Hasbara: explaining the actions of the Israeli government

In The Iron Wall, Oxford Historian Avi Shlaim describes Operation Kinneret. On 11 December 1955, a paratroop brigade, led by Lieutenant Ariel Sharon, attacked a Syrian military installation. The Israeli army killed 50 Syrians, and took 30 Syrian prisoners, suffering six deaths and ten injuries in the process. Shlaim writes that this was ‘an unprovoked act of aggression by Israel’, which

was not preceded by any unusual incidents. The Israelis were waiting for the slightest pretext to launch their carefully planned assault; when the Syrians proved uncooperative, the Israelis provoked the incident. On 10 December a police vessel was sent close to the shore, specifically in order to draw Syrian fire. A Syrian soldier fired a few shots that scraped some paint off the bottom of the patrol boat. No one was killed or wounded. This was the pretext for the IDF operation. Most observers agreed that the punishment was out of all proportion to the provocation. This judgment needs to be qualified in one respect: there was no Syrian provocation.

The operation was authorised by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, while Foreign Minister Moshe Sharrett was trying to seek arms from the US. Sharrett responded furiously to discovering news of the raid, which undermined his mission. Abba Eban was Israel’s propagandist at the UN, and he explained in his autobiography his misgivings about the attack: ‘I thought that an error of judgment had been made. I said so frankly in a long letter to Ben Gurion in January 1956 after we had gone through the routine of discussion and condemnation in the Security Council.’ Eban then records Ben-Gurion’s reply:

I fully understand your concerns about the Kinneret operation. I must confess that I, too, began to have doubts about the wisdom of it. But when I read the full text of your brilliant defence of our action in the Security Council, all my doubts were set at rest. You have convinced me that we were right, after all. (Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall, pp 149–52)

Or to take another historical example, Shlaim writes that ‘Israel’s strategy of escalation on the Syrian front was probably the single most important factor in dragging the Middle East to war in June 1967, despite the conventional wisdom on the subject that singles out Syrian aggression on the subject that singles out Syrian aggression as the principle cause of war.’ Shlaim notes that while many Israelis regard the Golan Heights as a measure of protection from Syrian shelling, in fact, ‘many of the firefights were deliberately provoked by Israel.’ In support of this contention, he notes an interview with Moshe Dayan from 1976, finally published in 1997. In the interview, Dayan explained

I know how at least 80 percent of the clashes there started. In my opinion, more than 80 percent, but let’s talk about 80 percent. It went this way: We would send a tractor to plough someplace where it wasn’t possible to do anything, in the demilitarised area, and knew in advance that the Syrians would start to shoot. If they didn’t shoot, we would tell the tractor to advance farther, until in the end the Syrians would get annoyed and shoot. And then we would use artillery and later the air force also, and that’s how it was. I did that, and Laskov and Chara [Zvi Tsur, Rabin’s predecessor as chief of staff] did that, and Yitzhak did that, but it seems to me that the person who most enjoyed these games was Dado [David Elazar, OC Northern Command, 1964–69]. (Iron Wall, pp 235–6)

We could go on and on with these sorts of examples. Israeli policies, Israeli crimes and Israeli lies constantly repeat themselves. Yet only those with some interest in what the historical scholarship shows would know this. One more example, which may be of some interest, in June 1992, Yitzhak Shamir explained that his recent election defeat meant he could no longer carry out his plan as Israeli Prime Minister. ‘I would have carried on autonomy talks for ten years, and meanwhile we would have reached half a million people in Judea and Samaria.’ (Iron Wall, p 500). This might be considered of some interest in understanding the so-called peace process, as it has developed from 1993 to 2010, and the current demands of the Israeli government for the peace process to resume, and the resistance even of Israeli and US favourite, Mahmoud Abbas. Yet, even more recent revelations by Netanyahu – and much more evidence of this sort can be found – are not considered significant in understanding the present.

Let us turn to the more recent claims of the Israeli government. Let us recall during the Gaza Massacre, on 7 January, the Israeli army told CNN, ‘I can tell you with certainty that white phosphorus is absolutely not being used’.

The British Times has a timeline of Israeli denials, followed by irrefutable evidence presented to the world of Israel’s use of white phosphorous. Israel then claimed it was using white phosphorous, but in an entirely legal manner. Why would anyone doubt the word of the Israeli army?

More recently, the Israeli army was captured on film arresting ‘water thieves’ – Palestinians in the West Bank who seek access to their own water sources, which is diverted to Israeli settlers and the Israeli army. The film featured a 5-year-old boy desperately trying to free his father, and being restrained by Israeli soldiers. The footage speaks for itself. And so does the response of the Israeli army: the family made cynical use of the child, who was ‘well instructed and directed’. The official statement by the border police explained: ‘Instead of the family acting responsibly toward a child and removing him from the situation, they chose to make cheap anti-Israel propaganda, whose sole purpose is to present us in a negative light around the world.’

Of course, the most obvious explanation.

Take the case of the flotilla (documented at my website). Remember when we were told that the organisers of the flotilla had connections to al Qaeda by Israel’s deputy foreign minister? Yet mysteriously, when the Israeli commandos boarded the ship, they were surprised to be attacked by those alleged terrorists. Not only this, the highly trained commandos were initially overwhelmed, by those the Israeli army considered al-Qaeda-linked terrorists, by activists armed with sticks and poles.

Meanwhile, Israeli army spokesperson Mark Regev appeared on ABC. Regev explained to Leigh Sales that ‘Just last year some 1000 rockets were fired on Israeli civilians, and so that’s the reason that a naval blockade is there and in place, and we have to have that blockade to protect our people.’ A quick visit to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website shows that over the last year and a half, 164 rockets were fired at Israel.

It was already plain enough that the blockade was not about the rockets (again, see my website). Yet, shortly after the flotilla massacre, which proved an international debacle for Israel’s already battered image internationally, Israel announced it would, to some extent, relax the blockade. A defence official was quoted in Ha’aretz saying:

there was every intention to increase the transfer of goods into Gaza even before the cabinet meeting. We have notified the Palestinians, regardless of the cabinet meeting, that we will allow the entry of food items, house wares, writing implements, mattresses and toys. Beyond that, we have not said a thing.

It’s almost as though food items became safe when denying them to Palestinians became more damaging to Israel’s international relations. As though the blockade wasn’t actually about rockets, after all. Truly, this new humanitarianism was remarkable, and could only silence the critics of Israel’s blockade who had opposed it all along. Shortly after the flotilla massacre, Israeli human rights group Gisha received an Israeli government response to its lawsuit for information about the blockade. Through general indifference, it was explained that the blockade was for ‘economic warfare’ – a fact that would surprise no-one who follows the Israeli press. Only 32% of the Israeli public actually believes the blockade is about preventing the flow of rockets into Gaza.

Compare this to the unabashed supporters of Israel’s attack on the flotilla, like Miranda Devine: ‘The reason for Israel’s blockade of Gaza is self-defence. It doesn’t want Hamas to bring lethal weapons into Gaza to fire at its neighbour.’ Or Yuval Rotem: ‘The naval blockade is not to deny aid, but to curb Hamas rearmament.’ And AIJAC’s Bren Carlill:

Due to this state of war, Israel enforces a military and naval blockade. The blockade is not designed to starve Gaza into submission; it is designed to deny Hamas the ability to fight effectively … Israel enforces a maritime blockade because Hamas has previously shipped in weapons.

This simply reflects that Israeli spokespeople are used to treating international audiences with contempt. They know that when the guns fall silent, no-one will care to examine the fairytales they spun about how they defend themselves – how they always defend themselves, and are always the victims.

With this in mind, let’s turn to the latest incident on the border between Israel and Lebanon. Jason Koutsoukis had a lousy and unreliable report on the border incident in the SMH. He wrote ‘In the clash that followed the sniper’s shots, two Lebanese soldiers were killed, and a journalist from the Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar television network.’

Israeli propaganda says it was Al-Manar. This is the claim of Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren. Koutsoukis’ repetition of the claim may help us in guessing his anonymous diplomatic source. It is pretty straightforward to discover that the journalist Israel killed was Assaf Abou Rahhal, who worked for Al-Akhbar. Al-Akhbar is a leftist paper, featuring among its columnists As’ad AbuKhalil. AbuKhalil has been in Lebanon for a few months, and reported the following on his blog:

Yesterday, during my book signing, I asked comrade Sa`dallah Mazra`ani (deputy secretary-general of the Lebanese Communist Party) about Bou Rahhal and whether he knew him. He said: of course. I have known him for more than 30 years. He has been a life-long communist. Israeli propaganda can turn a (Christian by birth) a communist into a Shi`ite Islamic fundamentalist.

I’ve long been unimpressed by Koutsoukis’ journalism. Perhaps if SMH employed a journalist who thought it worthwhile to investigate these issues, we might have read a more objective account of what happened. (Compare his reportage to that of oustanding Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, the editorial by Israel’s most respected daily, Ha’aretz, or the writing of peace activist Uri Avnery.)

I expect it may be as little as a few months – perhaps less – before Israel attacks Lebanon again. It should be noted that this will only happen if the US gives Israel a green light. The US response to the border incident – condemning the Lebanese fire at the Israeli soldiers as ‘totally unjustified and unwarranted’, without a word about Israel’s actions – is ominous enough. Yet the US also took this opportunity to halt funding to the Lebanese army. The significance of this may be revealed yet. For all we know, the next war may already be planned and waiting for its pretext. When it comes, we will be incessantly told of Hezbollah firing rockets at Israel, and of the incident when Lebanese soldiers killed an Israeli soldier, and how it was completely unprovoked, and how much restraint Israel exercised at the time. You won’t hear, for example, of UNIFIL’s press release from 13 July:

“Although the parties remained committed to the full implementation of resolution 1701 (2006), a number of violations occurred and no progress was recorded with regard to key obligations under the resolution,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon writes in his latest report on the issue.

He voices concern about ongoing air violations committed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) through almost daily overflights of Lebanese territory, as well as ground violations of the Blue Line that have occurred in recent months.

“The inherent risk of escalating the security situation that these incidents carry cannot be overstated,” he warns.

What cannot be overstated is the readiness of the Australian media to print the most vulgar lies of the Israeli government without question. Obviously, historical perspective might give pause to such credulity, but our media and pundits don’t appear to have the time or expertise for such frivolous distractions.

Michael Brull

Michael Brull is a columnist at New Matilda. He’s written for other publications including Fairfax, the Guardian, Crikey, Tracker and the Indigenous Law Bulletin.

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  1. ‘Why would anyone doubt the word of the Israeli army?’ Indeed, or Regev, Netanyahu, Lieberman, Barak et al?

    Thorough and fear-provoking piece, Michael. Thanks for exposing some of the many holes in the Israeli government’s retellings of events [bet they can’t even spell revisionism].

    I am sick of anonymous sources who are actually diplomatic [or corporate or government or military] sources with vested interests. These are people who are not entitled to journalistic anonymity. This ‘hotel room journalism’ has much to answer for.

    I assume you’ve seen this, but just in case (it’s a much more – dare I say – humourous take on Israeli PR):

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