Watching the Watchdogs: Israel’s legacy of media deception stumbles

Israel’s deception campaign against UNRWA does not seem to be working as expected. Why?

Rami G Khouri

Distinguished Fellow at the American University of Beirut

Published On 9 Feb 20249 Feb 2024Palestinians gather for a demonstration in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 30, 2024, calling for continued international support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) [AFP]

In the last two weeks, the Israeli government put on a masterclass on how to use the Western media to spread fake news and propaganda and to justify anti-Palestinian actions taken by the United States and its allies. It worked – but only in part.

On January 26, in a landmark preliminary ruling on South Africa’s genocide charge against Israel, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found it “plausible” that Israel is committing acts that violate the Genocide Convention; and demanded that it take “immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to address the adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.”

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Israel ignored this, and within hours, launched a deception campaign to weaken UNRWA, the UN’s main humanitarian agency for Palestinian refugees, to inflict further suffering and death on nearly two million displaced, injured, sick and starving Palestinians in the Strip.

Israel passed on to Western media a “dossier” alleging that about a dozen UNRWA staff in Gaza have been working for Hamas and even participated in the group’s October 7 attack on Israel.

After the compliant media immediately relayed these unsubstantiated allegations to the world without bothering to do any independent verification, the US and other countries suspended vital funding to UNRWA. Meanwhile, prominent politicians started calling for it to be “shut down” as Israel has long sought in its efforts to reverse the recognition of Palestinians it displaced as “refugees”, and invalidate their right of return to the lands in Israel stolen from them.

None of this was new or extraordinary.

Mainstream media organisations in the West, from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to CNN and NBC, have long helped Israel spread its propaganda and achieve its political aims.

For the past century, these  organisations and their counterparts in Europe routinely disseminated Israeli narratives without questioning their veracity, while ignoring, downplaying or misrepresenting Palestinian perspectives. Their efforts helped Israel win the war on narratives and continue its settler-colonial assault on Palestinians with near total impunity.

Well, until recently – because the ugly tradition of Israel successfully laundering its lies and propaganda through Western legacy media is now being exposed and challenged, and appears to be starting to dissipate in the information era dominated by new media.

Indeed, since October 7, a flurry of independent investigations into events in Israel-Palestine and Western media reports about them exposed how Israel has been using legacy media organisations in the West to deceive the world, silence Palestinians and their allies, undermine international law, obscure its systemic human rights violations and further its settler-colonial agenda.

The initial Western media coverage of the terror allegations against UNWRA was perhaps the best example of this phenomenon.

Israel suddenly came up with an “explosive” dossier on alleged links between Hamas and UNRWA staff because it wanted to divert attention from the ICJ ruling on its own genocidal acts, and instead raise doubts about the crucial UN agency’s credibility.

Thanks in large part to the Western media’s uncritical reporting, Israel’s plan succeeded, at least partially, as it triggered significant funding cuts and a congressional hearing in the US on “ UNRWA Exposed: Examining the Agency’s Mission and Failures”.

Members of Congress accused UNRWA of having “longstanding connections to terrorism and promotion of antisemitism” seemingly based on nothing other than Israeli claims circulated in the media. They also introduced a bill titled the “UNRWA Elimination Act” calling for the complete disbanding of the humanitarian agency and transfer of all its responsibilities to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

But independent reports and investigations quickly revealed major holes in the Israeli narrative that mainstream media had eagerly adopted and disseminated.

As Western journalists outside the mainstream, Global South media like Al Jazeera, activists and scholars started to ask questions about the claims against UNRWA, Israel’s  story started to unravel.

Unable to provide any hard evidence on UNRWA staff involvement in the October 7 attacks, the intelligence agency that distributed the “dossier” said its information came from “interrogations of Palestinian prisoners”. The revelation further raised suspicions among journalists and scholars who follow the conflict, as Israel is known to use torture to extract false confessions from Palestinian prisoners. Realising the global community is questioning their story, Israel’s intelligence agents simply changed it and started to say they obtained the information through surveillance.

As numerous countries stood up for UNRWA, and Israel faced scrutiny about its allegations against the US agency, and shared its shaky “intelligence documents” with even more journalists.

An analysis of the dossier by Britain’s Sky News revealed that these documents claim only six, not 12 as initially suggested, UNRWA staff entered Israel on October 7. It noted that “the Israeli intelligence documents make several claims that Sky News has not seen proof of and many of the claims, even if true, do not directly implicate UNRWA”.

After also analysing the documents, Britain’s Channel 4 reached a similar conclusion and said the six-page-long dossier “provides no evidence to support the explosive claim that UN staff were involved in terror attacks on Israel”.

The terror accusations against UNRWA were perhaps the most striking example of exposing major Western media for uncritically circulating Israeli fabrications and propaganda since October 7. But it was hardly the only one.

The Israeli claims about “terror tunnels” and “Hamas command centres” under Gaza hospitals, which were repeated by most Western media without any scrutiny or attempt at verification were also proved to be baseless by several open source investigations, in-depth reporting by local journalists on the ground and extensive video evidence.

In February, Al Araby TV filmed what Israel claimed was a “Hamas tunnel” it discovered under Sheikh Hamad Hospital in northern Gaza, which proved to be nothing but a water well.

Earlier, in December, an explosive New York Times report on  Hamas’s weaponisation of sexual violence during the October 7 attack was criticised for its weak sources and sloppy reporting. The paper of record eventually had to pull a podcast episode it had prepared on the subject.

Speaking of the Times’ sexual violence report and podcast, The Intercept investigative site said,“the critics have highlighted major discrepancies in the accounts presented in the Times, subsequent public comments from the family of a major subject of the article denouncing it, and comments from a key witness seeming to contradict a claim attributed to him in the article.”

The Electronic Intifada published several articles and podcasts with more details of the New York Times’ investigation of its mass rape story, mostly confirming the lack of credible evidence or eye-witnesses in the stories that Israeli institutions, including the armed forces, shared with the global media.

The progressive investigative website Mondoweiss explained in a report, entitled “We deserve the truth about what happened on October 7”, that “researchers cross-referencing claims against the list of terror victims maintained by Israel’s own Social Security Administration have shown that several horrifying stories first responders and [Israeli military] members initially told reporters do not reflect actual people or deaths”.

 Britain’s Guardian published an extensive report on how “CNN is facing a backlash from its own staff over editorial policies they say have led to a regurgitation of Israeli propaganda and the censoring of Palestinian perspectives in the network’s coverage of the war in Gaza”.

 The Oct7factcheck project – an exhaustive collection of claims, where they originated, who propagated them, and whether the evidence confirms or refutes them put together by the Tech for Palestine initiative – has also published the results of independent investigations into a dozen or so of the most dramatic Israeli accusations and reports about the Hamas attack, which were uncritically repeated by most of Western media, debunking most of them as untrue and lacking evidence.

They show, for example, that some of the evidence Israel submitted to the ICJ hearing – evidence republished by mainstream Western media without question – was false.

“Over the last four months, claims about October 7 have influenced the public narrative,” they noted. “Stories of atrocity, sometimes cobbled together from unreliable eyewitnesses, sometimes fabricated entirely, have made their way to heads of state and been used to justify Israel’s military violence.”

As new evidence reveals that stories that Israel offers the media about Palestinians and Hamas are fabricated, unsubstantiated, or exaggerated,  international journalists tend to spend more time checking the veracity of Israel’s propaganda offerings — and more time doing their job of reporting the facts and the truth.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.