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Narrative weaponisation in Israel’s war on Gaza

January 10, 2024 at 4:40 pm

Hamas hands over 11 Israeli hostages to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Gaza City, Gaza on November 27, 2023. [Stringer – Anadolu Agency]

Last week, an Israeli-French woman who was among scores of Israelis taken hostage by Palestinian Resistance group, Hamas, claimed a Hamas militant raped her “with his eyes”, as she was “closed in a dark room, not allowed to talk, not allowed to be seen, to be heard, hidden”.

21-year-old Mia Schem was released in late November under a now-lapsed humanitarian pause between Israel and Hamas. The ex-hostage’s claims have made headlines, just a few weeks after she said she had been well-treated by Hamas militants. But she told Channel 13 in the interview that she had felt coerced to give that version for fears of being raped by the gunman who watched over her around the clock in the home where he lived with his wife and children in Gaza.

In the intricate realm of hostage crises, narratives often twist and turn, revealing a spectrum of emotions, trauma and manipulation. Recent events surrounding the Israeli ex-hostage’s testimony have sparked heated debates, shedding light on the perplexing dynamics of hostage situations and the complexities of post-captivity narratives.

The saga began with the release of the former Israeli hostage who, upon initial debriefings, conveyed a somewhat startling account of her captivity in Gaza, stressing how she was treated reasonably well by her captors. Her statements were a departure from the clichéd, stereotypical Israeli narrative, creating ripples of surprise among Israeli observers and casting a different light on the Qassam captors involved.

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Post-hostage narrative distortion

Typically, the change in the ex-hostage’s testimonies sheds light on the insidious tactics employed in times of war, where captives are coerced or manipulated into presenting a distorted version of events, often to serve the interests of the captors or certain factions involved in the conflict; However, in this case, a dramatic shift in the Israeli woman’s narrative startled the world. Amid growing pressure from her Netanyahu-led government and external allies, she altered her testimony dramatically, dehumanising her captors.  Allegations surfaced, asserting that her captor had not only tormented her but had subjected her to psychological distress by ‘raping her through his eyes’.

The sudden metamorphosis of her account, from an initially moderate depiction to a portrayal of grotesque mistreatment, has ignited a storm of scepticism. Was this a genuine alteration in her recollection of events, or had external pressures coerced her into crafting a more sensationalised narrative?

This abrupt transformation of her testimony highlights the profound manipulative power of Israeli government agencies in shaping post-captivity narratives.

The evolving narrative surrounding this ordeal not only serves as a stark reminder of the complexities surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian hostage situations and the far-reaching impact of narrative manipulation tactics during times of war-making. It also underscores Israel’s struggle to concoct a profitably nuanced understanding and empathy towards Israelis who have been held captive by Hamas, despite affidavits by several hostages or ex-hostages about the humane treatment they have received.

Furthermore, the case raises critical questions about the authenticity and reliability of Israeli testimonies moulded under the duress of external influences. Is it plausible that an individual’s recollection of events could fluctuate so drastically, or does this underscore the complexities of psychological trauma and coercion faced by Israeli hostages even after their release?

Ultimately, the ex-hostage’s altered testimony urges a more critical understanding of the intricate interplay between personal experiences, external influences and the broader political agendas that often mould and manipulate Israeli accounts.

In the volatile landscape of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Israel has left no stone unturned to master the art of narrative manipulation as a potent weapon in the arsenal of warfare. Israel continues to make use of strategic narratives, propaganda and misinformation to shape perceptions, sway public opinion and influence outcomes in its ongoing attempt to carve out a “normal” space in the MENA region and the world.

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Tactics of narrative manipulation

From the early years of its Occupation of Palestine, Israel has opted for a deliberate and systematic weaponisation of political and military discourses. This tactic often involves the distortion of facts, dehumanisation of Palestinians, demonisation of anti-Occupation groups, dissemination of false information and the crafting of fake narratives tailored to serve its colonial agenda. By claiming Hamas militants have raped women and beheaded babies—allegations that have been debunked by international organisations—Israel has, once again, revealed that it is engaged in a battle not only on the ground but also in the information sphere. From videos depicting alleged atrocities by Palestinian resistance groups to narratives portraying Palestinians as rapists and terrorists, to post-hostage testimonies claiming Qassam captors raped a captive woman, the conflict has been rife with misinformation aimed at influencing public opinion, garnering international support, disseminating anti-resistance propaganda and justifying military actions.

Israel’s recourse to censorship and restrictions on media access is yet another tactic of its narrative manipulation. By maintaining close supervision on Israeli ex-hostages’ media appearances, instructing them on “do’s and don’ts” prior to post-release news coverage and tasking medical officials to assess whether the released hostages are fit enough to be questioning about their ordeal, the Israeli government exposes a deep-seated phobia. This control signifies the government’s apprehension toward the genuine narrative surfacing—one that might challenge the dehumanisation of their supposed enemy captor.

By limiting the disclosure of the hostages, it becomes evident that the Israeli government aims to whitewash its own mistreatment of Palestinian captives, many of them tortured to death behind captivity bars, while distorting the image of Palestinian Resistance groups in an attempt to manipulate public perception and overshadow its own crimes in the raging war.

Israel’s disinformation front and pervasive use of narrative manipulation have severely eroded its image as a bastion of self-defence, inadvertently playing into the hands of its enemy—Palestinian Resistance groups. By perpetuating falsehoods and crafting skewed narratives, the Israeli army has, once again, veered away from its self-proclaimed principles of transparency and integrity.

The proliferation of conflicting versions has sown seeds of doubt, diminishing not only the international community’s trust but also Israelis’ trust in the institution supposed to protect them. As Hamas seizes upon the chaos of contradictory Israeli information, the singular narrative it presents gains strength, amplifying its objectives, while tarnishing the Israeli army’s reputation as a force of self-defence.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.