Israel Takes PR Battle to Twitter, Bans Journalists from Gaza

As violence continues to be waged in Gaza, the public relations and media battle between Israel and Hamas continues to be waged online.

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In an apparent “internet first”, last Tuesday, the Israel Defense Forces (by way of the Consulate General of Israel in New York) conducted “the first governmental press conference ever held on Twitter”.

David Saranga, the head of media relations for the Israeli consulate in New York, helped manage the “citizen’s press conference”, which was open to anyone with a Twitter account, and in which the Israel Consulate’s Twitter account responded to questions in the site’s microblogging format of 140 character entries.

This could well set a precedent for future, similarly interactive, news conferences — perhaps by the likes of President-elect Obama, whose pro-social media team could lead the way in a newly digital approach to public dialogue.

Did you participate in the IDF press conference on Twitter? Was it helpful and informative or simply an adept strategy for excercising digital PR?

Please share your thoughts below.

The Israel Defense Forces, recognizing that success in neutralizing the Hamas movement in Gaza is as much a public relations challenge as a military one, has enlisted an arsenal of Internet tools to take their message directly to a global audience. There is a military channel on the video-sharing site YouTube where you can watch suspected Hamas sites being obliterated by ordnance; blogs that spread the message of the foreign affairs ministry; and in the newest wrinkle, a news conference conducted through the microblogging service Twitter.

“Since the definition of war has changed, the definition of public diplomacy has to change as well,” said David Saranga, the head of media relations for the Israeli consulate in New York, which conducted the Twitter news conference on Tuesday. Some, including the MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow, mocked the idea of a government spokesman addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in tweets barely a sentence long. “The Israeli government is trying to explain a conflict that people write books about, a conflict that newspaper writers struggle to explain in 2,000 words, in 140 characters at a time,” she marveled.

Mr. Saranga said Tuesday’s online dialogue, which was open for questions from anyone with a Twitter account, was “the first governmental press conference ever held on Twitter.” And he made no apologies for using common text-messaging abbreviations — 2 for to, 4 for for, and r for are, and other shorthand like civ for civilian — in his answers. “I speak to every demographic in a language he understands,” he said. “If someone only speaks Spanish, I speak in Spanish; if someone is using a platform like Twitter, I want to tweet.”

Nevertheless, despite the Israeli Consulate’s seemingly “inclusive” approach to its US-based online news conference, Israel is still maintaining a ban on any and all foreign journalists and human rights monitors from entering Gaza, despite a Supreme Court decision last week to allow journalists to enter the territory.

Israel is barring foreign journalists from entering the Gaza Strip despite a Supreme Court decision this week to allow a limited number to enter the territory.

The ban has been in place since a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas began to fray on Nov. 5.

Israel has maintained the closure since launching its air offensive against Gaza’s Hamas rulers a week ago.

A legal challenge by the Foreign Press Association, which represents foreign media in Israel, prompted the court ruling this week to allow a limited number of foreign journalists to enter when the border crossing between Israel and Gaza is open. Israel opened the crossing Friday to allow some Palestinians with foreign passports to leave Gaza, but kept reporters out.

Additionally, the group Human Rights Watch is calling on Israel to allow journalists and human rights monitors access to Gaza.

Israel should immediately allow journalists and human rights monitors access to Gaza, Human Rights Watch said today. Their presence can discourage abuse by warring parties and help save lives.

Human Rights Watch urged the Israeli government to abide by an Israeli high court ruling on December 31, 2008 and allow foreign media into Gaza. The presence of journalists and human rights monitors in conflict areas provides an essential check on human rights abuses and laws-of-war violations, Human Rights Watch said.

Since early November 2008, when the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas began to deteriorate, the Israeli government has sharply restricted access to Gaza for foreign journalists and human rights monitors, and none has been permitted entry since the current military campaign began on December 27.

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