By Marc Owen Jones
Over the past two weeks as Israeli air strikes killed at least 243 Palestinians, including 66 children, in Gaza, Israeli officials have been at the forefront of another war: sharing misleading and deceptive content about Palestine, much of it designed to portray Palestinians as violent, dishonest and deceitful, or to legitimise Israeli brutality.
Israeli attacks on Gaza have been accompanied by endemic disinformation and misinformation. Disinformation, as distinct from misinformation, is the deliberate use of deception to mislead people. Disinformation is almost always propaganda – that is, the use of information to persuade people about a certain course of action.
Disinformation becomes necessary when it is no longer possible to provide a truthful account of matters without admitting to breaches of universally accepted codes of morality
Intent can be hard to prove, but it can be realistically deduced. In the most egregious recent incident, Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus misled numerous reputable international publications into publishing false news. The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal were among the leading publications that incorrectly reported that the Israeli military was preparing a ground invasion of Gaza.
Soon after they published this, Israeli media outlets claimed that it was a deliberate deception designed to bring Hamas out into the open for easier targeting. Of course, Conricus said it was an honest mistake. But then, he would.
As the leading spokesman for the Israeli regime, he cannot admit to news organisations that rely on him for the Israeli side of the story that he is feeding them disinformation. Despite this clear deception, news organisations are still soliciting Conricus for comments on the situation.
Other disinformation has been designed to smear Hamas as a dishonest entity that uses human shields, from behind which the group can attack Israel. The Israeli military frequently uses the argument of Hamas using human shields as a legal defence for its mass killing of Palestinian non-combatants.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman, Ofir Gendelman, recently tweeted a video that appeared to show Hamas launching rockets towards Israel from densely populated civilian areas. But the video, which was retweeted and shared hundreds of time across social media platforms, was not authentic. Indeed, the footage was from 2018, and likely filmed in Syria or Libya.
A similar, widely shared video allegedly showed Hamas moving rockets down a densely populated street, with a voiceover stating: “Once again, we see Hamas using civilians as a shield to murder Jews knowing … that Israel will not retaliate due to the risk of hurting innocent people.” The video turned out to be from 2018 in the Israeli-controlled Galilee region, and was clearly unrelated to Hamas.
Israeli propaganda has also tried to accuse Palestinians of exaggerating their own civilian casualties. As they know all too well, civilian casualties promote international support for the Palestinian struggle and highlight the brutality of the Israeli occupation.
Numerous people, including Natalia Fadeev, an Israeli military police reservist with almost one million followers, shared a video of a mock funeral that claimed Palestinians were trying to fake a funeral to elicit public sympathy. The video, which has not been removed by TikTok, was actually an unrelated satirical video created by Jordanians.
Much other disinformation is of unclear provenance, but the tropes are often the same – portraying Palestinians as violent and dishonest, in order to remove sympathy for their cause or to legitimise so-called retaliatory strikes against Gaza. One such piece of disinformation included a false message circulated on WhatsApp that claimed Palestinian mobs were about to attack Jewish residents of Tel Aviv.
Why does Israel use disinformation so liberally? Disinformation becomes necessary when it is no longer possible to provide a truthful account of matters without admitting to breaches of universally accepted codes of morality or, indeed, international law.
Given the egregious nature of the aforementioned propaganda, disinformation can seem like a bit of a euphemism: a polite term used to describe a much bitterer truth. Weaponised lying or dishonesty might be more suitable terms. Indeed, academic Michael Peters uses the phrase “government by lying” to describe the more recent mainstreaming of untruths.
This is perhaps an apt term to describe the systemic misleading of the public for the purposes of executing unpopular policy decisions, such as justifying an apartheid state, or ethnically cleansing Palestinians. Where unethical and immoral positions are indefensible, lying is deployed.
It would have been tempting to say that both sides use disinformation and deception. To make such a statement might be truthful in one way, but deceptive in another. To imply that both sides use the same amount of disinformation is to falsely imply that the force of deception is equal on both sides. This false balance and parity negates the fact that Israel, a state that attempts to portray itself as a civilising force, uses deception to further its occupation.
Indeed, disinformation is a necessary part of the ideological project to erase and displace Palestinian discourses. Israel’s deception and disinformation is fundamental to the settler-colonial project, which seeks to negate Palestine by monopolising the representation of Palestinians to the rest of the world.