World / November 17, 2023

Israel’s Ludicrous Propaganda Wins Over the Only Audience That Counts

Why make an effort to be credible if you’re going to be uncritically echoed by the White House and Western press?

Jeet Heer
An arm wearing a green shirt holds up a bulletproof vest with a Hamas insignia

In a video released by the Israel Defense Forces, a military spokesman holds up a vest with a Hamas insignia that he claims was found at Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City.

(Israel Defense Forces via AP)

On November 11, an Arabic-language Twitter account maintained by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted a video purporting to be a selfie by a nurse in Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza, a major battlefield in the current conflict that was taken over by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) a few days later. In the startling video, as bombs went off in the background, the tearful nurse warned Gazans to heed the call of the IDF to flee to the south. She also affirmed many IDF talking points, notably that Hamas had taken over the hospital and were stealing morphine and fuel.

The video gained millions of views—but was also widely mocked by many, particularly Arabs, who questioned its authenticity. For one thing, none of the staff in the hospital knew who this supposed nurse was. For another, she spoke in English with an accent that resembled no known Arab lilt.

As Marc Owen Jones of The Daily Beast observed, “Everything about it smacked of high school theater—from the botched accent that sounded like it was straight out of an Israeli soap opera to the perfectly scripted IDF talking points rolling off her tongue.” Jones also noted “the pristine white lab coat looking like it had just come back from the dry cleaner, the audio track of bombs falling that sounded like samples from a late-’80s Casio keyboard, and the contrived stethoscope-waving you‘d expect from an extra on Grey’s Anatomy.”

Within a day, the tweet of the video was deleted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But of course, downloaded versions continue to circulate.

Lying and propaganda are endemic to warfare. Public opinion is always as much a battlefield as actual territory. But in the case of Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza—nominally against Hamas but actually devastating to the civilian population of the besieged territory—propaganda has taken a bizarre turn. This is propaganda that barely makes any effort to convince, instead offering ludicrous arguments in implausible forms. To pay attention to Israeli propaganda in recent weeks is like watching a magic trick done by an inept conjurer who constantly lets the audience see the mirrors and wires that are supposed to create optical illusions.

As Hussein Ibish, a resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute notes, “Israel’s propaganda has always been ham-handed and ridiculous, but during this Gaza war, it has been so pathetically bad and jumped the shark so terribly that it’s going to be very difficult to restore any credibility at all with a great many people in the US and Europe.”

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A few examples will suffice. On November 5, Israel bombed a car travelling from South Lebanon to Beirut. The IDF told the press that it “struck a vehicle in Lebanese territory that was identified as a suspicious vehicle containing several terrorists.” In fact, as Human Rights Watch later established, the car was civilian, containing a grandmother, a mother, and three young girls. The mother was wounded; the grandmother and girls were killed. Human Rights Watch concluded that this was an “apparent war crime” and “the attack on a vehicle containing only fleeing civilians shows reckless disregard by the Israeli military for its obligation to distinguish between civilian and military objects and a significant failure to take adequate safeguards to prevent civilian deaths.” Israel has promised an investigation, but based on previous experience that is likely to be slow and result only in a tepid admission of error.

On November 13, the IDF released a video of spokesman Daniel Hagari touring Rantisi hospital. Hagari kept calling attention to banal objects with the suggestion that they were evidence the hospital had housed terrorist cell. At one point he pointed to a baby bottle and said, “It’s a baby bottle. It’s a baby bottle in a basement, above a World Health Organization sign.” Then Hagari pointed to a list on a wall and claimed, “This is a guardians’ list, where every terrorist writes his name and every terrorist has his own shift, guarding the people that were here.”

As those fluent in Arabic pointed out, the supposed “guardians list” was nothing more or less than a calendar with the days of the week on it. The IDF blamed the fiasco on a “translation error.”

On November 15, Middle East Monitor reported, “The Israeli army killed an elderly Palestinian after using him in a propaganda campaign promoting its ‘safe corridor’ in Gaza.” The IDF circulated a photo of the 79-year old man, Bashir Hajji, talking to IDF soldiers as proof of their careful shepherding of refugees fleeing the bombardment in the north. This photo was undermined by the fact that an Israeli sniper shot Hajji twice in the back of the head.

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Israeli officials have also falsely tried to suggest that images of Palestinian civilians being killed are fabrications and created by “Pallywood” crisis actors (Pallywood being a neologism mixing Palestinian and Hollywood). This claim is not just wrong but deeply conspiratorial—at the level of extremists like Alex Jones, who made similar claims about mass shootings in the United States. It is astonishing for a government to make such claims.

The biggest ongoing propaganda fiasco involves Al-Shifa hospital—one that deeply implicates not just the Israeli government but also the Biden administration. On October 13, the IDF released an elaborate drawing purporting to show the “the main headquarters for Hamas’ terrorist activities.” The drawing showed an extensive network of well-lighted tunnels and large rooms that resembled nothing so much as the villain’s lair in a James Bond film.

On Tuesday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said, “I can confirm for you that we have information that Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, use some hospitals in the Gaza Strip including Al Shifa, and tunnels underneath them, to conceal and to support their military operations and to hold hostages.”

Israel took control of Al Shifa hospital the next day. What they found there was underwhelming. As The Washington Post noted, on Thursday, the IDF said “that searches had uncovered the body of a captive Israeli woman in a house near the hospital, along with weapons. On Wednesday, the IDF released photographs and video of small caches of weapons it said belonged to Hamas.” That video also showed thatthe hospital had a box of dates (a well-loved fruit among Arabs) and two copies of the Quran (a book holy to hundreds of millions). From the Post:

The military added to its case Thursday with a photo and video of a rough cavity that it described as an “operational tunnel shaft.” The Washington Post verified the location of the shaft inside the Al-Shifa Hospital complex but could not verify where the opening led or what its purpose might be. Israel has yet to produce findings that corroborate its claims that Al-Shifa sits atop a Hamas headquarters and was central to the militant group’s operations in northern Gaza.

The IDF also suggested that “Hamas knew we were coming” and moved the headquarters—hence the absence of evidence for a robust Hamas presence. This is truly the territory of Donald Rumsfeld during the Iraq War, when he famously remarked that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” in relation to the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

It remains possible that a few Hamas fighters were holed up in a very large hospital with hundreds of patients. But it seems unlikely the hospital had ever been “the main headquarters” of Hamas. The IDF may yet find more evidence of a Hamas presence there; however, the original narrative seems to be a fabulation.

But then the very idea of a Hamas command center is a flight of fantasy. The military wing of Hamas is not a regular army but an insurgent force that weaves in and out of the population, moving “among the people as a fish swims in the sea,” in Mao’s famous phrase. Israel has projected onto a guerrilla army the form of a more conventional force organized by a nation state—a common mistake in counterinsurgency warfare.

Yet Joe Biden seems unfazed by the flimsiness of the evidence provided by Israel. On Wednesday, he said, “You have a circumstance where the first war crime is being committed by Hamas by having their headquarters, their military, hidden under a hospital. And that’s a fact; that’s what’s happened.” The phrase “first war crime” is suggestive, sounding as it does like the complaint of a child caught hitting a sibling arguing over who started it. Under international law, Hamas’s committing a war crime doesn’t give Israel a licence to commit other war crimes. Nor does it allow the United States to support war crimes in response to Hamas’s actions.

Asked for evidence of the command center, Biden said, “No, I can’t tell you—I won’t tell you.”

Biden also claimed that Israel was very careful in taking over Al-Shifa Hospital in comparison to its earlier actions. According to the president, “So, this is a different story than I believe was occurring before, an indiscriminate bombing.” Biden’s admission that Israel, with American support, conducted indiscriminate bombing is yet another confession of a war crime.

In the unlikely event that Biden and Netanyahu are ever brought before the Hague for crimes against humanity, Biden has provided ample evidence in his own words.

All of these mistakes should help retire the durable myth of the IDF and Mossad (the Israeli intelligence agency) as omnicompetent fighting forces. Indeed, the Hamas attack of October 7, which instigated the current round of the Israel/Palestine conflict, was itself a massive intelligence failure—one that calls into question long-standing policies by multiple governments (including the United States) to sideline the issue of Palestinian statehood.

Israel’s poor propaganda is another indication of Israeli incompetence. Yet all these failures count for little as long as Israel benefits from the soft bigotry of low expectations by its supporters, including the president of the United States.

Joe Biden is clearly willing to back whatever Israel does, including indiscriminate bombing and other war crimes. The American media is also complicit. As HuffPost has documented, CNN has a habit of airing IDF videos with false information (including the calendar fiasco). Then, when the errors are pointed out, these same videos are carefully edited to delete the falsehood when placed online, without an editorial note explaining or acknowledging what was cut. In effect, CNN is the IDF’s partner in propaganda.

But then Israel’s half-baked propaganda isn’t aimed at regular people. The American public is quickly souring on Israel’s war. As Reuters reports, only 32 percent of Americans support Israel in this conflict, down from 41 percent a month ago. The same poll shows 68 percent support for a ceasefire.

Sadly, the fact that the public isn’t buying Israel’s campaign of lies counts for little. Foreign policy is made by elites. Biden and the US Congress are still firmly behind Israel. Even if Joe Biden is the only person on earth who really believes Israel’s propaganda, that is more than enough to make it successful.

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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