Media manipulation in the Israel-Hamas conflict poses a challenge for journalists

Simon BennettWars are fought in two domains. First, in the physical domain of armed combat. Secondly, in the ideological-doctrinal domain of propaganda and messaging.

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has seen a vigorous propaganda and messaging war, both between Russia and Ukraine and between their sponsors, countries like Belarus, Iran, North Korea, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.

It is said one of the first casualties of war is truth. Certainly, the Russia-Ukraine War is rotten with claims and counter-claims, often entirely contradictory. The fog of war thickens as claims are launched into the communications ether, often via social media (which should be called antisocial media). Spare a thought for the journalists trying to make sense of it all.

Israel-Hamas propaganda wars and the struggle for truth

Photo by Colin and Meg

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As demonstrated by the Al-Ahli, Gaza hospital blast on 17 October, the same propaganda and messaging war is evident in the Israel-Hamas conflict.

We can be sure of some basic facts. The blast at the hospital:

  • was caused by a missile
  • caused significant loss of life amongst civilians seeking shelter in the hospital grounds
  • occurred at circa 19:00 local time
  • destroyed cars
  • damaged some buildings.

These facts are agreed upon by all parties.

Disputed aspects of the missile strike include:

1. Origin of the missile

Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and their supporters quickly claimed the missile had been fired by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). Mahmoud Basal, Palestinian Civil Defence spokesperson, said: ‘What took place tonight is tantamount to a genocide’. Iran described the blast as a ‘savage war crime’. Some neutrals blamed the IDF. According to the i-Newspaper, the Anglican church’s Richard Sewell claimed the hospital took ‘a direct hit from an Israeli missile’. The IDF denied responsibility, claiming the missile had been fired by PIJ.

2. The physics of the strike

There is photographic evidence that the missile left only a small crater. The crater could have been produced by two different types of strikes. First, by a missile impacting the ground. Secondly, by a missile exploding above the ground – an air-burst. By avoiding the attenuation effects of topographic features and buildings, the air burst maximizes ordnance effect.

3. Casualty count

The Hamas-controlled Palestinian health ministry claimed 471 persons were killed in the blast. While the IDF believed this to be an inflated figure, it did not provide its own count.

Hard evidence

To be credible, any analysis of the hospital blast must be evidence-based and follow the ABC of investigation: Assume nothing; Believe no one; Check everything.

In the case of the Al-Ahli blast, there is little hard evidence. Whatever remained of the munition was removed by the Gaza authorities. To date, the most promising leads have come from video feeds, one of which, produced by broadcaster Al-Jazeera, appears to show a ground-launched missile malfunctioning over Gaza at the time of the blast at the hospital.

After viewing the Al-Jazeera footage, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) commented: ‘Live footage from … Al-Jazeera … aired at 18:59 local time showed a bright light rising in the skies above Gaza. It flashes twice before drastically changing direction, and it then explodes. An explosion is then seen on the ground far away, followed by a much larger explosion closer to the camera, which the BBC has geolocated’.

Two facts support the ‘misfiring missile’ theory. First, any munition, whether improvised or manufactured in a state-of-the-art defence plant, can malfunction. All mechanical devices are fallible. They host designed-in weaknesses – latent errors – that can manifest as active errors at the most inopportune moments. Missiles fail for a variety of reasons:

  • guidance systems malfunction, are mis-programmed or are electronically jammed
  • power units stop working
  • controls seize
  • dynamic forces acting on the missile cause structural failure. During acceleration, a missile is subject to high-stress loading. Missiles can simply disintegrate.

Secondly, on the balance of probabilities, an improvised munition is more likely to malfunction than one built from new components in a purpose-built defence plant and designed by experienced, well-qualified engineers.

Given that Gaza is blockaded by Israel and Egypt, Hamas, which has governed the oceanside enclave for 17 years, has developed an armaments manufacturing capability, albeit using components and raw materials often recycled from, for example, unexploded Israeli munitions and war-damaged capital.

As expert Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib notes: ‘The IDF’s [security] operation indirectly provide[s] Hamas with materials that are otherwise strictly monitored or forbidden … in Gaza’. So, very much as Russia has supplied Ukraine with scores of tanks and armoured fighting vehicles – often abandoned by panicked Russian crews – the IDF has supplied Hamas with hard-to-source warfighting matériel.

Israeli booty, smuggled components, and raw materials recovered from war-damaged infrastructure are often used in munitions manufacture. ‘We have local factories for everything, for rockets … for mortars and their shells … ’ Ali Baraka, head of Hamas National Relations Abroad, claimed in an interview with RT-Arabic.

There is a down-side to scavenging and improvisation, however: Hamas’s scratch-built munitions, such as rockets and mortars, are more likely to misfire than the IDF’s munitions, built from new parts in Israeli defence plants or supplied by Israel’s allies.

While not proving the hospital blast was caused by a malfunctioning missile launched from within Gaza, the reliability issues associated with scratch-built munitions lend credibility to the ‘misfiring missile’ theory. That will be of no comfort to those killed and injured, however.

Dr. Simon Bennett directs the Civil Safety and Security Unit at the University of Leicester. He’s interested in the organizational, social, economic and political origins of risk. He has worked with the Royal Air Force and U.K. National Police Air Service on human factors issues. His latest book, Safety in Aviation and Astronautics: A Socio-technical Approach, was published by Routledge in 2022.

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