No sooner had the dust settled after that blast that killed hundreds of Palestinians at Gaza’s al-Ahli hospital on 17 October than the propaganda war began.
The Israeli media machine went into overdrive and, with the help of the compliant Western media and governments, managed quickly to cast doubt on the simplest and most likely explanation for the tragedy: that Israel bombed the hospital that it had bombed before, that it had warned people to evacuate from and that it knew large numbers of Palestinians were sheltering at. Instead, it alleged, Palestinians themselves were responsible for the disaster.
Israel being exposed as having fabricated evidence in order to support its contention that the Palestinian Islamic Jihad was responsible, its refusal to produce military logs for the time or any other concrete evidence to support its claims, didn’t seem to concern its apologists or the many pro-Israel experts willing to give weight to the friendly-fire hypothesis. Nor did it matter that Israeli politicians, military figures and civil society groups have made no secret of their desire to punish and destroy the Palestinian population of Gaza, including by destroying civilian homes and infrastructure, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant describing Palestinians as “human animals” to annihilate, supposedly centrist Israeli politicians blaming Gazan children for “bringing [death] upon themselves” or, subsequently, Israeli doctors demanding that the government escalate its bombing of Palestinian hospitals.
And even when Israel does admit to carrying out atrocities, such as the bombing of Gaza’s largest refugee camp Jabalia in late October, it is justified under the all-encompassing catchcry of “self-defence”. Israel—or rather, the image of itself it projects with the full support of mainstream media outlets—is always not only innocent of any wrongdoing, but the embattled, misunderstood victim.
This is how the Israeli propaganda machine operates: deny facts, dominate the narrative and deflect attention elsewhere. This basic formula is tried and true.
A high-profile example occurred last year following the murder of veteran Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. She was shot in the neck and killed by an Israeli sniper while reporting on an Israeli military raid on the Jenin refugee camp and wearing clothing that clearly identified her as part of the press.
Then Prime Minister Naftali Bennett claimed that Abu Akleh was killed by an errant Palestinian bullet, and state officials released a video ostensibly showing Palestinian fighters celebrating the shooting. Abu Akleh, Bennett also said, was killed amidst a tense shooting battle between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers. These claims were swiftly disproven by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.
That did not stop major media outlets from dutifully repeating the arguments of Israel and sanitising the violence behind Abu Akleh’s assassination. “Trailblazing Palestinian Journalist Dies”, read the obituary first published in the New York Times, yet again sending a clear message that, as far as the media are concerned, Palestinians are never murdered or destroyed by the Israeli state; they simply “die”, and their hospitals “explode”.
The mainstream media have perfected the erasure of Palestinians and their struggle against apartheid to a fine art. Laura Albast, writing in the New Arab, captures its essence: “Use passive voice. Omit facts. Do not make Israel the aggressor. Israeli violence is justified. Israeli sources are to be believed. Do not challenge or verify Israeli officials’ claims. Limit the use of Palestinian sources”. Shireen Abu Akleh died.
An “operational investigation” conducted by the Israeli military came to the conclusion in September last year that there was a “high possibility” Abu Akleh was “accidentally” struck by Israeli gunfire. In the final analysis, however, it deemed it impossible to “unequivocally determine the source of the gunfire”. Likewise, an investigation by the US security coordinator ruled that, although the Israeli military was most likely responsible for her death, this was “not intentional but rather the result of tragic circumstances”.
After pumping out propaganda to absolve itself of responsibility for Abu Akleh’s murder, having its lies and deliberate omissions reinforced by compliant media outlets and the Western political establishment, and holding out for the disappearance of Abu Akleh’s name from the news cycle: only then did Israel move an inch towards recognising reality.
Sometimes it does not concede even this much. Operation Cast Lead, launched by Israel in December 2008, is a case in point. It may seem mild in contrast to today’s scenes of genocidal calamity in Gaza, but at the time the brutality of Operation Cast Lead shocked the world.
For 22 days, the Israel military pummelled Gazans by air, land and sea, with a ground invasion starting on 3 January 2009. White phosphorous rained down on densely populated civilian areas, including schools and markets, in violation of international humanitarian law. More than 1,400 Palestinians, including 313 children, were killed.
Predictably, all of this was justified by Israel and its allies as self-defence against Hamas. George W. Bush, in his last days as US president, declared his opposition to “any ceasefire that leads to rocket attacks on Israel”.
Long-time shills for American imperialism such as Thomas Friedman reframed Israel’s assault on Gazans as “the latest version of the longest-running play in the modern Middle East”, one which ought to be entitled: “‘Who owns this hotel? Can the Jews have a room? And shouldn’t we blow up the bar and replace it with a mosque?’”
The scale of Israel’s barbarism was, however, too great for these diversionary tactics and barely masked Islamophobia to wash away any criticism of Operation Cast Lead—even from Israeli soldiers.
A now famous compilation of testimony from Israeli soldiers who had participated in the 2008-9 operation, produced by the organisation Breaking the Silence, captured in stark terms the atmosphere of feverish, unhinged blood lust fostered within the Israeli military. “The hatred and the joy of killing ... [with] nothing to hold you back”, is how one soldier put it.
What the Breaking the Silence report conveyed in anecdotal terms was subsequently analysed in forensic detail in the Goldstone Report. This refers to the outcome of a “fact-finding mission” commissioned in April 2009 by the United Nations Human Rights Council, with the South African Judge Richard Goldstone at its helm.
The mission’s premise was far from radical. It did not call into question Israel’s right to subject the population of Gaza to 22 days of terror on the grounds of supposed self-defence; it merely sought to question its limits within the bounds of the international laws of war. It was led, as the Guardian noted, by “a Jewish Zionist judge with impeccable international credentials”, hardly a detached observer.
Nevertheless, Israel refused to cooperate. It blocked UN investigators’ entry into Israel and the Occupied Territories. It denounced the mission as one-sided and unfair. The only reasonable explanation for this, as Richard Falk, writing in the Electronic Intifada, argues, is that Israel “had nothing to tell that could hope to overcome the overwhelming evidence against it”.
And the evidence was indeed overwhelming. Over more than 574 pages, the Goldstone Report documents severe war crimes and breaches of international law, including the deliberate targeting of civilians, use of disproportionate force and deprivation of liberty. Just to list a few, Israel carried out “attacks on houses in the al-Samouni neighbourhood south of Gaza City, including the shelling of a house in which Palestinian civilians had been forced to assemble by the Israeli armed forces,” and engaged in “the shooting of civilians while they were trying to leave their homes to walk to a safer place, waving white flags and, in some of the cases, following an injunction from the Israeli forces to do so” and the “shelling with high explosive and white phosphorus munitions” of a United Nations relief centre “[offering] shelter to between 600 and 700 civilians and [containing] a huge fuel depot”.
The Goldstone Report could only conclude that “what occurred in just over three weeks at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 was a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity to both work and provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever-increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability”.
Israel responded to these findings, published in September 2009, with outright contempt or deflection. Israel’s then President Shimon Peres derided the report as a “mockery of history” that “fails to distinguish the aggressor and a state exercising the right of self defence”. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau called it “a kangaroo court against Israel, whose consequences harm the struggle of democratic countries against terror”.
For its part, the US used its veto power in the UN Security Council to block any attempt by UN parties to discuss Goldstone’s findings—let alone to censure Israel for its wanton destruction of Palestinian lives and livelihoods in Operation Cast Lead.
But even this total impunity was not enough for Israel. On top of condemning or attempting to undermine the legitimacy of its findings, Israeli political forces and their supporters unleashed a vilification campaign targeting Goldstone himself, with the goal of coercing him into disavowing the report he had painstakingly prepared. And it worked.
“If I had known then what I know now”, Goldstone wrote in April 2011 in the Washington Post, “the Goldstone Report would have been different”. He chose to renege, in particular, on the finding that the Israeli government also happened to find the most intolerable: that the Israeli military deliberately targeted civilians. Jubilation and vindication subsequently swept across the Israeli political establishment, with Netanyahu seeing in Goldstone’s trajectory impetus for the UN to “toss [his] report into the trash can of history”.
Time and time again, Israel and its supporters across the media and halls of power distort, deny, lie in the hope, or more accurately the well-founded expectation, of burying their crimes of apartheid and genocide. The only “truth” Israel can countenance is one in which its expansionist, genocidal project is never called into question.
Against this manufactured “truth” stands the memory of Palestinians and the increasing numbers of people around the world who stand with them in demanding justice. As the US historian Howard Zinn wrote, “The memory of oppressed people is one thing that cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface”.
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