Israel-Palestine: Disinformation and York's vigil


Nouse explores the dangers of disinformation and the success of York's peace vigil

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By Millie Simon

CONTENT WARNING: This article mentions violence towards children.

The Israel-Palestine conflict has raised some alarming truths about the state of humanity. So far 1,200 Israelis have been killed, as have 15,000 Palestinians, of which 6,000 were children, according to Al Jazeera. However, there have been doubts over the validity of certain points regarding the war being presented as facts by the media and Governments.The situation surrounding the conflict has been dubbed by Al Jazeera as a “masterclass in disinformation” fuelled by the accessibility and convenience of social media. False information used to bolster support for either side has been a common theme since before Hamas’ attack on 7 October 2023. Since the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the dispute over who controls Palestinian territory has seen the interpretation of truth lead to the rewriting of history.

Dr Matthew Hughes from Brunel University suggests that, until the 1970s, the narrative was mainly that the Jewish state was under considerable threat from the Arab world which justified the series of wars. However, Dr Hughes highlights that, since the 1980s, support has shifted and is growing towards the Palestinian people.

Reports reinforced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Joe Biden that Hamas’ soldiers had decapitated and burned babies ignited understandable distress. When journalists questioned the validity of the story, Israeli military officials said “we cannot confirm but you can assume it happened”. Days later, it became clear that there was no evidence to confirm whether babies had been killed by Hamas militants. But it was too late; social media posts had already begun to circulate the story, causing outrage. Marc Owen Jones, an academic researching disinformation in the Middle East informed Middle East Eye that tweets about the “40 murdered babies” had reached 44 million impressions on the first day the story was reported in the UK.

The danger of this style of reporting is that readers won’t be inclined to read further than the initial headline. This encourages the general public to consume media that confirms the version of events they wish to believe, reinforcing extremism on both sides of an issue. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that disinformation spreads fear and suspicion which Constella Intelligence adds is “used to sway public opinion… and divide citizens based on ideological lines”. Todd Helmus and William Marcellino from RAND Corporation suggest that for social media users, the Israel-Palestine conflict blurs the distinction between who is
the victim and who is the aggressor.

An example of disinformation emerged from the bombing of the AlAhli Arabi Baptist hospital. Hamas, Palestinian authorities and the Israeli Government all blamed one another for the blast, which, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry, killed 471 people, while US officials believe the number is between 100 and 300. Both social and traditional media had al- ready determined who was to blame, and immediately after the blast, numerous articles were headlined to reinforce Hamas’ claim that Israel had bombed the hospital.

Israel justified their disinvolvement with the explosion by insisting they “wouldn’t target a hospital”. Rishi Sunak told MPs that the UK intelligence service were confident the blast at the hospital was caused by a rocket fired by a Palestinian militant group and denounced the initial reports that blamed Israel. The New York Times elected to publish the headline, “Israel Strike Kills Hundreds in Hospital, Palestinians Say”. This type of reactionary reporting should heed a warning says Lee McIntyre, a researcher from Boston University, who argues the danger of disinformation is that it erodes our trust in other people to tell the truth.

There are also concerns that the deliberate use of disinformation will cause further and unnecessary deaths. In the last few weeks, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) entered the Al-Shifa hospital in the North-West of the Gaza Strip. Israel claims that Hamas’ headquarters are in tunnels under the hospital – claims the US supports. The Independent, in a video that can’t be independently verified – reported on the story which seemed to show bags containing rifles and Hamas uniforms. The BBC also reported on the video showing weapons that had been hid- den behind MRI scanners. The BBC added that it “has not yet been able to verify the video or its location”. Israel has come under increased pressure to provide evidence of tunnels comprising a Hamas command centre under the hospital, in order to justify its infiltration. Despite the flood of disinformation obscuring the realities of the conflict, many still manage to parse the disparate narratives into a plea for peace.

Saturday 11 November saw York Minster host a peace vigil for Israel and Palestine. Imam Ammar Sacha of York Mosque addressed the vigil by quoting the Quran, emphasising everyone who attended the event was there under the umbrella of humanity. Miriam Hoffman, a trustee of the York Liberal Jewish Community, added that each death was a loss to humanity. The Archbishop of York, Rt Rev Stephen Cottrell, proclaimed that “the cry of a child needs no translation”. York Central MP, Rachael Maskell, exclusively told Nouse: “We cannot build peace with weapons, only talks and the human spirit is determined to see such peace built” Children, students and other residents of York, people of faith and no faith, people who had never met or spoken to each other united through the message of peace. They gathered to write messages of hope to be sent to national and world leaders. Support for students affected by the conflict can be accessed on the University's website.