Israel is waging a war on truth in Gaza

A view of a 11-story building housing AP office and other media in Gaza City is seen moments after Israeli warplanes demolished it. (Hatem Moussa-AP)

Sultan Barakat

Al-Jazeera  /  May 19, 2021

Why did Israel target buildings housing media organizations in Gaza ?

On May 15, Israeli air strikes levelled the Al-Jalaa tower, an 11-storey building that housed the offices of Al-Jazeera and the Associated Press in the Gaza Strip. Just a few days earlier, the Israeli military had also bombed the Al-Henday, Al-Jawhara and Al-Shorouk towers, which together housed more than a dozen local and international news agencies.

The towers targeted by Israel were among a handful of high rises that were built in the Gaza strip in the last 20 years to meet the local population’s commercial, social and educational needs.

Before the attacks, these towers were some of the very few locations in the blockaded enclave that enjoyed relatively uninterrupted services, in particular, electricity sourced by their own generators. As a result, they attracted hundreds of families as residents, and were hosting not only numerous media offices but also several local businesses, law firms, medical labs and civil society organizations. Also serving as a cultural and social hub, they were central to the daily lives of many Gazan youths.

As a result of the bombings, Gaza lost a key piece of its social and, perhaps most crucially, media infrastructure. Israel gave the journalists working at the Al-Jalaa tower just one hour to evacuate their offices, forcing them to abandon much of their archives and equipment to be destroyed alongside the building.

The bombing of the Al-Jalaa tower drew criticism from international organizations, rights groups and several governments, including those of Israel’s allies.

The Israeli military claimed that the tower housed Hamas military intelligence assets, and therefore constituted a legitimate target. However, as recently admitted by United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who routinely defends Israel’s actions, Tel Aviv has so far released no evidence to support these allegations. The Associated Press strongly denied that Hamas was active in the building.

However, whether or not Hamas had offices in the building, the targeting with missiles of high-rise buildings located in a dense urban centre and populated by hundreds of civilians is an indefensible violation of international law. By striking these vibrant towers, Israel once again made clear that it is determined to inflict maximum psychological damage on the strip’s besieged population.

Moreover, by targeting the offices of local and international media organizations in Gaza, it announced to the world that it is now willing to do everything necessary, including using the full force of its military, to stop journalists from reporting on its crimes against the Palestinian people.

And Israel has much reason to try and silence free media.

In recent decades, the media has become an indispensable instrument for winning wars. Victory in modern conflict is as much dependent on controlling domestic and international public opinion as it is on defeating the enemy on the battlefield.

Indeed, fact-based, on-the-ground reporting that scrutinizes narratives put forward by militaries and states has been decisive in the progression and conclusion of many recent conflicts.

During the 2004 battle for Fallujah between the US military and Iraqi insurgents, for example, media reports from the field proved crucial in exposing the devastation inflicted by US air strikes and ground operations on the civilian population of the city and ultimately caused the US military to withdraw.

“The [US] Marines in Fallujah weren’t beaten by the terrorists and insurgents, who were being eliminated effectively and accurately. They were beaten by Al-Jazeera,” wrote retired American Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters in the battle’s aftermath. Rather than admitting the media has the ability to hold powerful militaries to account, Peters claimed that Al-Jazeera and others “lied” about the situation on the ground to prevent a US victory. “The media is often referred to off-handedly as a strategic factor,” he wrote, “but we still don’t fully appreciate its fatal power.”

As the US did then, Israel today is struggling to combat the growing spread of accurate news about its assaults on civilians and violations of international law.

Thanks to the efforts of journalists in Palestine and beyond, as well as millions of Palestinians speaking their truth on social media, the real story of Palestine is finally being heard across the world. As a result, not only is global public opinion shifting in favour of Palestinians, many international institutions and organizations that had long allowed Israel to control the narratives about the conflict are feeling obligated to speak up for Palestine.

On May 17, leading rights group Amnesty International condemned Israel’s continuing assault on Gaza, saying that the Israeli military has “displayed a shocking disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians by carrying out a number of airstrikes targeting residential buildings in some cases killing entire families – including children – and causing wanton destruction to civilian property, in attacks that may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity”.

Amnesty’s damning statement came on the back of a report published by Human Rights Watch in April which asserted that Israel is perpetrating “crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution” in its treatment of Palestinians and the international community must therefore re-evaluate diplomatic relations with the state.

Today, Israel is not only trying to stop the spread of accurate information during its assault on Gaza by bombing press offices, but also through a campaign of disinformation.

For example, last week, a spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shared a video on Twitter which he claimed showed Hamas firing rockets at Israel “from populated areas”. As the BBC stated, the clip was actually filmed in Syria in 2018 and had nothing to do with Gaza. Twitter later labelled the tweet as “manipulated media”.

Beyond sharing demonstrably “fake news”, the Israeli government is also trying to manipulate the international and domestic public opinion by persistently peddling the false narrative that Hamas is the aggressor in the conflict, that its military is doing everything it can to avoid civilian “casualties”, that it is merely defending itself against “a terrorist organization”, and that the current escalation is not a direct result of its illegal occupation.

The fake videos and information disseminated by the Israeli government have already resulted in many Palestinians and Palestinian citizens of Israel being attacked by far-right Israeli mobs. These false narratives are also being used by pro-Israel governments across the world to avoid condemning the demonstrably illegal actions of their ally.

The international community must take immediate action to protect journalists in the occupied Palestinian Territories and Gaza. The important and perilous work journalists do in these conflict zones is the only way of exposing the brutality of Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza and its decades-old illegal occupation of Palestine.

But, at the same time, Israel’s ability to bomb Gaza’s “towers of truth” with impunity should not leave those who want justice for Palestine feeling hopeless. The growing pluralization and democratization of sources of information mean that Israel cannot win the battle it is waging on truth. At the end of the day, it can’t silence all of us, all the time.

Sultan Barakat is the Director of the Centre for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies at the Doha Institute and Honorary Professor of Politics at the University of York