Down the Moral Ladder: Five Stages in the Collapse of Israeli Hasbara, by Idan Landau

Translated by Moriel Rothman-Zecher.

Original post here.


As I write these words, the details of the horror in the al-Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City (during the night of the 15th-16th of May) are becoming clearer: 33 people [as of May 17, the updated number is 43 – MRZ] buried alive underneath a row of buildings that the IDF flattened from the air. There were women, children and babies among them, but there aren’t precise statistics. This is the last in a series of attacks that left in their wake dozens of “uninvolved” dead, in military-media lingo–men, women, elders and children whose lives were ended by a well-guided missile. In most cases, without any forewarning. More notches in the row of the ever-inflating “collateral damage” of “Operation Guardian of the Walls.”

            As of now: 188 killed, among them 33 women and 55 children. These people are certainly uninvolved, and many of the men killed will surely join these ranks, after the details become clearer. As in every Israeli operation in Gaza over the past 13 years, the percentage of uninvolved will be greater than half, with a high likelihood that it will be over 60%.

            As always, the Israeli Hasbara [Hebrew for “explanation” or propaganda -MRZ] machine is well-oiled and ready for action. Its slogans run from edge to edge of the country, and throughout Israel’s Hasbara attack abroad, and spill from every mouth: from the Prime Minister’s to the last of the online commentators. There is something chilling in the complete uniformity of Israeli excuses, to the level of precise linguistic formulation. These are mantras that all of us learned to repeat from the time we were children, and now they pour automatically from our mouths, with our without connection to reality.

            Without connection.

            After many years, too many, in which these Hasbara claims have been leveled against me, and against anyone who dares to criticize, I have decided to gather these claims together in a single piece: to gather them together and to respond, directly, factually, morally.

            To whom is this piece geared? To two groups. The first, the most important, is the ever-shrinking Israeli tribe who still retain the ability to see Palestinians as people, and not as two-legged animals. We will call them: the naïve and the misled. They are naïve because they are not given the true picture of the horrors of the IDF’s actions in Gaza, except through propagandistic filters. They are misled because every discussion of the legitimacy of these actions is presented to them in an utterly warped manner. The modest hope of this piece is that if and when these people are exposed to the true picture, to more honest and organized thought on the matter, their firm support of the IDF will begin to waver. How many are these naïve and misled? Don’t look to me for too optimistic an approximation. They are, it seems, a minority. Be that as it may, we will speak to the minority.

            The second group, an even smaller minority, is that of people who already hold beliefs and opinions that resemble my own, and feel the need to summon a more organized string of arguments amidst the current political storm. Here, take them and use them.

            To whom is this piece not geared? This is important: this piece is not geared toward those who do not see a real problem in the fact that more than half of the people that Israel kills in Gaza (consistently, in each round of bloodletting) are uninvolved civilians. Those who sometimes, as though for fun, enter these conversations simply in order to add, at the last moment, “But where is the problem, precisely?” The cheap sarcasm of lords. You all have nothing to find here. Don’t read on. A significant portion of moral discourse must stem from an understanding of facts; there is no use in a moral back-and-forth that is divorced from reality. But for many Israelis–whose numbers are seemingly more than those of the aforementioned naïve and misled–an understanding of facts is itself a useless back-and-forth. “What does it matter who and how many were killed? They deserved it. It’s Hamas’ fault.”

            I have nothing to say to such people, and thus I ask them, once more, not to respond here, and to you, readers who are genuinely interested, not to waste your time in arguments with such people. There are inherent limitations [Hebrew] to effective political discussion that ought to be known in advance; decades of educational failures will not be solved by a “winning argument” on the internet.

            Israeli Hasbara is built like a moral ladder with five rungs. Each time one rung collapses, the Hasbaraists descend to the rung below, finding their balance there in the blink of an eye, and hurry to present this rung as the ideal, as the Difference, with a capital “D,” between us and the Palestinians. Our route thus begins at the top and ends deep down at the bottom.

  1. The IDF does not kill innocent people/children; these deaths result from failed Hamas missile attacks landing in Gaza.

 This is a claim that the IDF spokesperson planted in the media on the second day of the Operation: ““We are aware of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad efforts to nurture a narrative of harm done by Israel to noncombatants. That is not true. We take every effort to limit harm to noncombatants.” The IDF claimed then that a third of Hamas’ rockets fell within the Gaza Strip, and it was these rockets that caused the many casualties in Gaza, including six children [Hebrew link: I was unable to find any English version of this, in which the IDF unequivocally declared “Six Gazan children were killed by failed rockets shot by the Islamic Jihad from within the Gaza Strip” – MRZ]. A strong scent of propaganda hovered around this claim. It does not need stating that the IDF is a side in this conflict; just as one should not trust reports by the military wing of Hamas regarding casualties, so too one must not trust the IDF Spokesperson. When the dust settles, and the events are analyzed by human rights organizations, and these reports are published months later (but who will read them? Certainly not those who stick to the IDF’s version), it will become clear that if there were indeed any Gazan children who were killed by Hamas rockets, the number will be minimal. I guarantee that.

            This way or that, this claim was made during the first stage of the fighting, when the number of rockets from Gaza stood at only 200. Since then, this claim has surfaced again and again, everywhere from news networks to social media in Israel [and abroad: this link is from the English-language blog, The Algemeiner, and is not part of Landau’s original post, but illustrates the way in which this claim has made its way across the ocean, as well – MRZ], even as the IDF has refrained from repeating such claims. The picture arising from Gaza no longer allows for such an absurd claim to be made–no Hamas rocket is capable of demolishing entire buildings. In parallel, Israeli Hasbara has already moved on to its next stages (We kill innocents, but…); somehow, a portion of Israelis are still stuck believing this claim that even official spokespeople no longer make.

            And after all of this: if it does one good to subtract six children from the ranks of children the IDF has killed (which stands as of now, May 16, at 55), this whole conversation is probably not for you.

            Doesn’t work? Moving down to the next rung.

2. The IDF only kills innocent people because Hamas forces hide in civilian houses and launch rockets from there. 

This old Hasbara warhorse, which forced human rights organizations to get into the thick of things. An HRW report reconstructed 19 events from “Operation Cast Lead” in which the IDF killed 53 civilians; in none of these events were Hamas fighters present in the area at the time of the attack. An Amnesty International report about the behavior of the parties during “Operation Protective Edge” found evidence that Hamas carried out a number of rocket launches from within civilian compounds (a hospital and a church), but in parallel, noted that there was no evidential basis for the huge quantity of such accusations by Israel. One incident that was investigated in my blog [Hebrew] was the shelling of the al-Wafaa Hospital in al-Shajaiya in July 2014; there was no rocket fire from there, and in fact, the IDF retreated from its claim that there had been. At the same time, Amnesty investigators did find evidence of rockets being fired from residential areas. The question is whether the IDF limits itself to attacking such areas or not.

The answer: Far from it. In fact, the IDF’s accusatory rhetoric is always general and vague enough that one could understand from it that “the building served Hamas” in some way. What does that mean, ‘served’? They printed Hamas posters there? Hamas members slept there? They had family lives there? Somehow, the Israelis do not ask too many questions.

The IDF bank of targets always includes Arab media centers located in Gaza. The idea is to wipe out the sources of information which are likely to undermine the Israeli narrative. There is no connection between this sort of thing and legitimate military action recognized by international law. On May 15, the IDF destroyed the Al-Jalaa Building, which housed the offices of Al-Jazeera, the BBC and the AP. Al-Jazeera producers tweeted half an hour before the building was destroyed that they had received a warning from the IDF to evacuate the building. (Yes, the IDF could have assassinated them, too. Are you hinting that the IDF is moral because it doesn’t assassinate journalists?). Here, the IDF itself admitted through its actions that it does not only attack targets from which Hamas fires rockets or in which its members hide. The IDF spokesperson justified the attack by saying that Hamas and the Islamic Jihad had “military assets” inside the building. Pay attention, here: The IDF continuously lowers the bar of guilt. There is no purpose in making the claim that Hamas shoots from within every building that the IDF attacks. What does “military assets” mean? The IDF rents [Hebrew] dozens of offices next to accountants and legal offices and businesses, a large portion of them in the heart of Tel Aviv, near the government headquarters, on Ha’Arbaa Street, HaHashmonaim Street, Carlebach Street, and elsewhere. Does this make these buildings legitimate targets for Hamas rockets? According to the IDF’s logic, the answer is yes.

The 13-story Hanadi tower which was destroyed on May 12–the largest apartment building in Gaza–was home to many offices and apartments. What made this building a target? All that was said [Hebrew] here was that it “served Hamas commanders.” Once again, it was not claimed anywhere that Hamas had fired rockets from this tower. As such, every building in Israel which IDF commanders use–clinics, registration offices, municipal buildings, apartments–are also legitimate targets. The IDF also bombed branches of the central banks in Gaza because “they serve Hamas.” Is there a bank in Israel that does not have a relationship to the IDF? (The banks in Israel don’t fund terror, you say? We’ll look into that in the following sections. For now, kindly climb down from the tree of “we only fire at the sites from which Hamas launches rockets.”)

Doesn’t work? Moving down a rung.

3. The IDF kills innocent people only because Hamas uses the apartments next to them or their buildings. 

Is that so?

Over the course of “Protective Edge,” the IDF destroyed 18,000 residential units, and left 100,000 people without homes. There is no possible way to claim that all of these units were either used by Hamas to launch rockets or served as Hamas offices. The organization B’Tselem researched and documented 70 events in which family homes were bombed while their residents were inside them; 606 people were killed in such events, more than 70% of them under the age of 18, over the age of 60 or women. B’Tselem wrote the following regarding the IDF’s dubious criteria of guilt:

            “Over the course of the fighting, the military targeted dozens of homes where Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives live, which it perceived as legitimate military targets. Officials, including the MAG and the IDF Spokesperson, tried to claim that the houses were “operational infrastructure”, “the organization’s command and control infrastructure” or “terror infrastructure.”

It is possible for residences of operatives of Hamas or other organizations to be considered legitimate military targets, but IHL stipulates a twofold test for deciding whether a structure is a “military objective”: the structure must make an effective contribution to military action, and harming it must give the attacking party a clear military advantage.

In spite of this, no official claimed that there was any connection between a house that was targeted and any specific military activity there. Instead, officials listed the occupants’ past and present actions against Israel, or described actions that could have boiled down to a phone call or a meeting which could take place anywhere.”

Let us return to “Operation Guardian of the Walls”: What was the mission justification for destroying the Al-Tanani family’s home in Beit Hanoun, and in so doing killing a father, a pregnant mother, and their four children? The IDF didn’t even hint that there was Hamas activity there. Why did the IDF kill the Abu Khatab and the al-Hadidi families in the Al-Shati camp, 8 women and two children? Here, too, there was no report of Hamas activity (certainly not rocket fire). When asked why the residents of the house in Al-Shati did not receive a warning beforehand, the IDF spokesperson responded [Hebrew, my translation – MRZ]: “We strive to warn without the warning chasing away the target that we want to attack, and thus we do not always warn.” And indeed, you did not warn, and you also did not hit your target; only women and children were killed in this bombing–an action that was entirely “collateral damage,” and has no hint of a justified assassination. The pilots who send the missile know well that there was no warning beforehand. They were trained not to wonder too much about the consequences, the result of gradual and consistent deterioration of the acclaimed military code of the Israeli Air Force.

            This is now a very low bar of guilt–to bomb a house because a military commander ate and slept in it. On the night of the 15th of May, the IDF attacked a series of houses belonging to Hamas commanders (for example, the commander of the Zeitoun Battalion). The Israelis are have grown accustomed to categorized these attacks as “targeted killings,” an entirely different drawer in the shrinking moral lobe, which is ostensibly exempted from legal limitations that apply to attacks on military sites. But this is a local Israeli bluff: nowhere in international law is such a distinction valid, and even the Israeli Supreme Court, which approved these targeted killings, ruled that they must be done with the known restriction of differentiating between a military target and civilian actors (and of course, the court upheld the excuse of “proportionality,” the needle through which you can thread a one-ton bomb).

            On the other hand, Hamas shooting rockets at the houses of the commanders of the IDF’s Gaza Division, or the Head of the Israeli Southern Command would be considered, rightly, a war crime. Innocent people would certainly be killed, and no Israeli would accept the claim that the fact that a commander lives in said house turns it into a legitimate target.

            [But Hamas is a “terror organization” you claim, and the IDF is not? Well, that is supposed to be the takeaway of this comparative discussion, not its sought-after assumption. If the IDF and Hamas similarly disregard their own responsibility for the lives of innocents, the privileged justification of the IDF which leaned on such an assumption has now been disproven].

            Doesn’t work? Moving down a rung.

4. The IDF kills innocent people only as “collateral damage,” not intentionally like Hamas. Evil intentions are what render something an act of terror, rather than a legitimate act of war. 

For the sake of order, let us recall that here and there, there are revelations of incidents in which soldiers fired intentionally on civilian homes in Gaza–for reasons of revenge, boosting morale, the honor of the unit, etc. These are acts of terror in all shapes and forms, despite the fact that they are buried within the units, and those responsible for them are never punished. With that, it is true that the IDF does not have an official policy whose goal is to kill uninvolved civilians, and the proof of this is “roof knocking.” If there was such a policy, we would see much higher numbers of deaths.

            But how much does this matter?

            Is intention the holy grail which distinguishes between IDF purity of arms and Hamas terror? Is this the difference that makes all the difference? This, too, is an old warhorse in the field of propaganda. But this, too, sorrowfully, is nothing but empty rhetoric, in that in situations of clear knowledge of likely outcomes, intention loses its significance.

            A simple example: I am running super late for a very important meeting, perhaps a meeting that will change my life. I speed in my car through the city’s streets, in order not to be late for the meeting. Because I am determined to arrive on time, I do not stop at red lights. I of course know that this is likely to result in a fatal accident. And indeed, at some point, I fly through a light at a junction in which a mother and daughter are crossing by foot, strike them, and they are killed.

            Does it matter that I did not intent to kill them, that I didn’t know who they were, or that they were there at that specific moment? Is my responsibility for their deaths, my moral and criminal responsibility, meaningfully lessened because I didn’t mean to murder them? Of course, there is a difference between the goal that guides this action (not to be late for a meeting) and the goal that guides the actions of Air Force pilots (stopping terror). But the substance of the goal itself is not relevant to the question at hand, in that the goal here is not summoned to justify the act of killing, but rather it is justified on the basis of my “not having intended to kill.” In fact, the responsibility of the pilot is heavier in many cases, in that he receives precise information about the numbers and identities of those present in the building that he is bombing, unlike the driver speeding through a crosswalk.

            Natural morality, criminal law, and international law all recognize the fact that the foreknowledge of the expected results places on the criminal the same moral responsibility as if he had intended the act. In criminal law, they call this “the principle of expectability” [Hebrew], and in international law, this appears in Article 51 of the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention (subclause 5b). This peg to which so many Israelis cling in a desperate effort to preserve a distinction between Hamas and the IDF–it is grounded in nothing but air. Those who recall the controversy around the Goldstone Report after “Operation Cast Lead,” including the Israeli response to the report and Goldstone’s own eventual “admission of sin,” will recall that “premeditated intention” stood at the center of the controversy. In large part, this was a spin aimed at diverting attention from the difficult findings of the report; I analyzed [Hebrew] this whole episode then (in a detailed discussion on the subject of “intention” versus “foreknowledge”).

            The IDF’s attacks in Gaza throughout this current operation, and, in fact, also Israel’s official statements, give basis to the fact that in many mission attacks, the “collateral damage” is known beforehand, and taken into account. Not only in specific incidents, but also as a statistical rule. Let us look, for example, at the percentage of children killed in IDF operations in Gaza over the past 13 years:

-“Cast Lead”: 25% (344/1391)

-“Pillar of Defense”: 19% (32/167)

-“Protective Edge”:  24% (526/2202)

-“Guardian of the Walls” (as of May 16): 29% (55/188).

            Since “Cast Lead,” there have been thirteen years of military technological advances, and over the course of these years, we have heard again and again about “drastic improvements” in the “surgical precision” of the missiles that the IDF shoots into Gaza, which save lives, etc. But the dry statistics paint a different picture, if not an opposite one. The percentage of children killed has remained largely constant, around 20% and higher, with or without a ground invasion, whether the operation lasts a week or a month, and without connection to the number of casualties on the Israeli side.

            This is not surprising. The percentage of innocents that the IDF kills is a necessary correlative of the bombing of crowded civilian neighborhoods (“It’s our fault that they lived in crowded neighborhoods?” the skeptical Israeli will ask. In truth, yes, because Gaza is a jail from which one cannot leave, and even if that weren’t the case, the civilian density does not exempt the IDF from the duty to preserve civilian lives, but rather the opposite: it places upon the IDF additional restrictions).

            Any hypothetical improvement in the surgical precision of the IDF’s weaponry has been balanced out by the surge in aggression of Israel’s rules of engagement (which has been fed, in turn, by the illusion that now Israel can carry out larger scale attacks in the midst of civilian populations). Indeed, after “Operation Pillar of Defense,” I predicted [Hebrew] that “the more the central the role of ‘surgical precision’ becomes in Israeli Hasbara, the higher the percentage of Palestinian civilian casualties will rise.”

            These statistics are known in advance, and they are presented to the decision makers prior to every military operation Gaza. The pilots, too, know these statistics as they fire their missiles on residential buildings. Here, then, is the certain foreknowledge which places Israeli decision makers and pilots on the same moral level as the Hamas members who launch rockets into Israel. There will be those who will insist that malice and the intent to kill civilians is on a different moral level than utter indifference to the death of civilians. But this is an irrelevant psychologicalization of a moral issue: I don’t have interest in a discussion of what goes on in the head of a Hamas militant or an Israeli fighter pilot in the moment that either sends innocents to their death. I assume that the victims are also not interested in this question.

            Doesn’t work? Down another rung of the ladder.

5. The IDF kills innocent people, with foreknowledge, but at least it investigates itself and punishes those responsible for War Crimes.

 Well, this one will be brief.

            The IDF does not as a policy investigate suspicions of War Crimes, and there are no Israeli laws that place responsibility for such crimes on shoulders of senior military or political leadership. The Turkel Commission recommended an amendment to this situation, but of course, its recommendations are gathering dust on the shelf. B’Tselem and other organizations have found an immense amount of evidence for War Crimes carried out by IDF forces during operations in Gaza, but it seems that the IDF is more interested in punishing soldiers for stealing credit cards than for killing children. I have documented on my blog a number of harrowing incidents over that took place during these operations in Gaza, such as the destruction of the village of Khuza’a [Hebrew] during “Protective Edge, and the massacre of the Samouni family [Hebrew] during “Cast Lead,”  the IDF investigation of which ended with the case being closed. Give me the name of an officer who was punished with jail time for killed children in Gaza. There is not even one such case.

            The IDF does not truly investigate its own war crimes (what army does?). If it truly investigated, it would also occasionally punish those found guilty, and we would not see these crimes repeating themselves again and again. For such an investigation, an external body is needed, and this body certainly cannot be part of the regime that sends the IDF to carry out these crimes. It is time to allow the fiction of the IDF investigating itself to crumble in the basement of the national myths.


            After going down the ladder, rung by rung, until the very bottom, the Hasbaraists are likely to bring out their judgement day weapon: “So what do you suggest?”

            How have we arrived from a discussion of the legitimacy of IDF actions in Gaza to the question of what Idan suggests? Which is to say, with all due respect to little Idan, what does this have to do with the question of the legitimacy of bombing children with foreknowledge?

            Are you saying that because I, or someone else, don’t have an alternative to suggestion (I do, in fact, but let’s play along with the sequence for now), therefore these actions are legitimate? It is permissible to kill innocent children because we can’t think of a better solution?

            Israelis have to understand that no political or strategic difficulty can justify these crimes in Gaza. The fact that it is hard to think of a better solution than killing children is of no interest to the children who have been killed. Everything is upside down here. The absolute prohibition of such horrible killing must be set as the starting point for renewed strategic thinking: what can be done vis-à-vis Gaza without turning the IDF into a terrorist organization, (which we have done again and again)? Such renewed thinking would necessarily open up options that are currently locked away, deep down in the vaults of Israeli consciousness.

            As a matter of principle, I insist on abstaining from theoretical discussions of “what do you suggest” while the smoke is still billowing above the houses in Gaza, above the bodies of children piling up there. What is needed now is to stop this killing. To obey this directive truly enough that it will guard us for long enough to prevent the next round. Only then will it be possible to think with clearer heads, free from rocket sirens and the manufacturing of fear, about how we might get free from the trap of the current situation in Gaza. This question is quite old: the solutions have been suggested in the past (by both sides). “Cast Lead” erupted [Hebrew] because Israel did not agree to extend the ceasefire, in contrast to Hamas. In my blog, I have dedicated more than a few words to the question [Hebrew] of “What can be done?” But it is clear that this is not the time to go over these suggestions, while Gazans and Israelis, too, are licking their wounds. For now, ears are closed. These are thoughts for another day.

            And toward this day, we must look with open eyes and acknowledge: there is no moral difference between the IDF and Hamas, and civilians on either side of the border are held hostage by regimes for which terror is their bread and butter, and for whom human lives are cheap. Israelis know well how to point an accusatory finger at the Palestinians, and they barely question their own leadership. Thus, they guarantee that what has been is what will be. Our rhetoric of self-justification does not allow room for true reflection regarding our responsibility for the severe and horrific war crimes being carried out in our names, if not by our very own hands. And as long as there is no such reflection, there will be not placement of responsibility, and the cage–the physical one imprisoning Palestinians, and the mental one imprisoning Israelis–in which we are all trapped, running in place for years now, will remain sealed shut.