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From Muhammad al-Durrah to Shireen Abu Akleh

Ariel Kahana

Israel Hayom, May 12, 2022

There are battles where the most you can hope for is to mitigate the damage. This was the goal of Israel’s public relations campaign on Wednesday morning.

Immediately after the reports of Al-Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh’s death, the IDF Spokesperson’s Office, the Foreign Ministry, the Government Press Office, the Israel Police, and the Public Diplomacy Directorate in the Prime Minister’s Office, which coordinates between the various bodies, shifted to an emergency footing.  It was obvious that the incident was not good for Israel, and that a quick and clear response was imperative.

Unlike the Palestinians, however, who took the liberty of unequivocally determining that Israel was responsible without providing any factual evidence – Israel is an orderly country. To get caught in a lie down the road would be worse than claiming things right now that sound beneficial. Due to all the complexities involved, this was the chosen PR approach.

Muhammad (left) and Jamal al-Durrah (right) filmed by Talal Abu Rahma for France 2- wikipedia

As a lesson learned from the Muhammad al-Durrah fiasco, Israel on Wednesday avoided the same trap of Arab propaganda and didn’t admit that our soldiers were the ones who killed Abu Akleh. Moreover: At 8 a.m., just one hour after her death, the IDF Spokesperson had already issued a statement whereby, apparently, the Palestinians themselves murdered her in the midst of the gunfight. By 9 a.m. his words had been translated to Arabic and English and sent to international news outlets and foreign reporters. At the same time, a video was released intended to support the Israeli claim.

The swiftness of the response was critical. Compared to the Public Diplomacy Directorate’s deafening silence during Operation Guardian of the Walls a year ago, the quick release of an Israeli version upended the Palestinians’ exclusivity and established Israel’s position.

Where do we still fall short in the court of international opinion, though? When the Palestinians passionately claim “Israel murdered” while we say “perhaps not” – the Israeli side isn’t really able to turn the tables. Against the Palestinian “definitely,” Israel only has a “maybe.”

As representatives of a responsible country, however, Israeli spokespeople couldn’t entirely rule out our involvement in the incident. The truth supersedes the interest.

And yet, the efforts of Israeli spokespeople bore fruit: By 12 noon, most of the major news outlets in the world had already highlighted the Israeli position. It wasn’t the headline, but Israel’s doubts regarding the Palestinian version of events were at least given expression.

In the more important diplomatic arena, where facts and evidence are largely prioritized, Israel had the upper hand. No serious country came out in condemnation of Israel.

The important countries essentially fell in line with Jerusalem. Great Britain, the European Union, and the United Nations simply asked for an investigation into the incident, and of course, expressed remorse over her death.

Even Egypt and Jordan didn’t adopt the Palestinian version. Publically or behind the scenes, the Foreign Ministry didn’t receive any reprimands.

The most important country of all, the United States – even more so because Abu Akleh was a dual US Citizen – sufficed with a general call for an investigation, without blaming either of the sides.

“We are heartbroken by and strongly condemn the killing of American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in the West Bank,” US State Department Spokesman Ned Price said on Twitter. “The investigation must be immediate and thorough and those responsible must be held accountable. Her death is an affront to media freedom everywhere.”

And this is precisely Israel’s position – to investigate. Meanwhile, the Palestinian rejection of an investigation added points in Israel’s favor.

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The conclusion is that we lost in the international media arena, but only there and only temporarily. In terms of the diplomatic arena, an Israeli official summarized succinctly: “There’s no crisis.” That’s what’s important.

And what will happen if the IDF investigation does reveal that a soldier mistakenly shot the journalist? It’s safe to assume the soldier will indeed face justice and the international community will indeed condemn.

But even if we arrive at that moment, we mustn’t forget the most important thing: For two decades, Shireen Abu Akleh was part of a propaganda machine operating under the guise of journalism, which spewed lies and incited to terror and violence across the Middle East.

Of course, she shouldn’t have been killed, but she was no saint either. Journalism is supposed to oppose violence.

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