North Africa, West Asia

'Hasbara': an exercise in the impossible

Israel has constructed a systematic policy of propaganda, 'hasbara', that depends on its citizens - the extension and 'mouthpiece' of the state - to act as its voice. But this rationalisation of Israeli policy rests on shaky foundations.

Tanzil Chowdhury
29 August 2014
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Israeli warplanes pound Gaza. Demotix/Mahmoud Essa. All rights reserved.

“The explanation” is a calculated translation of the Hebrew term ‘hasbara’, that describes the systematic policy of propaganda that bleeds throughout Israeli society. To rationalise its every action and inaction, even its citizens, when travelling abroad, are encouraged to act as mouthpieces of the state. The hasbara machine is most dynamic in the crescendos of the illegal occupation and blockade such as we have seen unravelling before us over the last month. But it moves beyond mere silencing tactics, equating criticism of it’s government with anti-Semitism or exceptionalising suffering.  It is not enough however, to say that Hasbara manipulates the truth to manufacture consent. A recent article in the Independent, ‘The Secret report that helps Israel hides facts’, is both revealing and indicting. Whilst it still remains that Israeli spokespersons have not been taken to task on this document, the following statements, by no means exhaustive but familiar to many, canonise and characterise the reasoning of statesmen, military personnel and impassioned advocates.   

“Israel has a right to defend itself”

Derived from its democratic mandate that the government has (and by extension the army) an obligation to defend its citizens, this is perhaps the most regurgitated of the hasbara mantra. It’s undoing, however, is that the very same argument can be extended to the democratically elected Hamas government in Gaza. Failure to accept this argument is a failure to accept the virtue of democracy. What is perhaps most startling about this claim is not only that it undermines the right, recognised under international law, for occupied peoples to resist, but for Israeli PR, it toys with people’s ignorance, advocating the idea of ‘self-defence’ and an association with being the weaker party.

“Hamas is indiscriminately firing rockets into Israel”

And as a result, it is deliberately targeting civilians and causing their deaths. The current death toll, in which Palestinians outnumber Israelis circa twenty to one, would illustrate a different story. At a conservative estimate, 70 percent of the deaths in the Gaza Strip are civilians. Of the 50 Israelis, the heavy majority are combatants. Based on these figures, it would suggest something very much to the contrary, that in actual fact, Israel’s military execution is indiscriminate. This embodies one of the great successes of the Hasbara program, establishing rocket attacks causa prima, that seek to rationalise much of its disproportionate conduct.

“Hamas is bent on escalation and uses human shields”

Channel 4 recently conducted a fact check on the claims that Hamas uses human shields and hides its missiles in civilian buildings. It concludes that claims that Hamas coerces its citizens as human shields are entirely misleading; many simply decide to either stay in their homes (indicative of the Palestinian ‘sumud’, regardless of warnings from the IDF, or are simply not given enough warning, with others believing that staying indoors is safer). The report also cites that some claims of weapons being stored near civilian facilities may be true but accepts that, dense as the Gaza strip is, it is also inevitable. But perhaps more explanatorily illuminating are the inferences of the Channel 4 report; it entertains a well-known debate amongst public international lawyers on the law of force and ‘asymmetric warfare’.

International law, perhaps wrongly, assumes a liberal idea of sameness, entirely decontextualized, entirely de-situated, entirely de-historicised, of the legal parties to a conflict, maintaining that they must adhere to the same standards despite huge disparities in their respective abilities to fight conventional wars. Think of these rules as thresholds rather than laws. Certainly, this is a potential slippery slope, but Hamas not only have to fight a ‘war‘, they have to do so under the assumption that it has the military urbanity of a properly formed state. We can perhaps ‘forgive’ a government of a state that does not legally exist, given that Israel, one of the most powerful armies in the world, the largest recipient of US aid and a regional nuclear hegemon, ‘struggles’ with maintaining such legal integrity. Let us not forget that the Zionist militias, Irgun, Haganah and Stern Gang - the same groups that killed British officers in the King David Hotel bombing, that would later integrate into the IDF, employed similar tactics. And although the IDF’s ‘Neighbour Procedure’which used Palestinian civilians as human shields, was banned by the Supreme Court in 2005, this was a deeply contested decision by executive ministers.

“Hamas want to see the evaporation of the Israeli state”

Such reasoning from the hasbara tool kit locks its victim into a circle, forever frustrated, supplanted covertly by that inexorable and inescapable axiom that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. Despite the democratic aspirations of the Palestinians being realised in 2006, Hamas’ democratic legitimacy has been undermined by the ‘single most democratic state in the Middle East.’ How Israel can expect anything near its recognition when it refuses to recognise the democratic will of the people it illegally occupies, is beyond belief. Accompanying this paradoxical logic, is an exercise in hyperbole, presupposed by some sense of parity between Israel and its foe, embedded in a narrative in which it is in a perpetual state of existential crisis.

“Hamas rejected the Ceasefire”

Fair ceasefires are often the fruits of an even war. The recent ceasefire rejections stipulated nothing about the crippling Israeli blockade (referred to as ‘collective punishment’ by avowed Zionist, Judge Richard Goldstone) or opening up the crossings in Rafah to allow essential food, medical and building supplies in. Indeed, in 2008, the Egyptian-brokered ‘tahdia’ ceasefire was violated when Israel failed to comply with the conditions of easing the (illegal) blockade. The truth is, Hamas, as a crucial party to the negotiations, was ignored by both the governments of Egypt and Israel.  But, as with everything that dictates this affair, Israel’s occupation and blockade, is conveniently evaded. Instead, it is justified as a security measure to prevent further attacks.

“The real crisis is in Syria and Iraq”

The Arab Awakening has provided ample ammunition for hasbara’s ‘deflection strategy’. Mitchell Barak, former adviser to Shimon Peres, speaking on Al-Jazeera’s Inside Story, provided a masterclass demonstration that has characterised this approach on both a macro and micro-level; indeed, a short chat with any national or student Palestine advocacy group will tell you that they are often met with similar rebuttals. Another brief, but by no means insignificant point, is that Israel’s Islamaphobic rhetoric homogenizes Islamic political thought, suggesting Hamas, Hezbollah and Isis are in the same boat. 

“If there have been war crimes, we’ll investigate it”

Words of commendation, a partial (though hollow) admission of guilt, a determination to reflect, introspect, potentially own up to mistakes, can absolve even the most oppressive and domineering of us. Herein lies another facet of the hasbara strategy; rhetoric and tokenism. It humanises the Israeli narrative, infusing it with humility and re-enforcing its claim as the most ‘moral army in the world’. Making concessions (particularly ones that will most likely not be pursued) is infinitely effective in manufacturing consent. But Israel’s latest rejection of an independent UNHRC inquiry into violations in the latest Gaza invasion is more representative of their intentions.

Contingency plan: Hamas is a terrorist organisation 

Much is said about Hamas’ outdated charter, one which has been contradicted and rejected by its own leaders. The reality is that it exists as merely a relic, one which few Gazans pay little attention to; but one which creates alarm and panic from a party whose threat is embellished. But If we really want to talk about charters that are currently threatening a just peace, pay a visit to the charters of Likud and Yesh Atid, the two largest parties in the Knesset, which both support the settlement of ‘Judea and Samaria.’ 

We may say that, amongst other things, hasbara is characterised by a few manoeuvres and methods; trying to create a sense of symmetry in the conflict (what we may call ‘mirroring’), diverting attention away from its own war crimes by incorporating other suffering (‘deflection’) and imbuing its own policy with unsubstantiated and populist humility (‘tokenism’).

Extracting all the politics from this, taken purely on the empirical data, the death tolls, casualties, the representation of women and children in these figures, and the respective military capabilities of the sides (Palestine has no army, aviation or naval force), at the very least, one must come to the conclusion that this is not  a ‘battle of equals.’ It is by some Herculean effort, that Israel is able to preach to the unconverted that, in the face of insurmountable evidence to the contrary, that there is a level playing field in this ‘conflict’. They may even convince you that this is a ‘war.’


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