Understanding Hasbara: Israel's propaganda machine

Understanding Hasbara: Israel's propaganda machine
4 min read
18 November, 2023
With disinformation all over social media and Israel using its considerable resources to get its narrative out, The New Arab looks into the form of Israeli propaganda known as 'Hasbara'.
Israeli military spokesperson Daniel Hagari uses carefully crafted infographics to present Israel's narrative on its war policies [Getty]

Since Israel began its war on Gaza on October 7, attempts to discern the veracity of many of the claims it made about its conduct in the war have been difficult.

One of the main reasons for this is that Israel uses a propaganda function known in Hebrew as "Hasbara" in an attempt to control, shape and distort the narrative of every face of its actions.

What is Hasbara?

The word Hasbara roughly translates to "explaining" in English and was popularised in the early 20th century by the Polish Zionist activist and journalist Nahum Sokolow.

Hasbara shares much in common with other forms of modern propaganda, but it is often considered a description of the more granular, event-by-event distortions and fabrications utilised by the Israeli state to justify its controversial actions and policies.

In the modern era, it often takes the form of videos, infographics and viral social media posts and hashtags released and promoted by the Israeli state.

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Justifying the unjustifiable

In both previous and current Israeli military attacks on Gaza, there have always been excessive civilian deaths and Israel repeatedly targets civilian neighbourhoods and infrastructure.

One of the functions of Hasbara is to justify the targeting of civilian areas and the consequent civilian deaths, as well as to shift blame for large numbers of civilian deaths from Israel to Hamas.

This is one reason why Israel continually accuses Hamas of using schools, hospitals, neighbourhoods and factories as military areas and of using Palestinian civilians as so-called "human shields".

Israel has churned out satellite photos and excerpts of the "confessions" of alleged Hamas detainees to back these claims up, yet none of the evidence is independently verifiable.

Critics argue that this isn't meant to be presented to third parties for scrutiny, but is rather hasbara in the form of weaponised disinformation to fight back against public outrage over perceived Israeli brutality.

In the current attack on Gaza, Israel has taken the "human shields" justification one step further. By issuing mass evacuation orders for every resident of North Gaza, Israel's Hasbara narrative would have you believe it is trying to prevent human shields and civilian deaths.

However, some analysts have argued that issuing such an unrealistic and unworkable mass evacuation order has given Israel the green light to attack civilians, as it can whitewash such attacks by saying it warned civilians to flee.

This, according to analysts, is why Israel's attack on civilian areas has been so ferocious. 

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Manufacturing Goliath

One of the key functions of modern Hasbara is to depict Israel as the victim and even the underdog.

To paraphrase Sokolow, who was writing in very different times when Europe was awash with antisemitism, this is appealing to the biblical narrative of David Vs Goliath – the smaller, weaker underdog battling and overcoming the stronger foe.

Critics have noted that while this instance of Hasbara was a more believable narrative during a conflict like the 1967 Arab-Israel war, it is plainly absurd when used against Israel’s modern wars on Gaza.

Israel is a nuclear-armed regional superpower with huge support from the US and Europe. It imposes a siege on Gaza, controlling its water supply, airspace and borders. Yet still Israel persists with the idea that Hamas and Gaza pose a threat to its existence - Israeli officials, including Benjamin Netanyahu, have even drawn direct parallels between Hamas, and sometimes all of Gaza in its current form, and Nazi Germany

This Hasbara distortion very deliberately confuses the direct motivations of Hamas and other forms of Palestinian resistance. But it’s also supposed to depict Hamas as being somehow as militarily capable as the Nazi war machine.

For example, prior to their recent capture of Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza, Israel went out of its way to depict the medical facility as what it called a Hamas “command and control centre”, from which Hamas allegedly plans its activities.

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There’s no doubt that Hamas has bases, though there is no evidence that it has any kind of base at Al-Shifa, the very designation of such bases as “command and control centres” is a deliberately exaggerated distortion.

If Israel can make you believe Hamas has something as sophisticated sounding as “command and control centres”, you might think Hamas has advanced military capabilities which means it has some level of parity with Israel.

The Hasbara terminology is supposed to make people believe Israel is fighting a war for its national survival that also, in turn, justifies the ferocity of Israel’s military attacks on Gaza.

It is supposed to transform Palestinian victims of the massive military force unleashed on them by Israel into necessary "collateral damage" in a war against a force as strong and dangerous as Nazism.