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.

 

icon

Join Mercator today for free and get our latest news and analysis

Buck internet censorship and get the news you may not get anywhere else, delivered right to your inbox. It's free and your info is safe with us, we will never share or sell your personal data.

Media missteps

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)  


 

Showing 6 reactions

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-02-05 12:56:33 +1100
    “Queers for Palestine”

    On the face of it, absurd. If you identify as “queer” going to any territory controlled by any Palestinian administration would be bad for your health.

    Logically, you should be fighting for the rights of “queers” across the Muslim world.

    I’d put “Queers for Palestine” in the same category as “Scientists denying human-caused global warming” or “Doctors against Vaccines”.

    In fact I’d put it in the same category as “Educated humans believing the creator of the universe, assuming such an entity exists, cares about your sex life”.

    In the same category as people who allow a lucrative industry to perform irreversible medical procedures on the basis of an immature kid’s self-diagnosis of gender dysphoria

    None of these make any sense to me.

    —Hamas kills “queers”

    —Human-caused global warming is a civilisational threat

    —Vaccines work. Not always as well as we’d like but they do provide high degrees of protection against serious illness.

    —The creator of the universe, assuming such an entity exists, does not care about your sex life

    —Self-diagnoses of anything by an immature kid should be treated with extreme caution. The advice of a medical practitioner with no conflict of interest should be sought. Irreversible medical procedures of any kind should always be a last resort.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-02-05 12:00:24 +1100
    When it comes to Australia there is another dimension that is rarely considered.

    I’m going to be as brutally frank as I can.

    Australia and Israel are two small nations separated by 10 thousand kilometres of ocean. The fate of Israel is of zero strategic importance to Australia and vice versa.

    On the other hand, relations with Indonesia are of primary importance to Australia. Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country. It is one of Australia’s most important trading partners. It has 10X Australia’s population. The Indonesian Government is a staunch supporter of the Palestinians. One of the hospitals damaged during the recent fighting was built with funds supplied by Indonesia(1). In any confrontation between Israel and Palestinians the Indonesians are going to back the Palestinian side.

    This limits any Australian Government’s freedom of action. Former Prime Minister Morrison mused in public about moving the Australian embassy to Jerusalem. The instant Indonesian reaction almost bankrupted a number of Australian businesses that relied on trade with Indonesia. After that debacle Morrison never again used the words “embassy” and “Jerusalem” in the same sentence.

    It is often said that “demography is destiny”.

    So is geography.

    (1) See https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/11/25/gazas-indonesian-hospital-in-ruins-after-israeli-raid-days-long-siege
  • mrscracker
    “Support for the rights and dignity of Palestinians is decidedly not support for Hamas.”

    Considering that Hamas are the Palestinians’ worst enemy…
  • mrscracker
    Intersectionality can become pretty ridiculous.
  • Kathy Ungar
    commented 2024-02-02 19:53:36 +1100
    Or perhaps, rather than knowing too little about the behaviour of Israel since the atrocities of October 7, critics of Israel know too much? Anyone who thinks that claims of Israeli war crimes are simply down to ‘wokeness’ needs to do some more research. Not everyone is content (like the mainstream media all too often is) to accept Israeli talking points as if they were gospel truth rather than self-interested propaganda. See here for a letter to the UN security council by Medicins Sans Frontiers doctors protesting multiple Israeli hospital attacks and other war crimes https://www.msf.org/letter-gaza-un-security-council and here https://www.timeslive.co.za/politics/2024-01-11-in-full-tembeka-ngcukaitobis-submission-to-world-court-on-israel/#google_vignette for just some of the evidence presented to the Hague on genocidal words and actions of Israeli politicians, army personnel and others. This evidence cannot be psychologised away.
  • David Page
    commented 2024-02-02 19:52:39 +1100
    Support for the rights and dignity of Palestinians is decidedly not support for Hamas. Hamas is a symptom.