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Subtweets of Iron: Israeli Hasbara During the War on Gaza

Image via IDF/Times of Israel

Since Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel, major news outlets have agonized over whether regional actors—namely Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iran—will be dragged into the war on Gaza. Popular publications have scoured every front for the scent of conflict—that is, save for social media—where Israel is already doing battle. 

The X account of the Israeli ambassador to Great Britain Tzipi Hotovely, in particular, is a battlefield worth analyzing. Before an audience of over 80,000 followers, Hotovely has doggedly defended Israeli actions in Gaza with talking points tailor-made to resonate with the Western public: from drawing comparisons between pro-Palestinian protests and hypothetical post-9/11 supporters of al-Qaeda to arguing for a ban on the Armistice Day pro-Palestinian rally by suggesting that it wasn’t right for “a symbol of Western liberty” to “glorify Hamas” by marching. Most chillingly, Hotovely deflected accusations that Israeli bombardments constituted collective punishment by comparing Israel’s attacks on Gaza to British attacks on Berlin during World War II, suggesting that indiscriminate carpet bombings were “the only way you could defeat the Nazis.” 

Hotovely’s posts constitute Hasbara, a Hebrew term roughly translated as “explaining,” which refers to the unique process by which Israel legitimizes itself within the international community. For Israel, Hasbara works to obtain military, economic, and public support from Western countries and isolate Palestine from similar aid. To accomplish this, Israel takes a dual approach, launching offensive and defensive Hasbara campaigns. Defensive campaigns are intended to combat criticism of the Israeli state and its military activities—take, for example, Hotovely’s defense of the bombing of Gaza. Offensive Hasbara consists of reputational warfare like Hotovely’s condemnation of protesters as advocates of terrorism.

Regardless of form, Hasbara requires the Israeli government to minimize or deny the plight of individual Palestinians, whether they are victims of airstrikes in Gaza or of expulsion from the West Bank. Online, however, Israel can’t censor the photographs of every maimed child or shaky phone-camera video of settler violence against Palestinians. Instead, Israel responds to these heartrending images by casting Palestinians, even children, as barbaric aggressors. By denying the humanity of its targets, Israel avoids scrutiny for digitally deployed inhumane rhetoric.

 Hasbara has dehumanized Palestinians, created backlash against supporters of Palestine in the West, and radicalized pro-Israel individuals. It is a tactic that Israel has relied on for decades.

Hamas’ massacre of Israeli civilians was a horrifying, stomach-turning act of violence—just like 9/11. But in the wake of the War on Terror, which caused the deaths of the millions it was intended to save, the Western world cannot again allow atrocities to chase atrocities. Hasbara would have us believe that an adequate remedy for the destruction of hundreds of lives is the destruction of thousands more. We know better.

On October 16, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summed up the central claim Hasbara works to popularize in a now-deleted post: According to him, the war on Gaza pits (Israeli) “children of light” against the (Palestinian) “children of darkness.” Despite Israeli government X thinking better of openly proclaiming this worldview, such rhetoric has continually propped up the Israeli war effort.

 When Israel rained fire on Gazan hospitals, defensive Hasbara followed the bombs, as Israel became increasingly unpopular among younger Western social media users. The Israeli government adopted a policy of sheer information saturation to defend Israel’s global reputation. With global consternation surrounding Israeli hospital strikes reaching a fever pitch, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted 30-second ads to the ministry’s more than 20 accounts that use footage purportedly shot at and around several Palestinian hospitals—often singular pathways or buildings with lurid Israel Defense Forces (IDF) explanations attached. The ads were created to accuse Hamas of turning these hospitals into military command centers, implicitly attempting to legitimize the killings of dozens of patients for whom airstrikes made treatment impossible. These reputational defense attempts regularly disseminate disinformation. Take, for example, the infamous Israeli post supposedly showing a Hamas fighter wielding a “rifle” in a hospital, which a still from the full video showed to be a police baton. 

Meanwhile, even as the wartime funding crunch forces Israel to siphon funds away from offensive Hasbara, Israel has regularly produced and amplified fear-mongering posts to harden Western attitudes toward Palestinians and their supporters. On October 29, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry reposted an Instagram reel from a private account showing a hijab-wearing woman burning a French flag at a pro-Palestinian protest, with the dog whistle “the West is Next” flashing across the screen. With post after post accusing protesters of support for terrorism and Nazism, the Israeli government has worked to associate supporters of Palestine with ideologies Western audiences consider too evil to be humanized—ideologies against which the West has historically responded with eradication, even of innocents who are simply proximal to the ideology.

Online Hasbara has been broadly unsuccessful at converting those with pro-Palestinian sympathies. In fact, younger Westerners’ support for Palestine has steadily increased over the course of the conflict. For Israel, however, this does not constitute failure. Currently, Israel’s content strategy is designed to present Israel as uncritically good and Palestinians (and their sympathizers) as either exponents of evil or unfortunate collateral damage. Israeli government content works to make Israeli sympathizers into radical exponents of pro-Israeli policy. 

In this regard, Hasbara has been a resounding success. Advocates for Palestine across the United States and EU have been the target of opprobrium: accused of being pro-Hamas, branded terrorists, and met with slurs at protests. Whether it’s X posts beneath photos of bombed-out Gazan buildings that upbraid the IDF for being “too kind” to Gazans, or comments from various American pundits calling Palestinians “barbarian pigs” who are “addicted to violence”, or even senators who argue postwar Gaza should resemble the ruined husk of post-WWII Berlin, Hasbara has succeeded in compelling a significant proportion of the Western public to disbelieve the basic truth of Palestinian humanity.

The condemnation of Palestinians as subhuman malcontents has empowered lunatics to take justice into their own hands—whether shooting three Palestinian students (including Brown junior Hisham Awartani) for the crime of wearing a keffiyeh or killing a six-year-old Palestinian child while shouting “you Muslims have to die”.

The anti-Palestinian uproar of Western pundits and posters aren’t the scattered belchings of hardened Israel-Palestine ideologues. These are Westerners who largely became emotionally invested in the conflict on October 7 and rapidly internalized the Israeli narrative. For extreme pro-Israel advocates, swirled currents of latent prejudice, Islamophobia, and Hasbara create an acidic brew pitched in the face of anyone who happens to be pro-Palestine, or, God forbid, Palestinian.

It’s not wrong for Israel (or any state) to sell itself in the marketplace of ideas. It’s not wrong for Israel to defend itself against its critics. But Israel’s creation of an informational warfare juggernaut that engages in discrimination, disinformation, intimidation through character assassination, and deliberate polarization of the most volatile conflict on earth is profoundly dangerous to Palestine, its advocates, and ultimately, through the promotion of dehumanization as a justifiable information warfare tactic, Israel itself. 

Despite all of this, Hasbara is ruthlessly effective in turning those skeptical of Palestinians (or fearful of Muslims) into advocates against peace—individuals dedicated to the Israeli cause at all costs. Because of its effectiveness, Israel will never abandon Hasbara

For citizens of Western countries, dealing with Hasbara is like treating a virus: You fight the symptoms because you can’t cure the disease. But fighting Hasbara’s excesses is far simpler than fighting most viral pathogens. 

Fighting back means recognizing the right of pro-Palestinian advocates to make themselves heard and avoiding poisonous allegations synonymizing “pro-Palestinian” and “terrorist.” Fighting back means realizing that the myopic perspective promoted by a state that stands to make significant diplomatic gains from casting the people they bomb as animalistic cannot be the objective truth. Fighting back, above all, means recognizing that the Israeli children massacred by Hamas on October 7 and the Gazan children whom Israeli bombs have slaughtered every hour since are jointly, irrefutably, human. 

When Hasbara pushes Americans into arguing that the solution to the murder of Israeli infants is the conversion of Gaza into a graveyard for children, it is our solemn duty to reject it.