During Operation Protective Edge, Hamas’s strategy depended upon manipulating the media to push a narrative of Israeli victimization of helpless Palestinians. To accomplish this, they engaged in a series of distortions, deceptions, and disruptions of journalists trying to report on the situation in Gaza.
Hama’s Ministry of Interior in Gaza published a video in Arabic about what they called "cautious and effective" social media use during Operation Protective Edge. It contained such directives as:
"Anyone killed or martyred is to be called a civilian from Gaza or Palestine, before we talk about his status in jihad or his military rank. Don’t forget to always add ’innocent civilian’ or ’innocent citizen’ in your description of those killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza.
"Avoid publishing pictures of rockets fired into Israel from [Gaza] city centers. This [would] provide a pretext for attacking residential areas in the Gaza Strip. Do not publish or share photos or video clips showing rocket launching sites or the movement of resistance [forces] in Gaza.
The video also emphasizes the claim that Hamas terrorism is only a "reaction" to Israel’s actions and always tries to cast doubt on anything that Israel’s government says.
A statement released on August 12 by the Foreign Press Association (FPA) demonstrates the censorship and intimidation practices used by Hamas militants against international media reporters. The statement reads, "The FPA protests in the strongest terms the blatant, incessant, forceful and unorthodox methods employed by the Hamas authorities and their representatives against visiting international journalists in Gaza over the past month." After leaving Gaza, journalists displayed footage they were afraid to release while in Gaza. Footage of Hamas launching rockets from hospital and elementary school parking lots and footage of Palestinian children playing near rocket launchers situated close to homes in residential neighborhoods. The reporters were harassed and intimidated by Hamas members, causing them not to be able to get an accurate depiction of what it was like on the ground in Gaza. The report also details that Hamas has been trying to set up a black-list of journalists who they do not want coming in and reporting, an idea that the FPA shuns.
Journalists who reported the truth about the situation in Gaza would often receive unwanted attention from the Hamas authorities:
The Times of Israel confirmed several incidents in which journalists were questioned and threatened. These included cases involving photographers who had taken pictures of Hamas operatives in compromising circumstances — gunmen preparing to shoot rockets from within civilian structures, and/or fighting in civilian clothing — and who were then approached by Hamas men, bullied and had their equipment taken away.
A Wall Street Journal reporter named Nick Casey tweeted a picture of Hamas leaders using Shifa Hospital as a site for broadcast:
Casey deleted the tweet soon after receiving threats. The French newspaper "Liberation" ran an article by Radjaa Abu Dagg, a French-Palestinian journalist, about how he had been summoned to al-Shira hospital to be questioned by Hamas authorities. There, he was badgered with questions about being a "correspondent for Israel" and was told to leave Gaza immediately. At his request, "Liberation" removed the article.
An Israeli official was quoted: “Whenever they’re here [in Israel], they [foreign journalists] complain about restrictions and censorship and so on. But when they get bullied in Gaza, they’re too scared to say anything, and so this is swept under the rug.”
Michael Grynszpan, an Israeli media figure, was told by a Spanish journalist that "it’s very simple, we did see Hamas people there launching rockets, they were close to our hotel, but if ever we dare pointing our camera on them they would simply shoot at us and kill us." When Grynszpan asked him to make a statement on the record, the journalist refused.
Journalists such as Australia Channel Nine’s Peter Stefanovic were also threatened on social media for reporting about Hamas’s use of human shields.
On Monday, August 10, 2014, members of the Foreign Press Association staged a protest against Hamas, claiming harassment and threats directed at foreign reporters covering the conflict in Gaza. According to a statement released by the FPA, Hamas members used "blatant, incessant, forceful and unorthodox methods" to prevent the international media from reporting what was going on. The FPA claims that about 10% of reporters who have entered Gaza to cover the conflict have experienced harassment, threats, or undue questioning. The same day as the protest, multiple foreign news agencies received requests from Hamas media, asking for the names of their journalists in the area, their company, and their contact details to "facilitate and organize their work." These journalists are filming Hamas militants firing rockets from schools, hospitals, and crowded residential areas, and Hamas does not want the international media to get wind of the fact that they operate the way that they do.
Hamas spokesperson Isra Al-Mudallal was interviewed on a Lebanese television program on August 15 2015, during which she stated that foreign journalists who were filming Hamas rocket launches were "collaborating with the occupation" and were "deported from the Gaza Strip". Al-Mudallal explained that Hamas security agencies would "go and have a chat with these people", and "one way or another," they would either be forced to delete the footage, change the message, or leave the Gaza Strip. She is the head of Foreign Relations in the Hamas Information Ministry. During the interview on Lebanese TV station Mayadeen, Al-Mudallal said that the reporters were harassed and deported because they "were fixated on the notion of peace and on the Israeli narrative."
As mentioned above, Hamas’s strategy depends upon pulling on Western heartstrings so that the international community will force Israel to make political concessions. However, they also know that the global media does not generally check to see if the number of "civilians" killed were, in fact, noncombatants. The Palestinian Health Ministry is a Hamas-owned organization and accordingly never specifies how many Palestinian dead are combatants.
B’tselem is an Israeli human rights organization that might be considered a reliable source, except that their methodology for determining who is a civilian is highly questionable:
CM: During times like this do you release a fatality count every day?
SM: We rely on lists provided by other organizations and by the Palestinian Ministry of Health. We try to do a basic check of those lists, which is just cross-referencing them one to another, trying to get the basic data. Following the hostilities, when things have calmed down, our field workers will actually visit all of the civilians who are registered on these lists and try to get as much information about each one of them.
Q: Palestinians could stand to gain sympathy if they lied about how many civilians are killed. Do you think witnesses ever try to obfuscate the type of person who was killed?
SM: I think it’s not unheard of. I don’t think it’s as big of an issue as the Israeli government would present it to be. For Palestinians, being involved in legitimate — in their minds — resistance against Israelis isn’t a thing to be ashamed of. They’re proud of it, and the fighters are certainly proud of it. There are also stipends and payments to Palestinians who were killed while resisting the Israeli occupation. (Again, I’m using intra-Palestinian language.) So there are also some conflicting interests, and I think for many Palestinians they would gladly admit that their relative who was killed was involved as a fighter. [Interview with B’tselem spokesperson Sarit Michaeli]
In other words, B’tselem’s strategy for determining if a deceased Palestinian was a combatant or not is simply to ask his family. When taking Hamas’ social media guidelines above into consideration, it is unlikely that any Palestinian family will say that a lost relative was in fact a combatant.
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights has been exposed in the past for labeling Palestinian dead as "civilians" when in fact they were members of various terror organizations.
The truth about the ratio of combatants to civilians killed during Operation Protective Edge may never be known for sure. Still, it is undeniable that inflating the number of civilian casualties is a key part of Hamas’s strategy and should be noted every time a figure is reported.
Manipulation of photographs has been a staple of the propaganda war against Israel for years, and Operation Protective Edge was no exception. The BBC noticed at the beginning of the fighting that many of the photographs that social media activists were tweeting were actually from Syria and Iraq, not Gaza.
Later, Sudarsan Raghavan of the Washington Post noticed foreign journalists would stage photographs of scenes in Gaza to make them appear more dramatic:
I had just arrived outside the shattered remains of a large mosque in central Gaza City last week. It had been pulverized by an Israeli airstrike. There was rubble, glass and metal everywhere. But on a patch of ground in front of the structure, visible for everyone to see, was a small, dusty carpet.
On top lay piles of burned, ripped copies of the Koran, Islam’s holy book. The symbolism was obvious, almost too perfect. It was clear that someone had placed them there to attract sympathy for the Palestinian cause. A television crew spotted the pile and filmed it. Mission accomplished.
In the middle of the road, where the kids were killed, was a small pool of blood. At first glance, it evoked a sense of sadness and outrage. As I looked closer, I noticed a child’s slipper in the middle of the blood. The slipper was intact. There were no bloodstains. And next to the slipper, a black plastic toy gun." [Washington Post, August 4 2014]
Raghavan also described a child being coached while speaking to a camera.
Sources: Times of Israel.