Propaganda, lies, and the rights of civilians in war times

“The first casualty, when war comes, is the truth.” —Hiram Johnson
Several soldiers stand guard at Bab al Baladiyeh in the Old City of al Khalil/Hebron, controlling Palestinian movement.
Israeli occupation soldiers exert their power over Palestinians in the Old City of al Khalil/Hebron, controlling Palestinian movement.

When Hamas fighters began their invasion of Israeli communities near the Gaza border, horrifying accounts of massacres, rapes, and murdered babies filled the Western media.

They reported that Hamas had kidnapped German national Shani Louka from the Nova music festival—where the fighters reportedly shot and killed 260 concertgoers—stripped, raped and killed her. They spoke of babies murdered and beheaded at Kibbutz Kfar Aza. They repeated Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s claim that “women had been raped and slaughtered.”

Propaganda functions to convince us that our enemies are the worst humans imaginable. People who behead babies and commit mass rapes deserve to be eliminated—as Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant implied, when he said he was cutting off food, water and electricity to two million Gazans who were “human animals.” Or nine years ago, in the Times of Israel, when a commentator opined that genocide is not always bad—if it happens to Palestinians.

Hamas has committed war crimes in these communities, this is irrefutable. And, the Israeli propaganda machine is using these crimes to enact genocide.  

Shani Louk was seen in a video of fighters loading her onto a truck. Her mother has since received word that Louk is receiving care in a Gazan hospital—perhaps a hospital that Israel is currently bombing—for a head injury.  The account of beheaded babies was widely reported in the Western media, a story that traces back to one Israeli journalist, who spoke to a soldier who was a right-wing settler. When the Israeli military allowed Hebrew-language media to enter Kfar Aza after its guided tour for the international press, the Israeli journalists saw atrocities, including murdered babies, but no evidence of beheaded babies, and the soldiers they spoke to said they hadn’t seen beheaded babies either. Even though U.S. President Biden said he had seen the photos of these beheaded babies, a spokesperson later clarified he had not. And no one has yet verified the reports of rapes. 

The massacres in Israeli communities and at the music festival shock one’s conscience—as it should—but where was the world’s conscience during the dozens of times that pre- and post-state Israel massacred or aided in the massacre of civilians in Deir Yassin, Tantura, Kafr Qasim, Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, Jenin refugee camp, and its seven bombing operations on Gaza in the last two decades? Why are there no cries of outrage for the dead and mutilated Palestinian babies pulled from buildings destroyed by Israeli weapons of mass destruction? Within the last eight days, Israel has killed more than 700 children in Gaza.

What of Israeli soldier rapes of Palestinian women and children? (Palestinians rarely report rapes because of the stigma in their society, but almost every Palestinian knows someone it has happened to).1  What of Palestinians held in prison with no charges or trial? What of children as young as 12 taken from their families, interrogated without their parents or a lawyer present, and then held in military prison inside Israel? These violations of the Geneva Conventions do not include the daily stresses and humiliations Palestinians live under: inadequate food and water, hundreds of checkpoints that control their daily movement, soldiers urinating in water tanks, settlers threatening to kill them, soldiers and settlers calling women and girls filthy names.  

Western media repeatedly refer to Hamas as “terrorists” attacking Israeli civilians. But any psychologist in Gaza will tell you that Israeli carpet bombs and missiles are constantly terrorizing the people who live there. Palestinians in the West Bank can vividly describe the terror they experience when settlers attack their village, or soldiers conduct midnight raids in their homes for no discernible reason.

Contrast the way that Western media covers Ukrainian fighters with the way it covers Palestinian fighters. Because Hamas militants “embed” themselves in civilian areas, they are accused of using civilians as human shields. Ukrainian fighters, however, have done the same thing. In fact, Amnesty International criticized the Ukrainian army for “using some schools and hospitals as bases, firing near houses and sometimes living in residential flats.” Hamas fighters are called “barbarians” and “monsters.” But in 2022 the media breathlessly covered the brave Azov Battalion as it holed up in the Azovstal steel plant, and became the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance to the Russians in their siege of Mariupol. The media did not mention, however, that Azov Battalion members were unrepentant neo-Nazis. The omission was curious, because before the Russian invasion the BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, and Deutsche Welle had covered the battalion’s fascist roots.

In times of war, we should expect that corporate media will pass along lies from their governments. In the U.S., a Kuwaiti teenager told the Congress that Saddam Hussein’s soldiers had thrown babies out of incubators in a hospital to justify the first Gulf War. The second George Bush administration pushed the lie that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, even though U.N. weapons inspectors said it did not. When we are watching a war in progress, sometimes the truth may seem impossible to know, because we know that leaders of nations lie, but we also know that during wars, human depravity has no limits.

But here are some foundational truths that apply to the current war between Hamas and Israel: Israel signed the Geneva Conventions, which forbids killing civilians in time of war. Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him),2  Islamic law, and the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, have all forbidden the killing of civilians in wartime. The Israeli military occupation of Palestine and siege on Gaza violates the Geneva Conventions and numerous other international laws. To end the killing of Israeli and Palestinian civilians, Palestinians must be free.

  1. Including members of CPT-Palestine ↩︎
  2. Al-Bayhaqī. Al-Sunan Al-Kubrá. (Bayrūt: Dār al-Kutub al-ʻIlmīyah, 2003) 8:49 #15896. ↩︎

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