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Controlling the Message: Lessons From the Ahed Tamimi Affair

avatar by Moran Yarchi

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Palestinian teen Ahed Tamimi enters a military courtroom escorted by Israeli security personnel at Ofer Prison near Ramallah, Jan. 15, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Ammar Awad.

In late 2017, a short video filmed in the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh went viral on the Internet. In it, a local teenage girl was seen slapping an Israeli military officer and trying to expel him from her front yard using shouts and threats. Nothing about the incident was unusual; similar cases frequently occur in prolonged military occupations in which soldiers control and manage the daily life of millions of civilians.

But the presence of the cameras turned the local altercation between Ahed Tamimi and the Israeli soldiers into an international media event that was extensively covered in Israel and around the world, and which was further exacerbated after her arrest and military trial. Tamimi was recently released after completing an eight-month prison term.

Against a backdrop of intensifying international scrutiny and growing criticism, the Israeli government has struggled to mitigate the damaging effects of the Tamimi affair on its public image. The incident illustrates a broader phenomenon: the complexity of fighting in what I will now term the “Information Space.”

“Warfare” in the Information Space requires tools and resources that are altogether different from those that determine the military outcome of the conflict, but like the latter, they too affect a state’s foreign relations and national security.

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In the 21st century, democratic states cannot allow themselves to abandon the public image arena, as this is precisely where they are structurally inferior vis-à-vis their opponents. To succeed in this arena of critical importance, states such as Israel must take into account considerations regarding their image in the course of formulating strategy, and demonstrate initiative, creativity, and sophistication.

Military Conflicts and the Information Space

In many ways, contemporary armed conflicts are significantly different from past wars. One aspect of the changing landscape is that alongside armed clashes between the warring parties, a different battle takes place for the hearts and minds of the international community — the battle over the narrative. As part of this fight, each side tries to present itself as the party whose actions and beliefs are justified legally, politically, and morally.

Victory in the PR arena, i.e. controlling and ultimately dominating the narrative, erodes the international legitimacy of the opponent. Such an achievement may pressure public opinion into ultimately limiting the opponent’s ability to use military force. In successful cases, it may even push international legal institutions to intervene.

As part of these efforts, the rival parties use different media tools to influence international public opinion. Since a narrative of compassion will usually garner the most support these days, each side tries to depict itself as the victim, who was reluctantly compelled to respond in kind to the aggression and violence of the other side.

Recognizing the importance of the public image arena has brought states and non-state actors to invest considerable resources in managing it, because it is a means for achieving their political-military objectives.

In a study that I conducted with Ami Ayalon and Elad Popovich, we labeled this important arena as the “Information Space.” It is a “fighting” space that characterizes 21st century conflicts. Because of the asymmetry between the opposing parties (i.e. a state vs. a non-state actor) and the extensive media exposure in the traditional and social media spheres, the military and diplomatic outcome of the conflict will in part be determined by the battle in the public image arena.

“Fighting” in Information Space is fundamentally different from armed combat. To a large extent, resources and capabilities that confer a definite military advantage become a burden when it comes to considering one’s image, because the weak side — especially when it is a non-state actor that does not possess a regular army — is the one most likely to be perceived as the victim or underdog, and therefore worthy of the audience’s sympathy. This creates a situation in which the media serves as a particularly effective weapon in the hands of the weaker side, through which it can garner international sympathy, and thus advance international involvement that may curb the actions of its rivals.

Social networks further empower individuals and organizations to present information and communicate their message directly to their target audience without the mediation of journalists and editors — the gatekeepers of traditional journalism. The video clips distributed by the Islamic State (ISIS) are an illustrative example: they are hyper-violent videos that the Islamist organization produced, edited, and distributed independently, free of traditional media constraints. In the case of these videos, as well as in many others, the traditional media feels compelled to cover them in order to provide their audience with relevant information about world news and events. This adds to the general interest in those videos and increases their exposure on the web.

Conflicts in the Information Space, namely asymmetric conflicts that are covered extensively in the media, are global in nature. There are no defined boundaries in the image war; anyone exposed to information that promotes a certain narrative about the conflict — whether on the web (e.g. by posting on social networks or signing an online petition) or in a traditional fashion (e.g. by demonstrating in the streets) — is a participant in the war over image.

In this reality, information in general and especially visual images — given their significant impact on how people perceive reality — become weapons for all intents and purposes. And, as noted, they are a particularly effective weapon for the militarily weaker side.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a paradigmatic example of the challenge of fighting the battle in the Information Space in a careful and precise fashion. The conflict involves a Western state with a modern army that is by all accounts a leading regional force and several non-state armed groups that are clearly inferior in the military sense. Confrontations in the decades-long conflict mostly take place in densely populated areas and events have a significant impact on the civilian population on both sides. Against this backdrop, there is a clear incentive for the weaker side to utilize the media to tilt the balance of power in its favor. The proximity of the fighting to populated centers creates countless opportunities for documenting and publishing events that can constitute image weaponry.

The Tamimi Affair as a Case Study

The case of Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi demonstrates the complexity of fighting in the Information Space. The videos in which she appears attracted significant attention around the world and constituted a striking example of the use of the media, and especially of visual images, as a weapon in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Tamimi and her family frequently document their protests against the IDF in video and pictures. Their objective in filming and distributing such imagery is to portray the Israeli military as a brutal occupying power. Their method is to provoke soldiers with the goal of rousing a response, which they can later display to the world as proof of Israeli aggression against innocent civilians. After these videos began going viral and receiving extensive media coverage by international networks and newspapers, Ahed Tamimi began being portrayed as a Palestinian icon of resistance. Among her admirers was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who invited Tamimi and her mother to visit Turkey. Using social and traditional media in this fashion has proven an effective strategy to convey the Palestinian narrative globally and recruit international public opinion to their cause.

This tactic has proven particularly effective in Western democracies. There, Tamimi is perceived as a young, blonde, Western-looking teenager — the proverbial “girl next door.” For this reason, it is also easy for the Western world to identify with her struggle and personal story, especially in a media environment in which compassion plays a central role.

The December 2017 video, after which Tamimi was arrested, shows an IDF officer who does not respond to her provocations. The officer’s actions were perceived by many Israelis as the correct conduct in this sort of challenging situation. Yet even then, the officer’s mere presence in the Tamimi family yard, and the asymmetry between a well-armed combat soldier and a young teenager, delivered an unequivocal message. No matter what course of action the officer had taken, Israel would be perceived and portrayed negatively by a majority of the viewers.

The video portrays life under military occupation in vivid colors, and raises questions about the presence of Israeli forces in the heart of a Palestinian settlement. This is exactly the narrative advanced by the Palestinians. To a great extent, once the cameras appeared on the scene, the Palestinian narrative was already destined to prevail.

While changing the result of this encounter would have required a major shift in Israeli policy, the negative backlash to Tamimi’s arrest and the decision to conduct her trial behind closed doors could have been avoided. This event demonstrates that Israel has failed to respond to the image warfare being conducted against it. Here again, Tamimi is portrayed as a victim and a hero who stands on her own against the military. The decision to try her behind closed doors created an impression that “the Occupation” fails to provide Palestinians due process and further diminished its legitimacy. Indeed, Israel has been criticized extensively by international media on the subject and a mass mobilization campaign to support Tamimi has been launched on social networks.

The Israeli-Palestinian case in general and the Tamimi affair in particular demonstrate that the militarily weaker side is often the stronger side in the battle of narratives.

Image Warfare: Winning the War in the Information Space

As the Tamimi affair illustrates, modern wars are conducted differently than previous ones: a war over image is waged alongside the armed struggle and the battle is not only about achieving goals on the military front, but also to control and dominate the narrative. We have recently witnessed a similar challenge for Israel: the Palestinian “March of Return” in the Gaza Strip, which began in March 2018 and culminated in the Nakba Day protests of mid-May, when dozens of Palestinians were killed in confrontations with Israeli soldiers. Similar to the Tamimi case, the Palestinians sought to portray their activities as peaceful protests — an exercise of a fundamental political right — which was met with a violent response by the occupying power.

Is there a strategy that could close the image gap between unarmed civilians and the well-equipped soldiers in the Information Space?

To cope with situations of this kind, states must first conduct themselves in a different manner in order to gain achievements in the international arena, where conventional warfare strategies might be counterproductive.

In our paper, Ayalon, Popovich, and I suggested a new strategy, which we referred to as “Imagefare.” In conducting Imagefare, the state takes into consideration the impact of fighting for its public image in the process of formulating policy in international conflicts. A sound military strategy should be influenced by public image considerations as part of its overarching strategy. Choosing military means and methods must be done with acute awareness as to how actions in the combat arena will be received by international public opinion. Decision-making should balance military gains with damage to public image, as both may affect foreign policy in different ways. Public diplomacy and public relations professionals should be incorporated into the decision-making processes. Their broad participation in formulating strategy can contribute to conducting more effective warfare in the public image arena.

States can no longer ignore the fact that in today’s reality, public image is of crucial importance, and non-state actors — who are usually the weak side of the conflict — can effectively utilize the media in their attempt to garner support in the international arena. Consequently, states must take public image considerations into account in a more intensive and intelligent fashion when planning strategy, so that they can achieve their goals in the myriad arenas — military, diplomatic, economic, and also PR — that comprise the modern act of waging war.

Dr. Moran Yarchi is the head of the Public Diplomacy Program and a faculty member at the Sammy Ofer School of Communications at the IDC Herzliya. An expanded version of this article originally appeared in The Arena – Diplomacy and Foreign Relations, published by the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at the IDC Herzliya, chaired by Ambassador Ron Prosor.

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