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Israel's image torn to shreds by the sound of PR silence

ASHDOD is a city used to drama. The blaring roar of sirens warning of incoming rockets from Gaza is a familiar sound to its inhabitants.

So when from high on Yona Hill overlooking the port of Ashdod the gathered media watched as the Israeli navy escorted the ill-fated Gaza-bound flotilla of ships into the harbour, few of the locals were overly excited.

Defence against terrorism is a fact of life in this southern Israeli city.

When the assortment of self-styled 'peaceniks' were led from the vessels, with the port closed off for security, a smattering of pro-Israel Jews and pro-Palestinian protesters tried to shout each other down from afar but soon dispersed.

The only change to the vibrant city as you walk along its wide boulevards lined with gleaming white Mediterranean-style apartments, stroll in its many parks and walk down along its marina is the prevalence of Israeli flags emblazoned in Hebrew with "Way to go IDF" in support for its army's action onboard the Mavi Marmara.

"My immediate reaction was that the IDF made a big mistake," said Ashdod resident Oren Rudnik.

"They should have released the movies and pictures immediately to show the world what really happened on board the vessel. It took them so long to release the video where you can clearly see the Israeli soldiers being hit with lead pipes that the world already had made up its mind."

Mr Rudnik is a relatively typical Israeli male. He served in the army and now works in the country's rapidly growing hi-tech sector. Like most of his fellow countrymen he believes "the operation was the right thing to do".


"What most upset me is the Palestinians or Arabs spinning what happened," he said.

"They are telling the world that we carried out a 'massacre'. But you can clearly see how the soldiers were lynched and jumped on the moment they landed on the ship."

While arguments rage about the planning behind the operation and alternative methods that could have been deployed, few disagree about the soldiers' actions. However, it is Israel's failure in the public relations battle that constantly tops the debate here.

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While the drama was unfolding, a live broadcast of the event was being broadcast from the ships and aired on the Al Jazeera network accompanied with the voices of Hamas spokespeople repeatedly condemning Israel. While the activists were carrying out a lynch job not only on the IDF but the world's media, citizens here believe Israel fell silent.

"Every time I look at the foreign media I'm getting upset," said Mr Rudnik. "There is no perspective in the coverage. Most of the time what you are seeing on the news is wrong and I am not saying that because I am an Israeli. The biggest problem is we don't know how to show things to the world. Our biggest problem is our own public relations."

Commentators highlight the fact it took Israel more than six hours after the incident started to release an official response.

"There are plenty of situations when we as a nation are apart but this incident has us very united. I've talked to my work colleagues and friends and we all feel the same.

"From an army point of view we should do the same if another ship attempts to enter Gaza," Mr Rudnik said.

Walking the streets of Ashdod, it is startling to think this is the site of the tomb of the sea-faring prophet Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale.

But as life here returns to normal, it appears its inhabitants are not intent on letting the prospect of their small country being devoured by world opinion change their army's stance when it comes to protecting them from the ever looming threat of Hamas and Gaza.

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