The silent battle for public opinion in the war between Israel and Hamas
In his study, On War, the 19th century military theorist,Carl von Clausewitz states that war is, “a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means” – that is, another form of politics where the antagonists move from hurling words at each other to using guns, bayonets and bombs to prove their point.
Wise government and military leaders, then, keep a careful watch on domestic and foreign public opinion, believing that failing to do so can be fatal. Sadly, not all leaders are wise – as seen by a recent article published in Military Review, the US Army University journal dedicated to encouraging independent thinking in the field of land warfare. In his article, Public Opinion: A Center of Gravity Leaders Forget, retired US Army Colonel Steve Boylen, chides military leaders for failing to recognize “political opinion as a new dimension of war”. For “the physical means to win wars in today’s political and security environment is clearly not enough”– an insight not lost on either Hamas or Israel, both of whom are currently waging a public relations battle every bit as fierce as the combat seen in Gaza.
Western public opinion
One obvious target of these public relations salvos is Western public opinion – especially that in the United States, whose support is vital if Israel is to wage a protracted war in Gaza.
In this battle for hearts and minds, Hamas has garnered strong support around the world by successfully portraying itself as the victim -- in spite of the atrocities its forces committed on October 7 which started the war in the first place.
The strength of this support is evident from the massive pro-Palestinian demonstrations seen in many Western capitals – as well the many, smaller actions which seek to disrupt normal life and keep awareness of Palestinian suffering front and center.
This is confirmed by polling which shows much greater support for the Palestinians than was true in the past when the Israelis could rely on rock-solid support in the West, particularly in the United States. Apparently, those halcyon days are over.
A December 8, 2023 Pew Research Center poll which found that, while 65% of respondents felt Hamas bears “a lot” of responsibility for the war, 35% believed that the Israeli Government was also responsible. Not surprisingly, these figures vary from party to party -- with Democrats more likely (50%) to lay blame on the Israeli Government than Republicans (21%). Even more striking is the gap between younger and older Americans – with those in the 18-29 age group largely split in assessing blame (46% for Hamas; 42% for Israel) while 81% in the 65+ group blamed Hamas.
However, in assessing these numbers, one has to take into account the fact that the 18-29 group was less likely to follow the war closely (17%) than the 65+ group (41%) – which raises questions about how firm youth support is, how it came about, and how susceptible it is to change.
Subsequent polls largely confirm these findings. For a more recent poll by the Harvard University Center for American Political Studies found voters in the 18-24 age range split 50/50 in terms of their support while those in the 65+ age category were 96% in support of Israel compare to only 4% for Hamas
And in the UK the 18-24 age group was 3 times more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than those over the age of 65 -- and Labour voters were more supportive of the Palestinians, while Conservatives were more likely to support Israel.
Explaining the shift
While opinion has shifted in favour of the Palestinians since the start of Israel’s operation in Gaza (in part due to the distressing scenes of destruction there), this trend actually predates October 7.
Part of this flows from the large influx of Muslims into the West over the last couple of decades which has altered the demographic mix, making public opinion more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. For example, in my own country, Canada, the number of Muslims (now 1.8 million people) more than doubled as a proportion of the population between 2001 and 2022 from 2.0% to 4.9%. This stands in sharp contrast to the largely stagnant growth seen in the Jewish population which in 2021 stood at 335,000 people. As a result, politicians must pay more attention to Muslim perspectives than in the past – something clearly on the mind of Prime Minister Trudeau whose Liberal Party draws heavily on electoral support from both Muslims and Jews.
However, this demographic shift cannot by itself explain this shift in sympathies, given the large number of non-Muslims seen at pro-Hamas demonstrations. So, we need to look further afield for what else might be driving this phenomenon.
One such driver may be the mainstreaming of such woke ideas as Critical Race Theory, intersectionality, and the current anti-colonialist obsession, which, according to one official at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, has cast Israel as “the poster child for that collection of Western colonial imperial warmongering governments that have suppressed the rights of minority groups”.
Another factor is the limited knowledge many in the West have about the Middle East and the truly nasty nature of politics in that region – as seen by the founding document of Hamas which calls for the destruction of Israel. This lack of knowledge sometimes manifests itself in the most unusual ways. One good example being the support for Hamas from groups like Queers for Palestine who appear unaware of the peril they would face, were they to live under Hamas rule.
Nor do many in the West appreciate the brutal reality of urban warfare, no matter who the combatants are. For while Israel’s assault on Gaza is causing widescale death and destruction, the unfortunate fact is that in some ways this is par for the course with this form of warfare. Just ask the 25,000-35,000 Germans who died in the 37-hour Allied air bombardment of Dresden in February 1945, the citizens of Fallujah who in 2004 saw 60% of their buildings destroyed, or the inhabitants of Chechnya who suffered 50,000 deaths (5% of the population) during their 20-month war with Russia.
And last but not least is the woefully short memory span of the general public which has worked to the advantage of Hamas. For from the beginning of this war the strongest argument for Israel has been the atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7 -- which caused UN Secretary-General Guterres to declare that they showed “humanity at its worst”. Recognizing this, the Israel has emphasized this constantly in its messaging.
Unfortunately, with the passage of time, the brutality of this incident has lost some of its power as some in the public now view it as “yesterday’s news”. Which allows Hamas to move the focus of attention onto the actions of the Israeli military.
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Of course, one of the most powerful tools for moulding public opinion is the mass media – whose performance during this war has been anything but stellar.
While part of this may be due to bias – a charge levelled by both Israeli and Palestinian supporters -- another factor is the sloppiness and lack of care that can occur when journalists, faced with impossible deadlines or wanting to be the first to cover a story, succumb to the temptation to cut corners.
This was evident in the coverage of the October 17 explosion at the al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City where, operating on little more than statements from Hamas, a number of journalists and media outlets rushed to judgment, producing stories they would later regret. For when the full details of the tragedy were available, a very different story emerged – namely, that the death toll and damage was less than claimed and the explosion was likely caused by an Islamic Jihad rocket that misfired. This forced the BBC and New York Times to issue apologies, promising to do better the next time. In spite of these “mea culpas” similar blunders continue, as seen by more recent apologies by the BBC for not having properly checked Hamas claims that the Israelis were targeting medical personnel and carrying out summary executions in Gaza.
These then are some of the ways in which Western public opinion is being formed and the role it plays in the Hamas/Israel conflict. In the second article in this series, I will explore public opinion in the Middle East and the impact it is having on the region.
Paul Malvern writes from Canada. He is President of The Malvern Consulting Group Ltd., which provides public and private sector clients with advice and assistance in the areas of strategic communication and social marketing. He is also an author and social critic, whose second book, Persuaders: Lobbying, Influence Peddling and Political Corruption in Canada, was nominated for the Governor-General’s Award for Best Business Book in 1985. He was the head of the Prime Ministerial Communications Group in the Prime Minister's Office and Lead Speechwriter for Stephen Harper.
Image credit: University of Sydney Queer Action Collective on X (formerly Twitter)
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