The release this week of a video of three Israeli hostages by the al Qassem Brigades — the self-styled military command of Hamas — has sharpened the role of propaganda and information in the worsening Gaza conflict. One of the hostages denounces prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and his office immediately responded by denouncing the underhand information tactics of Hamas.
Propaganda in war “diminishes the love of truth,” wrote Samuel Johnson in 1758, as the Seven Years War, the first modern global conflict, was getting under way.
The employment and shaping of information in this war is of a different and new order
The employment and shaping of information in this war is of a different and new order. It has been largely underestimated. Within days it has entered the mainstream of the “culture wars” in both the UK and US. Against usual norms the culture battle of Gaza is embedded in prequels to the election campaigns in both nations for 2024.
What makes the information front so difficult now is that in Gaza and Jerusalem there is one dominant news source. There is the Hamas-controlled medical authority on one hand, and the IDF spokespeople and the prime minister’s office on the other. It is very hard to match their assertions and reports by independent, third party, sources.
From Gaza the health ministry claims that in 23 days more than 8,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli bombardment and ground fire. The IDF spokesman has said that the Shifa and al Quds hospitals are targets because they conceal Hamas underground military command centres.
Comment, conjecture, rumour and doctored news are pumped out uncritically across social media. The accent is on the word uncritically. This is matched by the raw imagery from the scenes of the October 7 outrages on the phones of some of those who escaped, and the body cameras of dead or captured terrorists.
The instant-reaction news cycle means that comment is profligate, promiscuous even.
A lot of media still manages to do its business against huge physical and psychological odds. The editors of the liberal Haaretz have just published their case for Benjamin Netanyahu to step down immediately over the crisis. The stringers and resident correspondents in Gaza still work despite ever-present threats from the air, and now the ground.
Oh, and the Independent has just reported that maverick autocrat Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus has said there should be an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine — the war is getting nowhere. He got Putin off the hook last time with the Prigozhin mutiny. Will he get him out of jail this time round and will it be in tomorrow’s headlines?
Over to you, the audience, final judge and jury in the increasingly crazy cat-and-mouse game of battles for information and truth.
Robert Fox is the Evening Standard’s defence editor