The Hebrew word “hasbara” translates to “explaining,” but it is a euphemism for the propaganda that endorses the state of Israel and its actions. In its efforts to influence world opinion and promote itself on the international stage, Israel’s hasbara campaign has relied on misdirection, careful selection of words, empty semantic arguments, and the omission of crucial facts. These tactics are part of a deliberate strategy by Israel and its supporters; one example is The Israel Project’s 2009 “Global Language Dictionary,” which is a propaganda booklet that instructs its readers on the “words that work” and “words that don’t work” when fighting the media war for Israel.
The Concept of Palestine and Palestinian Identity
Supporters of Israel frequently note that a state of Palestine never existed prior to the establishment of Israel in 1948. This implies that Israel was founded on uninhabited territory and that Palestinians have no basis for claiming their own land. It also ignores a historic Palestinian national identity. Similarly, a state called “Native America” never existed, but this certainly does not justify the displacement and atrocities committed against millions of Native Americans.
Along similar lines, supporters of Israel also deny the existence of a Palestinian national identity prior to 1948. In 1969 Golda Meir, one of the founders and prime-ministers of Israel, said that “there were no such thing as Palestinians” and that “they did not exist.” Today, this attitude persists among hardline supporters of Israel. In a 2013 op-ed for Arutz Sheva (Israel National News), Palestinians are described as “the counterfeit Arabs.” Even Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum have parroted this claim as a tactic to draw pro-Israel voters, which suggests that this mindset is still quite popular in pro-Israel circles.
Ironically, Israel is the primary reason behind the reinforcement of the Palestinian identity that many of its supporters wish to deny, as it is logically inevitable that a stronger identity would emerge to distinguish the Arab inhabitants uprooted from their land in 1948. Over the last 67 years, Israel’s continued belligerence and discriminatory policies toward the Palestinians has only served to solidify this identity.
The bottom line is that Israel was established at the expense of an existing native population. The argument that no Palestinian state or national identity existed before Israel is a tool of misdirection that completely ignores the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and the denial of their right to return. This misdirection becomes apparent with Israel’s use of the word “absentee” when referring to the Palestinian residents who were expelled or forced to flee their homes. Such euphemisms are common in Israeli doublespeak.
Israel as an Occupier of Gaza
As part of its propaganda efforts, Israel emphasizes that it “disengaged” from Gaza in 2005. In a 2004general outline of “The Disengagement Plan,” the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs explicitly states that “there will be no basis for claiming that the Gaza Strip is occupied territory” once Israeli forces and settlers withdraw.
This is an attempt to dilute the perception of Israel as an occupying power and to avoid responsibility for Gaza’s population. Despite physically pulling out of Gaza, Israel maintains “effective control” over the territory. Specifically, it continues to uphold a relentless siege of Gaza’s land, airspace, and territorial waters, which translates into severe limitations on Palestinian economic activity, mobility, and self-determination.
Israeli naval ships frequently open fire on Gaza fishermen who are within the six nautical mile limit imposed by Israel (although 20 miles were allocated in the Oslo Accords). With this limitation, Gaza fishermen are only capable of supplying about 20 percent of the needs of 1.8 million people. Additionally, about 35 percent of Gaza’s agricultural land lies within the Israeli buffer zone, a “no-go” area where Palestinians, including farmers, are at great risk of being shot and killed.
This chokehold also allows Israel to attack and invade Gaza at any moment with relative ease. In fact, over a six-year span, from 2008 to 2014, the number of Israeli wars on Gaza (three) was greater than the number of Knesset elections held (two).
Within the scope of international law, a number of arguments exist as to whether or not Israel can be classified as an occupier of Gaza. Under the Geneva Conventions, some argue that Gaza is occupied territory as long as it remains non-sovereign, while others argue that this only applies to the invasion of sovereign states, a designation Palestinians never had.
These arguments are essentially questions of terminology and hinge on technicalities. Furthermore, international law itself does not guarantee that sovereign states such as Israel will comply, as there is no formal mechanism to enforce these principles. Dozens of ignored UN resolutions condemning Israel are a testament to this reality.
From an economic and humanitarian standpoint, the average Palestinian civilian does not care about how Israel’s treatment of Gaza is labelled. In any case, Israel’s actions are certainly hostile. Even if the crippling siege and other belligerent policies do not formally qualify as acts of war under international law, in practice they devastate the livelihood and well-being of 1.8 million people. Semantic arguments about the word “occupation” are a distraction from tangible consequences of Israeli aggression toward Gaza and the denial of basic freedoms and rights to its people.
Israel as a “Beacon of Democracy” in the Middle East
When appealing to Americans and others on the international stage, Israel is quick to peddle the claim that it is a liberal democracy and shares many of the same core values cherished by modern societies. Recently, this argument has been exploited to counter the apartheid metaphor that is used to describe Israel.
For example, AIPAC describes Israel as a “unique sanctuary of democracy, freedom and pluralism in the Middle East, protecting its citizens’ rights while upholding the progressive values it shares with America.” This statement is highly misleading, if not outright deceptive, as it applies only to Israel’s eight million citizens. It takes advantage of the concept of statelessness, which is a legal status that is unfamiliar to many American spectators, but applies to millions of Palestinians. Using the word “citizens” implies that this includes all members of the population under Israel’s authority.
However, an additional four and a half million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem are effectively under Israeli control, but as stateless people, they are neither citizens of Israel nor of any other state. This means that a third of the people living in territories that Israel “administers” are not entitled to many of the same fundamental rights and protections that it claims to respect. These people are routinely subjected to restrictions on their movement, unequal access to basic services such as water and electricity, imprisonment without charges, collective punishment, and many other unacceptable violations. Unsurprisingly, AIPAC and other blind supporters of Israel neglect to mention these facts, because doing so would severely undermine Israel’s self-proclaimed status as a liberal democracy.
To make matters worse, the roughly 1.5 million Palestinians who do hold Israeli citizenship face “institutional, legal, and societal discrimination,” as noted in a 2010 US State Department report on human rights. One example of this is the Admissions Committees Law passed in 2011, which allows residents of small towns to prevent individuals “who do not suit the lifestyle and social fabric of the community” from residing in these towns. In practice, this law primarily targets Palestinian citizens of Israel but it can also be used to exclude other marginalized groups such as homosexuals and persons with disabilities. Another example is the “Nakba Law” of 2011, which punishes those who commemorate the Nakba or undermine the “Jewish character” of the state. Promoting laws that essentially entrench ethnic or national segregation and restrict freedom of speech goes directly against the so-called common values that Israel claims to share with liberal democracies.
When trying to legitimize its image as a democratic and inclusive state, Israel also points to the fact that its Arab citizens (again, avoiding use of the term “Palestinian”) are elected as Members of Knesset (MK) and appointed to the country’s highest courts. However, important details about this participation are left out.
One MK described Arabs as “worms,” while another referred to them as “invaders” and “new crusaders.” When voicing opposition to discriminatory policies or condemning Israeli military forces, Palestinian MKs have been branded as traitors and terrorists by their fellow MKs. MK Avigdor Lieberman has even called for the trial and execution of MKs (and Arab citizens) who he feels have shown disloyalty to the state by commemorating the Nakba, for example. He questioned why “no Arab MK sings the national anthem or raises the flag on Independence Day,” yet failed to acknowledge that the anthem itself focuses on Jews, thereby excluding Arabs and other non-Jewish citizens.
A deputy interior minister labelled Palestinian opposition MKs as terrorists and called on them to give up their citizenship. Ironically, he added that they are in a “democratic state,” and that they should respect it. Outspoken Palestinian MK Haneen Zoabi faces frequent verbal abuse by other Israeli MKs, and she was also physically attacked while participating in an election panel. Such incidents clearly indicate that discrimination and racism reach substantial levels within Israeli institutions as well as the public.
The Apartheid Connection
In light of these facts, defending the democratic character of Israel becomes very difficult. Yet, many argue that the apartheid analogy does not apply to Israel, since the South African apartheid model was fully intended to be a framework of racial segregation and was enforced through formal legislation. They say that Israel does not have such openly racist laws, therefore apartheid does not apply.
Again, this is an empty, semantical argument. Even if “apartheid” is an imprecise term to describe the Israeli system, the system is undoubtedly an oppressive one. The fact that the Israeli structure even raises such comparisons should be a concern for anyone serious about issues of human rights. Does it matter that Israel holds free elections, has an independent judiciary, and provides a range of civil and political rights to its citizens, when it simultaneously oppresses and rules over four and a half million people who do not enjoy these rights? Is a system of discrimination acceptable as long as it remains implicitly, rather than explicitly, racist?
Supporters of Israel and others interested in the conflict must ask themselves whether Israel’s behavior is acceptable in today’s world, particularly in the democratic “Western” societies. Would the population of Chicago agree to live under military occupation? Would the citizens of Phoenix endure a total siege? Would it be acceptable for local communities to exclude black residents based on their race, or for 50 priests to issue a ruling forbidding the renting of homes to blacks? Would it be normal for a US congressman/woman to refer to Latinos as invaders or worms? The bottom line is that these things would not be tolerated, and Israel should not be an exception.
Policy vs. Image
However, Israel’s hasbara campaigns have been effective in “explaining” its actions to the world and reinforcing the fallacies behind its positive image. Israeli journalist Gideon Levy comments that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is not “hasbarable” because ultimately its policies are unjust and unacceptable. This explains why Israel’s propaganda efforts rely heavily on obscuring key facts, presenting misleading information, and misdirecting audiences away from core issues. By resorting to such deceitful tactics, Israel indirectly recognizes that its policies are too difficult to justify in reality. Logically, why else would it choose a strategy of deception? In fact, the truths of Israel’s establishment and continued existence are so inconvenient that they are also concealed from its own public. This is clear with the depopulated Palestinian villages of 1948, which were physically destroyed and erased from Israeli consciousness, despite being one of the fundamental unresolved issues of the conflict. Until internal and external pressures create overwhelming costs for maintaining the status quo, Israel has no reason to dismantle its apparatus of occupation, oppression, and obfuscation. Until then, Israel’s war of words will continue.
Mohamed Mohamed is the Finance, Grants & Development Associate at The Jerusalem Fund