Is Netflix taking part in Israel's propaganda 'Hasbara' campaign?

Is Netflix taking part in Israel's propaganda 'Hasbara' campaign?
Digital media platforms are serving Israeli propaganda while turning a blind eye to the sacrifices and endless suffering of Palestinians who strive to be a free nation, writes Yousef Alhelou.
7 min read
04 October, 2019
Netflix has recently added Israeli-produced films and series to its content [Getty]
The giant films platform, Netflix has in recent months added a number of Israeli produced films and series to its content. 

Of course, it's normal as such platforms are used for entertainment but also let's not forget that messages are directly or indirectly pumped to the minds of audiences around the world.

But what is abnormal is the total absence of pro-Palestine films or series. Its asymmetrical unbalanced battle staged on the cultural level, Israelis with powerful resources and influence verses Palestinians with very little influence when it comes to internationalising the Palestinian narrative despite their just cause.

Whether the films drama story talks about Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Egypt or even Iran, they are all linked to Palestine and the struggle for liberation that started ever since Israel was established at the expense of the Palestinian people. They were made refugees, scattered around the globe and not allowed to return to their homeland.

I watched some of those pro-Israeli films and series and sensed the huge level of injected human feelings humanising the roles of soldiers and spies on duty to serve the Zionist settler colonial state, while ignoring the real reasons behind the events that led to that story.

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That is the ongoing military occupation of historic Palestine which started in 1948, known by indigenous Palestinians as the Nakba, which signalled the ongoing ethnic cleansing, forceful expulsion and dispossession of native Palestinians.

There was no mention whatsoever of this tragedy and catastrophe nor was it reflected in any of those films.    

If there was any mention to Arab or Palestinian victims in those films then it referred to them as "collateral damage", as if the lives of those victims do not matter and do not need a recognition for their suffering, agony, loss and sacrifices.

As traditional media is evolving in the era of digital revolution, promoting ideologies and ideas has become easier.

You just need to create content to resonate with people's common human values, namely the mantra of "self defence" from evil and terrorism, or promoting for civilisation and showing your opponents as bloody monster thugs.

Palestinians or Arabs however, have been portrayed in Hollywood or on platforms such as Netflix, which has more 130 million subscribers, as the victimisers and enemies of civilisation.

Such platforms have become a heaven and venue to serve Israeli propaganda, while turning a blind eye to the sacrifices and endless suffering of Palestinians who strive to be a free nation.

Such platforms have become a heaven and venue to serve Israeli propaganda, while turning a blind eye to the sacrifices and endless suffering of Palestinians who strive to be a free nation

During the six-day war in 1967 known by Palestinians and Arabs as the Naksa – or the setback – which Israel fought against three Arab countries, it captured and occupied the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank including East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.

And as a result, hostilities persisted for many years until Egypt and Jordan signed peace treaties with Israel in 1979 and 1994 respectively, while Syria refused to do so until now as long as the Golan heights is still under Israeli military occupation.

To this end, a new six-episode thriller series was debuted to the online streaming company last September praising Eli Cohen, Israel's most famous spy who worked under Mossad in the 1960s and posed as Kamel Amin Thaabet to gather intelligence on Syria.

No mention was raised about the reason of hostility or the root of the conflict but rather focused on the heroism of Cohen and his devotion to his country over his own family, showing him as dedicated patriotic man who risked his life to defend his country from Syrian threats.

The newly injected films drew backlash and accusations of propaganda from the Arab world with many taking to social media to voice their outrage criticising the role of Netflix, accusing it of promoting Israeli propaganda.

Israeli war films focus on personal experiences, highlight individual feelings, and employ a mixture of horror, thriller, sorrow and humour, which sometimes in an exaggerated way, the Israelis themselves say.

What is the obstacle then? Why we do not see pro-Palestine films on Netflix?

Just to be fair, there is Arabic content on Netflix but it does not convey any political message, but rather love, social drama or comedy films.  

If you search for the word "Palestine" on Netflix, the result will come up with several Israeli films only. Searching the word "Gaza", will result in one pro-Palestine documentary film. Titled Born in Gaza and produced in 2014 by an Argentinean documentary director, it focuses on the devastating violence of the Israeli-Palestine conflict and its effect on the children of Gaza. This is the only single content on Palestine on Netflix.

This then poses the question of whether Western or Arab film directors are reluctant or afraid to even think about pitching or producing pro-Palestine content. And even if they did, will Netflix or Amazon allow such content to be added to their platforms and defy any pressure from the Zionist lobby?

Is it the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority and its ministry of culture, who rely on international aid, to produce such content to tell the Palestinian human side of the story and make the Palestinian narrative available in order to serve as a counter balance?  

One thing is clear, Palestinians need a cinema industry to show them, but the major obstacle is funding or raising the money for co-production as it entails meeting the funders' terms and conditions. Many Palestinian film-makers agree that films produced in English are an important part of the culture of resistance that Palestinians can adapt to tell their story, but this needs foreign collaboration.

The Palestinian archive is full of sad and patriotic stories to be told; shocking, horrifying tales of events that have happened since the British mandate of Palestine in the 1940's, and events that continue to happen.

Netflix is a commercial company that strives to generate profit, without causing problems or being subjected to criticism

Palestinian director Khalil al-Muzayyen and Festival Director at Red Carpet Human Rights Film Festival said that Netflix is a commercial company that strives to generate profit, without causing problems or being subjected to criticism.

"Netflix is an international stream company that takes films that only meet certain standards and tastes of Western audiences. The main problem is funding, and any funding is conditional and has to meet certain criteria. The idea is how to present your approach for your film in a clever way to make it acceptable.

"Palestinian films or documentaries could be problematic to Netflix, whereas films about Israel are tolerated especially if the script was written in a somehow balanced way with human touch and emotions."

The presentation of war and conflict in cinema for any country aims to infiltrate the national collective memory and at some point to rewrite history, even if that means sometimes distorting the facts or forging history.

Adnan Abu Amer, an academic at Al-Ummah University in Gaza and researcher in Israeli affairs said that Western profitable online stream companies put special standards for any content that is acceptable for Western audiences  

"Israel has huge resources at its disposal to support and finance film directors who can promote the Israeli narrative, and it does employ the anti-Semitism approach to serve its ideas. Arab and Palestinian directors can penetrate Netflix and produce balanced content to promote the Palestinian narrative.

"Nothing prevents them from coming forward, but we understand that sometimes the problem could be financial. Any film-maker wants a successful film that brings profit and this applies to film companies. Production terms and criteria is designed to limit or avoid any headache and legal cases specially when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and instead employ emotions and sympathy."   

Movies and TV shows can influence the world public opinion and Netflix is being used for political ends.

The question in the minds of many now is will the management of Netflix – an American media-service provider and production company based in California – choose to promote just one side of the story for the sake of profit and ignore the tragedy of another nation? 

Yousef Alhelou is a Palestinian journalist and political analyst from Gaza, based in London. He is a United Nations fellow and alumni, and served as a Reuters journalist fellow at the University of Oxford.

Follow him on Twitter: @YousefAlhelou