American Propaganda and Israel’s Bombardment of Gaza

Photo via The New Arab

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Propaganda is a contentious word with a long history. When we think of propaganda, we might imagine the dramatic reds and block texts of Soviet era political posters. We hear Uncle Sam’s “We Want You” or take sardonic inspiration from Rosie’s “We Can Do It.” Regardless, the propaganda that comes to mind shouts. Its intention is clear, and its emotional manipulation is far from inconspicuous.

However, propaganda has existed long before the official western analysis of it began in Athens, around 500 BCE, and certainly before the 20th century World Wars. Throughout history, emotional manipulation as it applies to politics has been used by many rulers from kings to pharaohs to priests. Convincing emotional rhetoric remains the weapon of choice for tenacious careerists like lawyers, political pundits, and journalists. Humanity’s affinity for propaganda has weaved itself through the ages, adapting to various political regimes and evolving with advancements in communication technology. Today, propaganda posters packed with popping colors and catchy slogans meant to encourage military enlistment or worker productivity are few and far between in the U.S. Yet, this does not mean the art of propaganda has died out, just that it finds more unobtrusive forms with less obvious messaging. It might camouflage itself in the form of a passive voice or a subtly dehumanizing label, or simply, as with social and news media, the algorithmic selection of which information is widely disseminated and when. 

Like in any country, the United States’s propaganda is always at work. It is usually aligned with political parties or ideologies, but recently the U.S. has applied this form of manipulation to controlling public opinion of the Israel-Palestine conflict. While not unique, the recent propaganda campaigns diverge slightly from the norm because they do not exist along party lines. Conservative and liberal media outlets certainly vary in the intensity of their approaches, but ultimately much of American mainstream media is propagandizing on behalf of this country’s foreign interests and the president’s foreign policy decision to send weapons to Israel as the bombardment of Gaza continues.

Hiding behind the facade of neutral reporting, journalistic publications have been influential culprits in the spread of Americentric narratives over an onslaught of Israeli violence that the International Court of Justice ruled “genocidal in character.” The most obvious example of this is the application of the term “war” by almost every major newstation in the country to a conflict that the UN has recognized as characteristic of ethnic cleansing and genocide. War implies ongoing, mutual engagement in violence. Since the tragic events of October 7th, Palestinians have broadcasted the violence of the subsequent bombardment and begged the international community to apply pressure for a ceasefire. With the Palestinian death toll surpassing 30,000—over 25,000 of which are women and children—due to Israel Defense Force tactics such as indiscriminate bombing, forced starvation, and disease, the phrase “Israel-Hamas War” as opposed to Al Jazeera’s Israel’s War on Gaza is a blatant understatement of the gruesome and intentional humanitarian crisis. 

Passive or dehumanizing language also plagues western coverage. While media outlets use emotive, humanizing language for Israeli victims of this violence, they often use detached descriptions of Palestinian victims. The avoidance of the term “children” has been widely noted. While certain media outlets use the phrase “children are killed in Israel,” other media outlets instead use the phrase “people under the age of 18” are killed in Gaza. Western media rhetoric reflects the much more blatant dehumanizing language used by Israeli officials. From calling Gazans “human animals” to stating that Gaza would become a “slaughterhouse,” Israeli officials and journalists’ reactionary, dehumanizing language was cited in the ICJ’s case against Israel.

As Israeli war crimes mount and the Palestinian death toll rises, it can be difficult to comprehend the hand that widespread propaganda plays in rendering otherwise progressive or empathetic people apathetic—or worse, malicious. Understanding how propaganda manipulates psychologically is the first step in recognizing it and ultimately resisting agenda-driven narratives. 

Right now, the U.S. is witnessing violence, degradation, and the causing of wide-scale trauma. Not only does this country pay witness, but it has also dug its hands into Palestinian soil through the arming and funding of Israel. For a U.S. citizen to genuinely recognize the situation unfolding in Gaza, they would be forced to reckon with how the U.S. has implicated its own citizens in genocidal violence. The choice between grappling with one’s own morality in a system which forces complicity in violence or deciding to look away and maintain ingrained concepts of virtuous innocence lies at the root of what psychiatrist and Harvard professor, Judith Herman coined “the will to deny and the will to proclaim.”

In her book “Trauma and Recovery,” Judith Herman addresses remembrance and forgetting as the essential dialectic of trauma. When this is applied to those who bear witness to trauma, the innate temptation to side with the perpetrator very often proves overpowering. 

“It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of the pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering…”

U.S. propaganda takes advantage of this inclination, first and foremost by making the decision easier through algorithmic censorship and the suppression of Palestinian voices. The suppression of content centered around support for Palestine on social media in an age where many people rely on Instagram or TikTok for news is an incredibly effective propagandic tool. It is not difficult to ignore Palestinian suffering when that content is being hidden and users have to actively seek it out in order to engage. 

Herman writes, “In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens…”

Although censorship is rampant, citizens around the world have worked around it to broadcast the ongoing genocide. While those who actively do not engage with politics become the target audience for information bias toward Israel, those who do consciously involve themselves with politics are far more likely to witness the ongoing violence. This is why propagandic strategies expand far beyond censorship and information favoritism. 

“To this end,” Herman continues, “[the perpetrator] marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization.”

The denial and rationalization of Israeli violence against Palestinians includes the previously mentioned passive reporting and dehumanizing language, but it also expands to encompass conspiratorial misinformation campaigns. The crisis actor narrative has become prominent on Instagram and X, previously known as Twitter, as Zionists spread fake or out of context videos and pictures to claim that Palestinians are faking civilian injuries and death. It is important to note that the crisis actor narrative is not unique to Israel’s war on Gaza. Pro-Russian propagandists have been using this allegation against accurate reporting of Ukrainian suffering since Putin decided to commence the full-scale invasion two years ago.

These are all examples of propaganda aimed at denying Palestinian suffering, but the justification or rationalization of it takes a slightly different form. It is incredibly important to note that Hamas’s attack on October 7th was violent, and many atrocities were committed. 1,200 people were killed, and that day was tragic and traumatic for Israeli civilians. The reality of this tragedy, however, has not stopped the proliferation of atrocity propaganda both from Netanyahu’s government and international journalists. 

After the attack, unsubstantiated claims of mass beheadings of babies and and an organized campaign of sexual assault spread quickly across the internet. Recently, the New York Times faced criticism for their inflammatory October 7th exposé that lacked a substantial amount of evidence and relied almost exclusively on a select few eyewitness reports from people who were confirmed to have made false reports in the past. 

This irresponsible, narrative-setting exposé is uncharacteristic of the New York Times’ usually hyper-reliable journalistic research. It also comes at a time when American news media is facing backlash for manufacturing consent for the Palestinian genocide. The use of atrocity propaganda specifically targets what Judith Herman calls the revenge fantasy. While this refers to the fantasy of revenge present in direct trauma victims, atrocity propaganda induces a similar inclination in the broader public by forcing citizens to pay witness to extreme and vile acts of barbarism that lie far outside of what society has determined the norm of war activity. This propaganda takes advantage of the fog of war by basing atrocity claims in its very real and violent nature, subsequently blurring the lines between reality and narrative. 

The essential element of propaganda is its appeal to intense emotion and suppression of rationality. While it can appeal to positive emotions, much of wartime propaganda intentionally inspires fear and hatred. This is also not unique to Palestine and Israel. There is much evidence to support the claim that fear-inducing propaganda centered around terrorist activity and unsubstantiated claims of weapons of mass destruction was used to manufacture consent for the American invasion of Iraq and subsequent humanitarian crisis. 

Resisting the allure of propagandic narratives comes from an understanding of how they seek to manipulate and a conscious effort to find the truth or reality of events being propagandized. For this, it is essential to look critically at political motivations behind policy decisions. Unequivocal U.S. support for Israel and the expansion of the Zionist project did not begin on October 7th. Anti-BDS legislation was passed in 2019, and in 27 states, it is illegal for businesses to boycott Isreal’s settlement activity in the West Bank. The U.S. has been sending billions in military aid to Israel since the 1970s. The U.S. has also operated military bases in the Middle East for decades; these military bases support thousands of U.S. troops. Because this country maintains an exceptionally strong military presence in the region, it is not surprising that the U.S. would support Israel economically and militarily, as it is the country’s strongest ally within the Middle East.   

The heavy presence of media propaganda in support of Israel’s violence against Palestine and its numerous violations of international law are reflected in long standing American state policy decisions. That a colonial power should support another colonial occupation is far from a novel concept. Naturally, much of the mainstream media will propagandize on behalf of the state’s foreign policy decisions. However, public support of the Palestinian cause seems to be growing regardless. The emergence of 100,000 uncommitted votes as Michigan voters protest Biden’s support of Israel is evidence of this. While the U.S. government continues to resist the call to bear witness to Palestinian suffering, many individual citizens have committed to resisting emotionally manipulative propaganda by calling for an immediate ceasefire.

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This article was edited by Bryanna Gouldbourne.