The following Op-Ed was originally published in the Jerusalem Post on April 21, 2008.
Almost simultaneously in early April, separate news stories underscored Israel's public opinion quandary. A new BBC poll of more than 17,000 people in 34 countries reported only Iran ranked worse than the Jewish state in having a "mainly negative influence in the world." North Korea, Pakistan and China rated more favorably.
Another report told of conflicting public relations endeavors by Israeli governmental departments; the tourism ministry argued for its campaign to disseminate positive images via YouTube to attract visitors, while the Foreign Ministry contended graphic photos of the terrorist attack on Merkaz Harav had to be displayed to communicate what Israel endures.
At the same time, a new UN World Health Organization report entered the information stream, harshly condemning Israel for allegedly inhumane conduct toward Gazan Palestinians - the very kind of ostensibly objective study by an international body that has incrementally helped undermine Israel's global reputation.
The 54-page document is familiar fare from the UN in its lack of neutrality and fairness, its disregard for Israeli concerns and scapegoating of that country for difficulties Palestinians themselves have plainly caused. An introduction entitled "Collective Punishment of the Weakest" by Ambrogio Manenti, head of the WHO's Gaza and West Bank office, enumerates factors relating to Palestinian difficulties gaining admission to Israeli hospital care. It omits completely the ongoing rocket attacks and terrorist assaults on crossing points by Gazans that kill and maim Israeli civilians and necessitate Israeli countermeasures, including close monitoring of the entry of Palestinians - even those in ambulances.
(Nor, obviously, is there any hint of irony in the WHO's excoriating Israel for not doing a better job in caring for the medical needs of a people whose leaders are sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state.)
WHAT IS notable about the WHO story in the context of Israel's struggle to communicate the facts about its actions, is that media coverage of the UN report greatly benefitted from swift and effective response by Israeli officials. The New York Times, for example, noted in its second paragraph that "Israeli officials rejected the [WHO] findings on Wednesday. They said that the people who had compiled the report had never asked them about the cases, that Israeli officials had no records of entry permits being sought in some of the cases and that details of other cases were inaccurate."
Col. Nir Press, commander of the Israel Defense Forces' Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration, was heavily quoted debunking the report. The Times, Associated Press, Chicago Tribune and others cited various of his statements. He responded specifically to a WHO claim that Israeli delays had caused the death of a critically ill boy. Disputing the charges, Press said Israel approved an application for the patient's transfer to an Israeli hospital the same day it was received, but that delay ensued at the behest of a Palestinian doctor seeking to stabilize the boy's condition before moving him.
Many of the news stories also included Press's reminder that delays in admitting Palestinian patients are unavoidable for security reasons. The Tribune reported: "Press said in May 2007 two Gaza women who received permits to travel for treatment were discovered under interrogation to have been sent to carry out suicide bombings. In June 2005 a woman allowed into Israel for medical care was discovered in a border security check to be wearing explosives." Elsewhere, Press was quoted saying: "They [Hamas] use humanitarian needs to attack us. We have to check every request."
Much more can and should be said about the shoddy, indefensible WHO report. (A haphazard chronology for one patient is suggestive of the careless attention to accuracy. A woman is said - in the study dated April 2008 - to have died on November 11, 2008 after a fall on September 24, 2007 for which she sought treatment on September 6, 2007.)
But Press's rejoinders and their reverberation in the media's coverage of yet another distorted attack on Israel are a reminder that nothing in the war of ideas and images takes the place of the all-important work of refuting defamation. One day perhaps journalists will interject a caveat whenever writing about a UN study on Israel cautioning readers that the contents are very likely propagandistic and unreliable. Meanwhile, Israeli officials should follow Press's example and respond rapidly and in detail to false, poisonous claims against the Jewish state from any source.
The writer is Executive Director of CAMERA, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.