Israel may be winning the war in Gaza, but it's losing the image battle

Every war has an iconic and powerful image. The Marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima boosted U.S. morale in World War II.  A nine-year old girl burned by napalm during the Vietnam War became a potent anti-war image.  

In the Hamas-Gaza War the image has become premature Palestinian babies struggling to live without incubators. 

Following the bestial Hamas attack on October 7, there were horrific, defining images that generated enormous support and sympathy for Israel and revulsion against Hamas. One was the photograph of a senior’s walker. It belonged to Moshe Ridler, a 91-year-old Israeli who had survived the Holocaust, only to be killed when a Hamas terrorist threw a grenade into his bungalow.

Now, although the war is far from over, Israel largely controls northern Gaza above ground and has destroyed 30 percent of the Hamas tunnels. But the imagery has changed, too, and that is costing Israel the battle for the information space.

Winning the imagery battle would always have been a challenge. Israel has a right to defend itself, but the Hamas tunnels beneath the Gazan population meant that heavy civilian casualties were unavoidable. Hamas has never built bomb shelters for Gazans, precisely because civilian bomb shelters civilian casualties generate anti-Israel images for Hamas and its supporters to exploit.

Israel’s image was damaged by apparent indiscriminate bombing of Gaza at the outset of the war and by the “complete siege” of Gaza that initially cut-off fuel, water and electricity. But perhaps the most devastating image has been the premature babies without incubators, dozens in Al-Shifa Hospital, which has been a focus of the Israeli offensive. Lost in the fog of war is an Israeli claim that it left 300 liters of fuel outside the hospital for emergency use, but which Hamas forbade the doctors to use.

When Israel gained partial control of al-Shifa Hospital, it brought international news teams inside the hospital to film captured Hamas weaponry. But it did not bring in incubators, a generator, or fuel.  The image of Israeli medical personnel helping to set up and fuel incubators for premature Palestinian babies might have helped to blunt the horrible images from Gaza, but the opportunity was lost. The  Al-Shifa babies have since been evacuated to Egypt by the World Health Organization, but their indelible image remains.    

Right-wing members of Netanyahu’s government are doing their part to create terrible imagery. Israeli Heritage Minister Amihai Eliyahu suggested flattening Gaza with a nuclear weapon. (The Israeli government disavowed this suggestion.)

Under pressure from the Biden Administration, Israel agreed to allow two fuel trucks a day into Gaza for water, sewage treatment, and sanitary systems — far less than the pre-war daily fuel deliveries to Gaza. Nonetheless, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who heads one of the nationalist-religious parties in Netanyahu’s coalition, vehemently objected.

“It conveys weakness, it gives oxygen into the enemy,” said Smotrich who last year demanded that a Palestinian village on the West Bank be “wiped out” after two Israelis were killed there. (He later retracted this demand.)

Actually, strong countries exhibit their strength through humanitarian gestures in war. But two fuel trucks a day may not stop an even greater humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, with even worse imagery. Israel could lose support from countries otherwise sympathetic to its goal of destroying Hamas — including, as improbable as it sounds, even the U.S., which for more than half a century has been Israel’s indispensable ally. 

An astonishing Reuters/Ipsos Poll reported last week that barely one-third of Americans think that the U.S. should support Israel, a nine point drop over a month filled with terrible images from Gaza. Nearly 40 percent believe that the U.S. should act as a “neutral mediator.” 

War images matter.

 Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor in the Carter and Reagan administrations and a member of the ABSCAM prosecution team, which convicted a U.S. senator and six representatives of bribery. His newest bookInto Siberia: George Kennan’s Epic Journey Through the Brutal, Frozen Heart of Russia, is due out in December.

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