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13 November 2023

Is Israel’s grisly PR failing?

Denialism still lingers over the extent of the atrocities committed by Hamas on 7 October.

By Alona Ferber

In early October, mere days after Hamas’s massacre in southern Israel, a grotesque account of the atrocities circulated online. A TV report from Kfar Aza, one of the small rural communities targeted on 7 October, went viral, and with it the claim that rescue workers had found the bodies of 40 murdered babies, some beheaded. That week, British newspaper front pages splashed on the report of beheaded babies, and online, people virulently – and morbidly – debated the details of how babies had really been killed in the attack.

Unsure what to believe, I phoned an Israeli official source that week. Is it true, I asked, that Hamas beheaded babies? My contact described footage they had seen, of unthinkable violence that I won’t repeat. They told me they had seen footage, captured by Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants as they rampaged, of a beheading, but of an adult. They offered to share that footage with me. The link to the videos, with the highly distressing descriptions accompanying them, is still sitting on my phone. I have not watched it.

Not long after that call, with doubts over what precisely took place on 7 October persisting – alongside question marks over the proportionality of the military response in Gaza – the Israeli government invited journalists in Tel Aviv to view 47 minutes of raw, grisly footage of the attack. Since then, the Israeli government has shown the film – a compilation taken from Hamas bodycams and mobile phones, dash cams and phones of victims, CCTV and home security footage, and video recorded by rescue services – in screenings around the world, including London, New York and Washington. Lawmakers in Israel’s Knesset parliament have seen it. Diplomats and the press have seen it.

At these viewings, audiences have been reduced to sobs. People faint. Photographs of the audience gasping, hands held over their mouths in horror, might say as much as the footage will ever do. Journalists have dutifully put themselves through the trauma of watching and reporting on this snuff footage. Technology means that we can relive violent events, and perhaps it even creates an expectation, a demand, that we do so to prove their veracity. It is not sufficient to write about the aftermath, to interview survivors, to visit the remains of communities razed to the ground, we must travel back in time to witness the massacre itself. 

The Israeli government has even created a website with footage and descriptions of the massacre. On 8 November, the Israeli actress Gal Gadot organised a screening of the footage in LA (complete with a brawl outside between protesters), and the Israeli army denied rumours that the footage had leaked online. 

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[See also: Why hasn’t Labour’s poll lead fallen?]

And yet, even though Hamas itself broadcast its actions to the world on social media, doubts still persist over the extent of the atrocities of 7 October. Some question whether it even took place. There are conspiracy theories that the Israeli government knew of the plans in advance, and let it happen. The most famous doubter of them all, perhaps, is Roger Waters, the former Pink Floyd frontman, who has long had what you might call an unhealthy level of interest in the Jewish state. Rogers told Glenn Greenwald this week – almost one month to the day of the attack – that he still didn’t know what actually happened on 7 October. “If there are war crimes, I don’t condone them,” he said, adding that “the whole thing was thrown out of all proportion by the Israelis making up stories about beheading babies”.

There have been many open letters since the attack, but one, published in the Chronicle for Higher Education, stands out in its call for empathy, for space to mourn what happened on 7 October. The signatories protest “the shocking lack of empathy” among progressives over the murder and kidnapping of civilians in Israel, as well as the trauma of those in the diaspora at seeing the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. They protest, too, the idea that the attack might have been justified by the context of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its blockade of the Gaza Strip.

I too have felt a chill at how cold the world has seemed since 7 October, such as seeing video after video of people in Western cities ripping down posters of hostages held in Gaza. Some Israelis believe that if only the world could really see what happened, then the world would be on its side in this war – as if there are simple sides to take. “We have to show [this footage],” Israel’s former foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, told me recently. “It’s awful for Israelis to see it, but I think [the government] did the right thing in showing it to journalists or decision-makers,” she said. “The world has a tendency, a natural one, to identify with the weak, but I think that in this case… the world is making a mistake [by not sympathising with Israelis, too].”

In Hebrew, the term “hasbara” translates, roughly, to “explanation”, which refers to Israel’s public diplomacy aimed at justifying the government’s actions. In the wake of 7 October, Israel’s hasbara effort has never seemed more Sisyphean. “A month into the Israel-Hamas war,” noted BBC Verify’s Shayan Sardarizadeh on Twitter on 7 November, “not only is there no sign of the volume of misinformation being posted online slowing down, but it seems to be getting even worse.”

Of course, as Israel’s offensive continues to devastate the Gaza Strip, the horrors of 7 October don’t free Israel of its obligations under international law. And now, if there was any goodwill towards Israel in the immediate aftermath of the attack, it is evaporating in the face of gruesome footage from Gaza, of children crushed under rubble and humanitarian disaster. Yet it’s impossible to forget that there were those that didn’t believe the extent of the massacre on 7 October even before the retaliation began.

There is a responsibility to not let the world forget the atrocities, but there is a futility to Israel’s hasbara effort, to this desire to be believed in the context of such disinformation. If people aren’t convinced of the horrors of 7 October or of the innocence of victims by the footage, by the evidence from the bodies of victims, by the survivor testimonies that have already been reported and continue to be gathered, they never will be.

[See also: Humza Yousaf: what my family went through in Gaza]

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