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The Guns of Propaganda in the Israel-Palestine conflict

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Picture: AFP – People search through debris outside the site of the Ahli Arab hospital in central Gaza on October 18, 2023 in the aftermath of an overnight strike there. A blast ripped through a hospital in war-torn Gaza killing hundreds of people late on October 17, sparking global condemnation and angry protests around the Muslim world. But reporting of the Israel-Palestine conflict has been smeared with the violent red spill of propaganda, the writer says.

By Kim Heller

In times of peace as in war, words matter. Used compassionately and written on a humanity driven consciousness, they can soothe and heal. But if inked on the fountainhead of a ruthless, inhumane, and self-servicing propaganda, words can trigger violence as surely as if they were a loaded gun.

In The Art of Propaganda: How to Shape Public Opinion and Endanger Society, Deji Haastrup, an author and social philosopher, writes about the weaponisation of information in times of conflict. Haastrup writes about how, in both World War II and in the civil war in Nigeria, the spate of propaganda resulted in prolonged discord, deepened conflict and attendant human suffering.

He writes how the very same event is explained differently “mainly to suit a particular motive or agenda”. In many instances, Haastrup writes “the details of facts surrounding disputes, questions regarding what really happened, why it occurred, what led to a conflict, who did what and how the conflict evolved may only become clearer to the public many years after the fog of each war has sufficiently cleared”.

He cites how, so many years after the Nigerian civil war, “the disinformation campaign that accompanied the crisis and ground war, the struggle between facts and fiction that raged while battlefield hostilities” is still a dominant narrative. This, he says is due to the tendency to merge opinion and history, anecdote, and proof. Haastrup writes “the strong propaganda campaign that prevailed during the conflict has endured beyond the battlefield till today, long after the guns have been silenced”.

Haastrup writes extensively about the abundant opportunities in our contemporary world “to spin the facts and skew the narrative abound like never before.” He points out in his book how many political pundits are paid to engage in political deception and knowingly manipulate the facts available to the public.

He observes how today’s societies have a seemingly high tolerance for false and skewed narratives. To many people, Haastrup argues, it is as if the truth is overrated and no longer superior to lies. He writes that “The spin has gained such widespread traction and social acceptance that there is hardly a painful consequence for bending the truth. No bad outcome awaits a politician exposed as the purveyor of a big, blatant lie”.

Haastrup writes how “the single story is the forte of the propagandist”. “He sees things from just one perspective: the one that serves his manipulative agenda. It does not matter if it is based on true events or not. It makes no difference that it may be contrived. As far as propaganda is concerned, what is important is that the interpretation is skewed with a particular goal in mind.”

The reporting of the recent Israel-Palestine conflict has been smeared with the violent red spill of propaganda. Just a few days ago the BBC headquarters was sprayed with blood red paint by Palestine Action. This, in protest to what the group described as the BBC’s ‘complicity in Israel’s genocide of the Palestinian people through biased reporting’.

Both BBC and CNN have had to apologise for inaccurate news coverage on the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. Aljazeera’s Zoran Kusovac wrote in an article entitled Propaganda, deception, and fake news in the Israel-Hamas conflict that “the last thing that matters in any propaganda operation is whether there is any truth in it”.

There has been more frenzy than fact, more hysteric than historic in the reporting of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Few mainstream media have headlined how Israel may well have been in breach of international law or how the conflict is rooted in a 75-year long battle for land justice and liberation by Palestinians.

On October 13, journalist Alan MacLeod wrote an article entitled Propaganda Blitz: How mainstream media is pushing fake Palestine stories, which was published in MintPres. In it he cites how The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed entitled The Moral Duty to Destroy Hamas. MacLeod writes that by writing such, the outlet “implicitly gave Israel a free pass to carry out whatever war crimes it wished on the civilian population, whether that is using banned chemical weapons, cutting off electricity and water, or targeting ambulances or United Nations officials”.

He writes too how while “While the phrase ‘Palestinian terrorists’ could be found across the media spectrum (e.g., Fox News, New York Post, New York Times), its opposite, ‘Israeli terrorists’ was completely absent from corporate media”. “This, despite casualties on the Palestinian side outnumbering Israelis.”

MacLeod coins a very telling phrase ‘Lionising Israel, dehumanising Palestinians’. He writes about how the BBC told its readers how Israelis have been killed while people in Gaza have died – “removing any agency from its perpetrators and almost suggesting their deaths were natural”.

US media commentator, Jackson Hinkle, posted on X “The mainstream media will only ever shed tears for Israel — never for the war crimes committed against the people of Gaza”.

Propaganda has long been part of the armoury of war. Some of it is highly detectable and can easily be shot down. But some propaganda is more hidden and often more dangerous. In the ugly trade of faulty or flawed information, it is often in what is not told where the real story can be found.

One of the most violent acts of propaganda is the decontextualisation of contemporary conflict by denuding it of its historical context or ignoring this entirely. This can mislead us into seeing villains as victims and victims as villains.

In his recent thought piece in Sowetan, entitled ‘Struggle of Palestinian people has reached point of no return”, academic and activist, Dr Pedro Mzileni writes of the critical need for proper historical contextualisation of the conflict. Mzileni writes: “The Palestine struggle for self-reliance, land and independence long ago reached the point of no return. The people of Palestine did not begin to resist the Zionist settler colonial project only last week as some corporate media outlets would want us to believe. The moment Israel began to invade, dispossess, enslave, capture, kill and proletarianise the sons and daughters of Palestine, since the 20th century, that was the moment when the Palestine struggle began. The moment the settler violence of the coloniser begins, the people’s decolonial struggle for independence also begins.”

MacLeod holds a similar perspective to Mzileni, on the problematic of presenting ‘context-free violence’. He writes: “Missing from most of the reporting was the basic factual background of the attack. Few articles mentioned that Israel was built upon an existing Palestinian state, and that most of the inhabitants of Gaza are descended from refugees ethnically cleansed from southern Israel in order to make way for a Jewish state. Also left unmentioned was that Israel controls almost every aspect of Gazan’s life. This includes deciding who can enter or leave the densely populated strip and limiting the import of food, medicine, and other crucial goods. Aid groups have called Gaza “the world’s largest open-air prison”.

Israel journalist, Gideon Levy had this to say on the occupied territories, “two peoples live on the same land, one has all the rights in the world”. “The other has no rights at all. It looks like apartheid, it talks like apartheid, it is apartheid.”

Gabor Maté, a Holocaust survivor has said “In order to make this Jewish dream a reality, we had to visit a nightmare on the local population”.

Right now, another nightmare is happening. The night is dark and long.

Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.