Photographs of civilian suffering during a war are a key fighting tool, sometimes one that can tip the balance. The reason is simple: Hamas has more of a media strategy than a military one. Hamas is calculatingly focusing its efforts on war tactics intended to promote a sophisticated media strategy that has the potential to threaten Israel's basic security. In this offensive battle, Hamas can depend on the most lethal weapon of all -- international media and public opinion.
As a sovereign state, Israel must stand stalwart in the face of Hamas' threats, and as a state committed to Jewish, democratic values, Israel tries tirelessly to minimize harm to Palestinian civilians. Still, when waging war against Hamas, Israeli values like steadfastness and morality can become an Achilles heel. To maximize harm to civilians, Hamas fighters operate under the cover of women and the elderly, shoot from inside ambulances, stockpile rockets in schools and prevent civilians from fleeing the places where the fighting is going on. This side of the war is noted only occasionally by journalists covering the conflict.
The media's obsession stems from many sources. These include authentic empathy with Palestinian suffering, opposition to Israeli policy, and in certain cases loathing for the Jewish state. However, many journalists would be appalled at the hint that they are cooperating with a terrorist organization. Most of them feel that they are simply doing their jobs by supplying the audience with the most recent, up-to-date images and stories from the field. And in Hamas they know that as the number of Palestinian civilian casualties grows, they are grabbing more headlines and air time than the victims in Syria or Iraq.
Hamas knows that Israel's advanced homefront civilian defenses ensure a growing gap between the number of wounded Israelis and Palestinians. This gap is a focus point for foreign analysts that will lead them to conclude that Israel is using disproportional force. More than anything, Hamas is aware that pictures of the wounded in Gaza fire up international public opinion. Fanning the flames of public opinion will lead to condemnations in the United Nations and accusations of war crimes, as well as international sanctions that could tie Israel's hands in dealing with the rockets.
Intentionally or unknowingly, the international media has been cast in a leading role in Hamas' horror screenplay. While journalists assume that they are helping the Palestinians by broadcasting their suffering and distress, they are really making them worse. They exempt Hamas from any accusation of using the population as a human shield and stealing hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for humanitarian aid to use to build bunkers for its leaders and dig tunnels whose only purpose is to murder innocent civilians. At the same time, Israel is expected to apologize for its defense systems and for not having civilian casualties. Rather than painting for the viewer the complicated picture in which both Israelis and Gazans are victims of the Hamas terror group, the media prefers a superficial discussion of East vs. West, colonialists vs. children, David vs. Goliath.
Beyond that, the most important role the foreign media is playing in Hamas' strategy is to demoralize Israelis. Israel is prepared to pay a high operational price and even endanger Israeli soldiers to keep from harming innocent civilians in Gaza. However, Israel is portrayed by the media as the aggressor, without discrimination. In a situation like this, there are Israelis who will say "might as well go all in" -- if they're blaming us anyway, why make the effort and risk our soldiers? And Hamas, which has an interest to drag Israeli into a ground battle that will lead to more dead Palestinian civilians, welcomes the media's role in convincing Israelis that as far as public image goes, they have nothing to lose by escalation. At the end of the day, not only Israel is harmed -- the Gazans are also paying a heavy price.
Just like Israel constantly examines its own actions, reporters covering the war must take a good look in the mirror. They must not allow themselves to be the partners in crime of Hamas' murderous strategy that seeks to delegitimize Israel and perpetuate the civilian suffering in Gaza.
Dr. Michael Oren is the Abba Eban chair in international diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and is a former Israeli ambassador to the United States.