Never believe the Israeli army killed an unarmed civilian until it’s officially denied. This paraphrasing of Mark Twain’s “never believe anything until it has officially been denied,” should become a mantra for journalists operating in the Middle East.
It is a point reinforced recently by the death of a West Bank Palestinian resident, Jawaher abu Rahmah, who died from tear gas exposure during the recent demonstration against Israel’s separation wall and land annexation in the village of Bil’in.
It has become an almost predictable pattern: a Palestinian civilian is killed during a demonstration or Israeli military incursion and the evidence and witness testimony clearly demonstrates Israeli culpability. Then, military sources give farfetched and contradictory statements that become the central focus in Israeli and American media reports.
Jawaher, the 36-year-old sister of Bassem abu Rahmah – who was killed in 2009 from a high-velocity Israeli tear-gas canister fired directly at his chest – was seen by demonstrators, family members and the ambulance driver that took her to hospital, experiencing asphyxiation from a large amount of tear gas. Immediately following her death on January 1, quotes from unnamed Israeli military personnel began saturating the pro-Israel blogosphere. Statements ranging from claims that she was not at the protests and had cancer, to her being released from the hospital and later dying at home moved seamlessly from unvetted blogs to the headlines of Israeli dailies, and then into the main focus of news coverage in the American press.
Rather than make an official statement from the spokesperson’s office, the Israeli military operated behind the scenes, briefing their right-wing English language activist support base to generate a counter-narrative of Palestinian conspiracy theories. Officially, the Israeli military only stated that the death needed further investigation, yet with the groundwork laid in their online networks and aided by complete disregard of journalistic ethics, Israel’s widely read daily, Maariv, accused Palestinians of a “blood libel.”
While the type of deflection was a display of public relations in the age of new media, the substance of the Israeli military’s response was part of a well-established strategy of misinformation and victim blaming designed to obscure the reality of the situation. Rather than try and make a case of legitimacy when it’s difficult to do so, the Israeli military’s PR campaign has been one of saturating the media with so many conflicting reports, innuendos and outright lies that the public doesn’t know what to believe and the main story is lost, effectively absolving the army.
This style of weathering scrutiny has marked some of Israel’s most controversial killings: from the death of 12-year-old Muhammad al Durrha in Gaza in 2000 – who the army first accepted responsibility for shooting and then withdrew it in 2007 amid a manufactured controversy – to its defense of killing activists on the Gaza aid flotilla in May of last year. It has also underscored how Israel has avoided being held accountable in a series of highly questionable killings such as the death of two Palestinian farm boys in the village of Awarta, near the West Bank city of Nablus in March of last year.
By most testimonies from villagers, the boys were working their fields near an Israeli settlement when they were detained by the army. Moments later, shots were fired and the boys arrived at hospital, riddled with bullets in what appeared to be a straight execution. However, when it was reported, the army and settlement council had put out multiple contradicting versions of events that ultimately buried the story and any investigation.
Underscoring this PR strategy is the assumption that Israelis are always more credible than Palestinians, regardless of who they are or the facts. It is a position based on the assumption that Palestinian claims are based on unstated nefarious intentions, while Israeli positions are fact. This creates a context where the medical explanation by Jawaher abu Rahmah’s doctor is presented as propagandised hyperbole, while the baseless, self-interested claims of the Israeli military are accepted as legitimate.
While this style of military information warfare is clearly exposed and condemned in western press coverage from Honduras to the Ivory Coast, where military claims are taken with significant doubt, what is surprising is the legitimacy that the Israeli military is granted by media at home and abroad.
It is this bestowing of false legitimacy that helps make sustainable what is otherwise an unsustainable military occupation.
Jesse Rosenfeld has been a freelance journalist based in Ramallah and Tel Aviv since 2007. Joseph Dana is a journalist and human rights advocate based in Jerusalem