical questions raised by a blockade on two million Palestinian civilians in the first place does not help Israel.  Nor does engaging only the diehard radicals of the pro-Palestininan community who will never change their minds, while ignoring the legitimate concerns of a moderate and open-minded center.  To fix the widely-acknowledged problems of Hasbara that plague Israel and its supporters requires changing the decision-making structures of the community to take more seriously the concerns of the moderate center.  While these changes may be difficult and costly, those with the power to make such changes should keep in mind that Israel's future is at stake.

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