As the war in Gaza continues, one of the interesting, important, but clearly secondary stories has been the efforts by both Israel and its opponents to influence public opinion through social and conventional media. Notably, by far the most important public with which both sides are concerns is the American public. The U.S. is one of the few countries where the public still has positive feelings for Israel. That support, however, is not as strong as it was even a few years ago. Despite the emphasis on social media with formal and informal volunteers from both sides Tweeting, posting links on Facebook and otherwise using new forms of communication to increase support for their view, both Israel and Gaza are making mistakes in their messaging.
Given the number of civilian causalities in Gaza, it is not surprising these deaths are at the center of the debate about the war. These deaths are tragic, as is all loss of civilian life in a conflict like this one, but there is, of course, more to the conflict than this. Nonetheless, in the big picture, any discussion of civilian casualties is good for Hamas and bad for Israel. Indeed, Hamas' willingness to accept civilian casualties is one of the reasons this war happened in the first place.
Israel's media response to the civilian casualties has been vexing. Pro-Israel social and conventional media has been full of articles and statements explaining how Israel has sought to avoid civilian casualties in its war against Hamas. There is more truth to these statements than many opponents and critics of Israel would like to recognize. Given Israel's military superiority relative to Hamas, it is clear that if Israel genuinely did not care about civilian casualties, this war would have been a lot shorter and a lot bloodier. Unfortunately, when civilians, including many children, in Gaza are dying, statements about the IDF's restraint are simply not plausible, and seem insensitive and offensive. In short, Israel gains nothing by making these assertions; and any discussion of civilian casualties is not helpful for Israel's media goals. A far better strategy would be to simply recognize these tragic deaths and continue talking about the reasons for the war.
American audiences, particularly those people who are sympathetic, or potentially sympathetic, to Israel, will be much more supportive position of Israel if the discussion focuses on stopping Hamas terrorists from entering Israel, Israel's right to defend itself or widespread anti-Semitism associated with pro-Gaza demonstrations in Europe. Those are Israel's strongest talking points and those on which supporters of Israel should focus most of their efforts.
Opponents of Israel and supporters of Hamas and Gaza, in contrast, benefit from attention paid to civilian casualties and are wise to keep the focus there. From a communication angle, discussions of the tragic loss of lives is much better for them then, for example, debates about Hamas's tactics and human rights record, the Hamas position regarding the existence of the state of Israel, or anything regarding terrorism. However, too frequently this focus gets lost due hand wringing by supporters of Gaza over either the lack of attention the world is paying to these tragic deaths or the an alleged pro-Israel bias in the media. The former concern cannot be taken seriously during a time when deaths of civilians in Gaza dominate the front pages of almost every newspaper and website, often obscuring massive ongoing human rights violations in Syria and Iraq committed by ISIS and others. The allegations of a pro-Israel bias are a little more complicated. The American media, reflecting the views of the American people, is much more sympathetic to Israel than most of the rest of the world's media, but the notion that Israel is never questioned or challenged in the western media is absurd in today's world. Moreover, it is the wrong message for opponents of Israel because it leads to a back and forth argument about media biases, rather than keeping a focus on civilian casualties.
Both sides in this conflict find it difficult to separate the best media strategy from the narrative to which they have long been wed. For Israel that means trying to convince the rest of the world that they are different from other countries and care about civilian deaths, while for Palestinians it means holding on to the notion that they are ignored by the world and marginalized by a the global media that is unduly influenced by Israel. These two narratives may no longer be the most useful for each group, but they are still strong and often make it harder for both sides to see how the conflict, the world and indeed themselves are changing.