The New Arab / February 13, 2023
Last year was the deadliest in decades for Palestinians. Since the start of 2023, 43 have already been killed by Israeli forces. But Israel continues to evade accountability by claiming that the majority were ‘terrorists’, writes Ben White.
In the first month of 2023, Israeli occupation forces killed 35 Palestinians, after a year in which the number killed within the West Bank was the highest in two decades (2023’s total is now over 40).
In 2022, the majority of those killed were unarmed, shot while confronting soldiers invading their towns and refugee camps. Many were also killed while using firearms against those same forces.
The number of Palestinians killed in January was striking – and horrifying, given what it could potentially augur for the rest of this year.
Israeli authorities and their auxiliaries, particularly those working on diplomacy and public advocacy, faced a challenge last year with respect to the huge number of Palestinians killed in the West Bank. The simplest, time-tested approach was to claim that any Palestinian killed was a ‘terrorist’.
”For the Israeli military and its online advocates, there are no qualms whatsoever – whether ethical, or in terms of International Humanitarian Law – about the fact a Palestinian child can throw stones or Molotov cocktails at soldiers invading his camp and then be shot in the head as a ‘terrorist’.”
This is effectively a parallel to the Israeli military’s own approach to open-fire regulations and internal accountability – which are criminally lax and non-existent respectively.
A Palestinian killed by the army is deemed ‘guilty’ by the very fact they have been killed by the army. This circular reasoning is reflected in the military’s laconic statements and the impunity granted to the shooter (in any circumstances), as well as in Israel advocates’ assertion that ‘only terrorists’ are targeted.
Such disinformation is likely to only get more commonplace, should the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces continue to rise.
Last December, Israeli ambassador Tzipi Hotovely claimed, without any evidence, in an interview on Channel 4 News that 95% of Palestinians killed during 2022 were “terrorists”.
In recent days, meanwhile, pro-Israel social media channels have been pushing a line that almost all of the 35 Palestinians killed this past January were “terrorists”.
The latter claim was promoted by Peter Lerner, a former Israeli military spokesperson who continues to defend the indefensible even after he is no longer paid to do so.
On 3 February, Lerner shared on Twitter what he called an “important breakdown of Palestinians killed” by the army during January, adding “they were mostly terrorists”.
The ‘breakdown’ in question was provided by ‘Abu Ali Express’, a multi-platform social media account and website which has a significant following in particular on Telegram. According to Abu Ali Express, 31 of the Palestinians killed in January were ‘terrorists’.
Abu Ali Express is run by an Israeli called Gilad Cohen, who was revealed by Haaretz in August 2021 – when his name was actually banned from publication by the military censor – to have been employed by the Israeli army “as a consultant for psychological operations on social media”.
Cohen was a former junior officer in the military’s Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, and was “hired as a psyops consultant” when the March of Return protests began in the Gaza Strip. In February 2022, his contract was said to have been terminated.
The ‘breakdown’ of Palestinian fatalities was widely shared – either via Abu Ali Express tweets or quote tweets like Lerner’s – amongst Israel advocates, including by media lobby group CAMERA UK.
The analysis of the fatalities is based on amateurish research and – in the case of Ahmed Kahla, for example – debunked versions of events initially circulated by the Israeli army.
Primarily, however, the claim that most Palestinians killed were ‘terrorists’ is based on the alleged factional affiliation of, or factional support expressed by, those killed.
This is an approach to an occupation army’s use of lethal violence at absolute odds with basic standards of international law and human rights, and completely unconnected to the circumstances in which a person is killed.
It is also a deeply disingenuous approach to take, given the role of Palestinian factions in politics and society. It is reminiscent of the modus operandi of Israeli military intelligence-linked outfit Meir Amit, for whom mere or reported support for political parties is ‘terrorism’ (including Fatah).
When you look at the circumstances in which Palestinians were killed in January, it is deeply disturbing to see victims of an occupation army’s lethal violence labelled as expendable ‘terrorists’.
For the Israeli military and its online advocates, there are no qualms whatsoever – whether ethical, or in terms of International Humanitarian Law – about the fact a Palestinian child can throw stones or Molotov cocktails at soldiers invading his camp and then be shot in the head as a ‘terrorist’.
Indeed, according to Israeli authorities’ own data, the statistically most typical ‘terrorist attack’ recorded as such is someone throwing a Molotov cocktail in territory held under military occupation.
Such disinformation campaigns will likely accompany any continuation, let alone further intensification, of Israeli military raids in Palestinian communities across the West Bank.
When Israel calls human rights organizations ‘terrorists’, it is to delegitimize their work, isolate them, and justify the targeting of their staff and assets. When Israel calls Palestinian initiatives in the United Nations “diplomatic terrorism”, it is to thwart modest efforts at accountability.
And when Israel and its friends call Palestinians shot dead in towns and refugee camps across the West Bank “terrorists”, it is to shield from scrutiny the actions of an occupation army and ultimately, to de-humanize the occupied to the extent that they can be killed without compunction.
Ben White is a writer, analyst, and author of four books, including Cracks in the Wall: Beyond Apartheid in Palestine/Israel