The event that began with the Hamas attack on Israel was narrated in Western mass media and mainstream politics as shocking the world by the unexpected nature and the raw brutality of it. A gory bolt from the blue, so to speak. This commentary takes a preliminary look at the propaganda value of the various interpretations and representations of this war, its intent and desired outcomes. Therefore, the focus is not on creating grounds for moral or ethical judgements or deliberations, but rather on offering some foundations for understanding the purpose and intent of propaganda in the on-going Gaza War.
Brian Anse Patrick (2012) published the book The Ten Commandments of Propaganda. Those commandments include: control the flow of information; reflect values and beliefs of the audience; disambiguate; use group pressure to horizontally shape beliefs and behaviour; cognitively penetrate and stick; distance the propaganda from its source; accommodate informational needs and habits; address psychological, spiritual and social needs; personalise and dehumanise as appropriate; dispense truth, facts, logic and science; demonstrate good ethics (and don’t get caught). The aim of propaganda, particularly in the context of armed conflict, is to use the information realm as a means to dominate the cognitive realm of the audience(s) and, by doing so, gain tangible physical advantages and intangible psychological advantages over a target or opponent in the physical realm.
Binary realities are constructed in order to prevent the rise of any viable moderate or alternative viewpoints from gaining currency relative to the ones being offered. Moderate and centrist voices are then presented as being the new form of radical extremism. The intended result is to oblige and force the audience to choose from one of two hardline positions where one is less desirable than the other. In this situation, the process is psychologically moderated through the use of cardstacking, bandwagoning and other propaganda tactics that are intended to herd the audience into making the ‘correct’ choice. This is in no small part owing to the role and influence of politics.
The frequently quoted saying that war is politics by other means is often attributed to Clausewitz. It was, however, also used by Sun Tsu and Machiavelli before him. War is a form of crisis, an extraordinary event that requires the façade of ethics and a sense of being just. This is then used to prime and mobilise audiences through an emotionally resonant and projected sense of moral imperative designed to engineer public perception and consent amid the chaotic information flows that accompany and encompass the physical crisis.
War Background: A Descriptive War Without Context
There was little to no context given by Western politicians and mainstream media to the Hamas attack on Israel on the 7th of October 2023. This lack of analysis and abundance of description in the mainstream news serves to establish a narrative of a deliberate and unprovoked attack. The attack was certainly deliberate; however, the lack of the various background circumstances, including domestic, regional and international contexts, constitute lies of omission that, in turn, establishes an informational and cognitive environment that enables the commandments of propaganda outlined by Patrick (2012). What are these omissions, and how they have contributed to the conflict in terms of their contextual influence?
In terms of domestic weaknesses and threats faced by Netanyahu and his government, there are at least two points to be considered before this war began, where a war would be a welcome distraction. Benjamin Netanyahu was under tremendous political and legal pressure before the war. He was under criminal investigation, and his popularity in the polls was sagging. In short, his continued leadership was under threat. Furthermore, the Israeli forcible dispossession of Palestinian homes was beginning to attract increasingly negative scrutiny from some international mass media, which may have started to present obstacles to this policy. Historically, ‘well-timed’ wars have, on occasion, saved an incumbent political leader from losing an election, such as is arguably the case with respect to the Falklands War in 1982 for UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the 9/11 attacks for US President George W. Bush.
There were also some strengths and opportunities in the wider region and internationally, which were working in Israel’s favour and against Hamas’ (and the Palestinian peoples’) interests. One of these was the gradual normalisation of relations (at the state-state level) of Middle Eastern countries with Israel which was assisted and pushed by the US. As a result, this had increasingly diminished the urgency of the Palestinian question from the regional and international political agenda. The current war between Israel and Hamas has, however, put the question back on the agenda and derailed the attempt to normalise regional relations with Israel. Hence, the political motivations for war are apparent in this context, not to mention the basic fact that there has been a perpetual state of conflict for decades that is not considered, in the asymmetric struggle between Israel and the Palestinian people. The war did not suddenly and violently begin on 7 October 2023. As such, an attempt to put the plight of Palestinians and sympathy for them back on the regional agenda in the Middle East was a high priority for Hamas based on the politics of conflict that had at that stage begun to swing in Israel’s favour.
One War as a Moral Vice and a Moral Virtue
Propaganda attempts to engineer public perception in order to manufacture their consent for something that goes fundamentally against interests and the human spirit (moral/ethical dimensions). Therefore, it must resonate with audiences by emotionally priming and mobilising them via an overly simplistic representation of the armed conflict. Conflation is a seemingly particularly favoured instrument of this armed conflict, which serves several of the ‘commandments’ of propaganda. For example, conflation of Palestinian people with Hamas in order to demonise the opponent and to try and excuse the disproportionate military response. Another conflation is to link criticism of Zionism and/or the Israeli government with anti-Semitism, the intent of which is to prevent or demonise potential critics of Israel’s actions in Gaza. This is supported by using lawfare as a weaponisation of the system of law and justice as a means of cardstacking, such as France’s banning of Palestinian flags and the proposal before the French senate to impose two years in jail and a 75,000 Euro fine for ‘insulting’ Israel. This policy would render the EU’s current slogans of ‘democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights’ meaningless and create a potential revision towards ‘totalitarianism in the name of democracy, subjective application of the law, and abandoning selective human rights in the name of tolerance.’
The various laws of war propaganda are seen in the lack of diplomacy by Western political leaders and mass media, which amplifies the calls to escalate a ‘virtuous’ war against a ‘barbaric’ other, where breaches of humanitarian law, rules of war and crimes against humanity are either ignored or ‘justified’ with the stated goal of eliminating the idea embodied in Hamas through the application of collective punishment. In other words, creating even worse conditions than those that gave birth to Hamas in the first place. Netanyahu’s recent references to religious prophecies helps to create a ‘holy war’ façade of emotionally-based legitimacy against the Palestinian people and Hamas collectively.
The right to self-defence is the lynchpin of the Israeli narrative, although this is also part and parcel of the Hamas line, the right to defend the Palestinian people. Of course, there are few that deny a people or a state has the right to self-defence. The question comes in the shape and substance of the proportionality of any action, or lack thereof. Consequently, the bombings of hospitals, mosques, refugee camps and civilian areas is considered, beyond the realm of mainstream Western politics and media, to be illegitimate or disproportionate by an increasing proportion of the world who see hypocrisy and double standards along with with a clear demonstration that not all wars nor all people are considered or treated as equal. The net result is an increasingly observable failure of Israeli propaganda to justify their military actions and to win the hearts and minds of the Global South. The situation created is where the ‘civilised’ garden as envisaged by Borrell’s calls for more war and no ceasefire, and the ‘uncivilised’ jungle more forcefully calls for a humanitarian ceasefire and enforcement of international law.
Worthy Victims and Unworthy Victims
Israel was seemingly caught off-guard on 7 October, despite the various warning signs, such as those from Egypt. Shock and overreaction followed, and along with it a very bloody overreaction on the physical battlefield and an attempt to demonise the enemy with the traditional war atrocity propaganda that has shaped the audience spirit to fight a war for a ‘just’ and ‘civilised’ cause. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky devised a category of victims in war: worthy and unworthy victims. Worthy victims were considered those friendly and aligned with US interests, and unworthy victims are those who suffer at the hands of the US and its allies.
The murder of all civilians, regardless of their identity and origins, is a reprehensible act. In Western mainstream politics and media though, there is a clear delineation between ‘worthy’ Israeli victims and ‘unworthy’ Palestinian victims of this armed conflict. Israeli civilian deaths are (rightly) condemned as being brutal and unjust, however, the same does not apply to Palestinian victims (killed, wounded and displaced). Israeli and Western politicians have demonised Palestinians as being subhuman, animals, collectively guilty and unworthy of acts of mercy. The history of such propaganda strategies historically provides numerous examples of how this categorisation is intended to serve as propaganda support for the military action being taken.
However, Israel is not a politically united country in this conflict, where there are signs of dissent and discontent with the path taken by the Netanyahu government. There are numerous videos appearing on social media that show the repression of anti-Zionist elements, whilst some Jewish settlers are leaving Israel as they believe their insecurity has been increased with the military actions taken. Furthermore, there are those Israelis that criticise and debunk the official government narratives on the origin and prosecution of the war.
Actions and Words: Differing Modes of Propaganda
Finally, the Gaza War demonstrates different modes of propaganda as the information war runs simultaneously and parallel to the physical war. Specifically, both sides seem to have relied upon actions in order to propagandise but at different stages. For example, Israel exploited Hamas’ actions on October 7 and was able to emphasise a narrative of victimhood and moral virtue. During this phase Hamas’ actions were doing much of the propaganda work for Israel. Now that Israeli actions are causing so much destruction, it is easier for Hamas to exploit the resulting deaths and greater demands are placed upon Israel’s war of words, at least with respect to media beyond that of the West. From the perspective of understanding how propaganda is created, the crisis highlights the interaction between real world events, the physical war, and the ‘words and images’ of the information war.
Indeed, there are parallels with what Israeli scholar Gadi Wolfsfeld described with respect to the 1987 Intifada. During this event, Israeli actions led, according to Wolfsfeld, to a ‘David vs. Goliath’ framing across international media in which the Palestinians emerged as winning significant sympathy and political support. Given the global protests we are now seeing in support of Palestinians, one wonders if this will be the outcome of the current crisis. Time will tell.