Media Disinformation and Selective Outrage are Key Pillars of Israel’s War Propaganda Arsenal

Headlines have been dominated since Saturday by the surprise Hamas attack against Israel and the Netanyahu government’s response. By Monday, Israel had formally declared war against the Islamist group and moved tens of thousands of troops toward Gaza in what looks like preparation for a full-blown ground invasion. Most controversially, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced that Israel is cutting off water, food and fuel to the Gaza strip — an area that contains about two million people, about half of whom are children — which constitutes collective punishment, a war crime prohibited under international law.

Government heads and opposition leaders alike across Western Europe and North America have been denouncing Hamas in withering terms and pledging unconditional support for Israel. The Biden administration issued a statement shortly following the attacks stating that the US “unequivocally condemns this appalling assault against Israel by Hamas terrorists from Gaza.” The statement added that the US is “ready to offer all appropriate means of support to the Government and people of Israel.”

British prime minister Rishi Sunak declared: “There are not two sides to these events. There is no question of balance. … [Hamas’] barbaric acts are acts of evil.” The Guardian had reported earlier that he has pledged “to provide diplomatic, intelligence or security support to Israel.” British Home Secretary Suella Braverman went so far as to suggest that the police should arrest people for engaging in “provocative demonstrations” that could “cause distress to UK Jewish communities.” This reportedly could include something as simple as chanting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Never to be outdone, opposition Labour leader Kier Starmer pledged his support for Netanyahu’s move to prevent food, water or fuel from entering Gaza during an interview on London’s LBC radio.

The corporate-owned media have been acting in lockstep — demanding unwavering support of Israel, denouncing Hamas in the harshest terms and, above all, viciously dismissing any attempt to engage in what some outlets term “equivalence.” Even the most modest of attempts to add balance are fiercely denounced as “terrorist apologetics.”

But not all is as it seems. Independent journalists and activists have begun investigating and fact-checking some of the claims that are being repeated in corporate-owned media. And it turns out that many of the claims made about Saturday’s surprise Hamas incursion are misleading or, in some cases, even outright false. Recent changes made to the social media platform X (formerly known as Twitter), meanwhile, have led to a tsunami-like spread of unverified footage and made it increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Undoubtedly the most damning accusation to be leveled against Hamas is the charge that some of its units that took part in the Saturday attack murdered 40 babies, some of whom were decapitated. This claim was quickly seized on by corporate media outlets as part of their outrage against Hamas. But increasing doubt began to surround the allegation as people looked for verification. Ultimately, it turned out that not even the Israeli military itself was willing to confirm the reports. Another claim that has been circling corporate media outlets and right-wing X accounts is the accusation that Hamas engaged in rape. But again, there has been no independent verification. By Wednesday at least one mainstream outlet had retracted the claim.

Some of the videos circulating on X is based on footage that is misrepresented or, in some cases, even of completely different conflicts in different countries. One video, for example, that was labeled “Hamas fires a salvo at Israel,” turned out to actually be footage of the conflict in Syria filmed three years earlier. One X user, far-right commentator and friend of Elon Musk Ian Miles Cheong, posted a video with the caption “Imagine if this was happening in our neighborhood, to your family” that purported to depict Hamas militants killing Israeli citizens. It turned out that those in the video did not belong to Hamas but rather Israel’s own law enforcement. Other footage turned out to not even be depicting real life but rather the content of a video game. Labeled on X as “NEW VIDEO : Hamas fighters shooting down Israel war helicopter in Gaza,” it turned out to be taken from the 2013 open-world tactical shooter simulation game Arma 3.

Far from representing some inventive first on the part of Israel, engaging in this kind of disinformation campaign is, in fact, a tried and trusted component of its military arsenal. And some of them come straight from the Israeli government itself. During the flair-up of violence in May 2021 sparked by the Israeli raid of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, for example, an Israeli government spokesperson posted a video on X (then Twitter) purporting to depict explosions taking place in Gaza. It turned out that the footage was actually of rockets fired from Syria or Libya three years earlier. The Israeli government sometimes even enlists student groups as part of this propaganda effort. In July 2014, Electronic Intifada reported: “Israel student union sets up “war room” to sell Gaza massacre on Facebook”

Israel apologists will naturally claim that the Palestinian side engages in media manipulation as well. Though there have been some isolated examples of this (hardly surprising given the sheer number of social media users), it should be pointed out that Palestinians don’t have anywhere near the same kinds of resources that Israel does. After all, Israel is a regional superpower and the largest cumulative recipient of US aid since the end of World War II. And it has used these resources to engage in media manipulation operations even in third countries. In February of this year, for example, France24 reported: “An Israeli firm sought to influence more than 30 elections around the world for clients by hacking, sabotage and spreading disinformation, according to an undercover media investigation published Wednesday.”

In addition to outright distortion and lies, another tactic that Israel and its media allies have been employing is what some have termed “selective outrage.” For instance, in the case of rape, even if we imagine for a moment that accusations against Hamas on this charge are true, the corporate media proceeds as if this is something entirely unique to the Palestinian side of the conflict. Sexual violence against Palestinian women on the part of Israeli security forces and prison guards, however, is well documented. Just last month reports emerged that Israeli soldiers in the occupied city of Al Khalil had forcibly stripped five women and paraded them naked before stealing their jewelry — all in front of their own children. A 2020 academic study exploring the experience of 20 female Palestinian prisoners in an Israeli jail found that all but one had “experienced some sort of unwanted verbal and nonverbal sexual comments or gestures, forced nudity, or forced touching by prison personnel.”

The most outrageous example of selective outrage, however, must be the killing of children. Again, even if we imagine for a moment that the accusations against Hamas are true, the Islamist group would be mere amateurs compared to the Israeli security forces when it comes to killing children. Israel’s record is far too extensive to list exhaustively here, but examples include ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in 2014 during which Israeli forces murdered 495 children and ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in 2008–9 during which they murdered 344 children. Israeli snipers, meanwhile, have shot dead in 2023 alone: two-year-old Mohammed al-Tamimi in June; three-year-old Muhammad Haitham al-Tamimi in June; 15-year-old Sadeel Naghniyeh in June; 14-year-old Qusai Radwan Yousef Waked in February; and 16-year-old Abdulrahman Hasan Ahmad Hardan in July. In January of this year, Israeli security forces and allied settler extremists managed to kill just under 40 Palestinian children in just one day.

To be absolutely clear, accusations against Hamas should not be automatically dismissed as Israeli disinformation. And certainly, no rape or murder on the part of Israeli forces would excuse a rape or murder by a member of Hamas. But at the same time, we must consistently stress that Israel and its minions in the corporate-owned press are adept at spreading false information against the Palestinian side and notorious for engaging in flagrant selective outrage to paint Israel as the sole victim of the conflict. As they continue to manufacture consent for what is shaping up to be an all-out war against Gaza, a heavy burden falls on independent media to call out these duplicitous actions and shameless double standards.