Israeli public relations efforts to turn attention away from inconvenient realities and to distract public opinion rest in large part on promoting simplified, dumbed-down messages.
Those can be easily parroted by complicit media outlets, think tanks, pundits, as well as by some journalists who prefer the sensationalism of “Iranian mullahs”, “Hezbollah plots” and “Hamas terrorists” to the more complicated dynamics of the region and individual countries. Of course, in some situations, this is a good way to avoid an uncomfortable discussion about apartheid and occupation for fear of being labelled anti-semitic.
One clear example of such dumbed-down messages is Israeli education minister Naftali Bennett’s “Lebanon = Hezbollah” tweet after Lebanon’s parliamentary elections on May 6. “Israel will not differentiate between the sovereign State of Lebanon and Hezbollah, and will view Lebanon as responsible for any action from within its territory”, he said in the tweet.
It was Bennnett again who in mid-May said that unarmed Palestinians protesting near the border fence in Gaza should be treated as “terrorists”. By then the government he is part of had framed the Palestinians’ Great March of Return as a “Hamas ploy”.
What Israel aims to achieve by promoting this type of rhetoric is to turn both Lebanon and Gaza into legitimate targets for its aggression in any conflict that might take place in the future.
For those familiar with Israeli policies in Lebanon and the history of the conflict, this is “nothing new under the sun“. Israeli officials have made it a habit to regularly threaten the entire population of Lebanon (and not only Hezbollah) with destruction, annihilation and blowing it back to the Stone Ages.
This inflammatory language in fact describes war crimes, which Israel has committed repeatedly on Lebanese territory. In the 2006 war, the Israeli army killed 1000 civilians and the Israeli government tried to blame it solely on Hezbollah.
But as a Human Rights Watch report investigating war crimes committed during that conflict pointed out: “Responsibility for the high civilian death toll of the war in Lebanon lies squarely with Israeli policies and targeting decisions in the conduct of its military operations.”
This year, it was not only Israel who chose to read the May 6 elections from the prism of “Lebanon = Hezbollah”. International (and some Arab) media were quick to dub the electoral results an outright Hezbollah victory.
This prompted local media and analysts to respond by pointing out that “Hezbollah’s electoral domination” is a myth and a reductionist and inaccurate way of understanding what happened on May 6. There are many levels when it comes to reading the results of the Lebanese elections, and framing them as a “Lebanon = Hezbollah” outcome does not capture the complexity of what is happening in Lebanon today.
This is absolutely not to say that Hezbollah is not a powerful political and military force in Lebanon, or that the party does not pose a very serious challenge and obstacle to the emergence of a strong state. Hezbollah’s weapons also play a role in Lebanese politics, as we saw in the organisation’s May 2008 armed takeover of Beirut and also in its decision to get involved in Syria, without consulting with the government or parliament.
Indeed, one has to be very naïve to claim that Hezbollah is simply a resistance movement and that its arsenal has no bearing on internal affairs or elections (both parliamentary and presidential).
But claims that Lebanon is now “hostage” to Hezbollah (and Iran) are exaggerated. Yet they are music to the ears of Israel which promotes this line to justify whatever war crimes its army will commit in any future conflict in the name of “self-defence” and “war on terrorism”.
Similarly in Palestine, we have seen an attempt to paint the recent protests in Gaza as Hamas-led and inspired, despite the fact that the organisers come from multiple Palestinian political and civil society groups.
Israel resorts to the “Gaza = Hamas” equation in order to justify the killing of 114 unarmed protestors and the injuring thousands who were simply marching for their right to return to their home and for an end to the occupation of Palestinian lands.
This line was repeated immediately by some Western governments and media. The Washington Post, for example, published a disgraceful editorial claiming that the protests were Hamas’ way of launching a war and “an attempt to breach the border fence, in the calculation that many would be killed”.
As in the case of Hezbollah, Hamas is not an innocent actor. It has been implicated in human rights violations in Gaza and breaches to international humanitarian law during armed conflicts. However, it takes a special kind of moral and intellectual bankruptcy to deny the facts on the ground – facts that are attested to by various United Nations and rights organisations.
Indeed, the dehumanisation of Palestinians has reached such an extent that even the human right to protest inhumane and unjust political and humanitarian conditions is denied to them. As pro-Israeli commentator wrote trying to justify the use of lethal force against protestors: all Israel wants from Gaza is “peace and quiet”, but instead, its people decide to protest – as if, in 2018, protest is a crime punishable by death.
When Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s permanent representative to the United Nations, described the humanitarian outcry over Eastern Ghouta last February as “mass psychosis”, I wrote about his statement in a column for Al Jazeera, calling it an example of the “post-truth” logic.
Unsurprisingly, the White House’s deputy spokesperson Raj Shah and the US permanent representative to the UN Nikki Haley fit in perfectly, along with their Israeli allies, within such “post-truth” reasoning.
In response to the Gaza massacre and the cold-blooded shooting of Palestinians by Israeli snipers, Shah called the protest an “unfortunate propaganda attempt”, whereas Haley did not have the moral courage to face her Palestinian counterpart at the Security Council and instead walked out of the meeting room.
Indeed, “post-truth” logic can’t handle the truth. The reality of what happened in Gaza does not reflect the dumbed-down talking points we have been hearing from pro-Israeli pundits and officials on television and in the press.
The truth of the matter is that, as the UN Human Rights Commissioner put it, “this was not ‘a PR victory for Hamas’… it was a tragedy for thousands of families [and] the stark contrast in casualties on both sides is also suggestive of a wholly disproportionate response…”
Israel’s occupation and apartheid regime must end in order to reach a just peace, both for the sake of Palestinians and Israelis. This is what the Gaza protests were essentially about.
And any attempt to frame them as a declaration of war, or simply as a “Hamas ploy” or a “PR victory”, misses the point and is a clear attempt to distort reality and maintain the status quo in favour of Israel.