Shireen Abu Akleh and Israel's disinformation playbook

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5 min read
12 May, 2022
Analysis: The killing of the veteran Palestinian journalist has prompted a flood of disinformation and propaganda from the Israeli state in order to whitewash the violence of military occupation.

The killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli forces has rightfully prompted outrage from those exhausted by the continued abuses undertaken by an occupying state. 

Once again, it also has exposed much of the mainstream media’s deference to Israel’s tactics of deception and the indulgence of Israeli propaganda under the guise of professional journalism.

The killing of Abu Akleh prompted a flood of disinformation and propaganda from the Israeli state, which has sought to undermine and steer criticism of Israel by casting doubt on who was responsible for her death.  

"Time and time again, media outlets abet Israel's occupation by becoming amplifiers of information designed to whitewash Israeli violence against Palestinians"

These practices often exploit professional media standards, as well as Western media and political fears of being labelled anti-Semitic.  

Time and time again, media outlets abet Israel’s occupation by becoming amplifiers of information designed to whitewash Israeli violence against Palestinians. 

This is no accident but rather the result of a common propaganda playbook, which works as follows.

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The deception playbook 

First. Have your propaganda ready as soon as possible. When news broke of Shireen’s killing, the Israeli state narrative was already ready, muddying the waters of the event.

The Guardian and the BBC are just two examples of news outlets that emphasised the Israeli narrative, which sought to place blame on Palestinians.

The Guardian gave the Israeli narrative high priority, putting as the subheading, ‘Israel has said Shireen Abu Akleh may have been killed by Palestinian fire’. 

Second. Minimise objective or plausible reality by creating false parity and equal probability between two sets of events, despite the presence of journalist eyewitnesses who contradict this. 

Under a military occupation, where Israeli forces have killed up to 83 journalists since 1972, and where routine targeting of non-combatants, including children, is a strategy, there is a reasonable and high probability that the occupying forces are the aggressors. 

Shireen Abu Akleh
The 51-year-old journalist was a household name in the Arab world for her coverage of Palestine. [Getty]

Indeed, unless you’re flipping a coin, very few things are 50/50, but newspapers often present it in these terms. 

Reputable outlets like The New York Times ran the headline, ‘Did Israelis or Palestinians Shoot Al Jazeera Journalist?’, glossing over witness accounts and the context of an entrenched military occupation.

Third. Discredit Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett accused Palestinians of initiating the violence, a tactic designed to reduce their credibility in the eyes of the public by framing them as uncivilised, while at the same time, presenting Israeli forces as civilised. 

“Armed Palestinians shot in an inaccurate, indiscriminate and uncontrolled manner,” Bennett said. “Our forces from the IDF returned fire as accurately, carefully and responsibly as possible”. 

Note the use of language, Palestinians are ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘uncontrolled’, while Israelis are ‘careful’ and ‘responsible’. Bennett also stated the Israelis ‘returned fire’, implying Palestinians were the aggressors. 

Fourth. Insert clear falsehoods into the information space. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted a video allegedly showing Palestinian gunmen firing relatively blindly into an alley.

"The killing of Abu Akleh prompted a flood of disinformation and propaganda from the Israeli state, which has sought to undermine and steer criticism of Israel by casting doubt on who was responsible for her death"

An investigation by B’Tselem showed that this incident was not the area where Shireen was killed. The New York Times failed to call this disinformation, simply saying that Israel was suggesting militants elsewhere could have killed Abu Akleh.

What’s more, this disinformation is unlikely to be censored due to documented social media bias favouring Israel.

Five. Call for an investigation, but make sure you hold all the cards. By doing this, it gives the illusion of compassion and a regard for truth.

In reality, only a completely independent investigation would be acceptable to Palestinians. An occupying power cannot be expected to hold an independent investigation.

In other words, disingenuous calls for investigations are a means of trying to censor outrage by deferring immediate grief to a later date, when it has subsided and is less likely to be politically volatile and harmful to the Israeli state. 

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Remembering Muhammad al-Durrah

The killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, and the subsequent obfuscation of truth, are eerily reminiscent of the killing of Muhammad al-Durrah in 2000.

Al-Durrah was 12-years-old when he was shot by Israeli security forces in Gaza. However, the Israeli government changed the story. Initially, the Israeli army took responsibility, then it changed its position in 2005.

The Israeli government even commissioned a report into how the incident and the confusing response were detrimental to Israel’s global reputation

Years of investigations, including one by the IDF, have sought to exonerate the Israeli army. As a result, there are those who now believe the whole incident was a hoax, as well as those that believe he was killed by Palestinian fire. 

"Disingenuous calls for investigations are a means of trying to censor outrage by deferring immediate grief to a later date, when it has subsided and is less likely to be politically volatile"

A lesson was clearly learned by Israel. Blame Palestinians first, repeat the message, and attempt to prove it later if you want to keep the media on your side. 

The chief aim of this disinformation and deception is to muddy the waters of reality and to induce doubt.

It also allows supporters of Israel to have a ready-made narrative that they can use when confronted with uncomfortable truths about the abuses of a 55-year military occupation.

After all, a chief success of propaganda in many ways is agonising over the proximate cause of Shireen’s death, i.e. who fired the bullet.

Ultimately, though, it is the root cause - the Israeli occupation - that is responsible.

Marc Owen Jones is an Assistant Professor of Middle East Studies at HBKU and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Democracy for the Arab World Now and the Middle East Council for Global Affairs

Follow him on Twitter: @marcowenjones 

Opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of their employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.