Fact or Fiction: Israel needs fake nurses to justify killing Gaza babies

Israel knows it risks losing global support over its slaughter of children. So it’s turning to social media disinformation that’s sloppy but often effective.

This photo released by Dr. Marawan Abu Saada shows prematurely born Palestinian babies in Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. Gaza's Shifa Hospital has become the focus of a days-long stalemate in Israel's war against Hamas. Israel claims Hamas uses the facility for military purposes and has built a vast underground command center below the hospital. Since Israel declared war against Hamas, its forces have moved in on Shifa. But hundreds of doctors and patients remain inside. (Dr. Marawan Abu Saada via AP)
Prematurely born Palestinian babies in al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on Sunday, November 12, 2023 [Dr. Marawan Abu Saada via AP Photo]

In Gaza, a child is killed every 10 minutes. Since October 7, Israel has killed more than 4,000 children. Now, premature babies at Gaza’s al-Shifa Hospital are dying because the institution is out of power after over a month of Israel’s siege, and so is unable to operate incubators.

Israel knows it risks losing international support for its ongoing slaughter of children. Western allies like French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who have until now been steadfast in supporting Israel, have in the past week publicly asked the Israeli government to stop killing children, even if Macron has since softened his tone.

As a result, Israel’s propaganda and disinformation machine is finding new ways to justify the killing of children and the bombing of medical facilities.

Usually, Israel’s first response to accusations of atrocities is denial. When that fails, the second strategy is to blame Hamas or other Palestinian armed groups for Palestinian deaths.

It hasn’t given up on those strategies, but is also trying to directly link Palestinian children to Hamas, and thereby seek to portray them – and the places where they are sheltering – as legitimate targets.

Blaming Hamas

On November 11, the official Arabic account run by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted a video of a nurse, apparently agitated, talking about Hamas overrunning the al-Shifa Hospital, and taking all the fuel and morphine. She claimed that because Hamas had stolen morphine, she couldn’t use it on a five-year-old with a fracture.

The video, which was retweeted thousands of times, was a clear fake. No staff in the vicinity appear to recognise the individual featured, casting doubt on her identity and role. Robert Mackey, a journalist with the research agency Forensic Architecture, spoke to three Doctors Without Borders staff members working at the al-Shifa Hospital, none of whom recognised her.

The video was almost comic in its absurdity. The nurse spoke with a non-Palestinian accent, and her dialogue seemed to perfectly echo Israeli military talking points about Hamas stealing all the fuel from hospitals.

Moreover, the strategic placement of a Palestinian Health Ministry logo was a contrived attempt to mislead or create a ‘honeytrap’ for open-source intelligence. Adding to the suspicion were the stock audio-sounding bombing effects, and her immaculately clean white coat and perfect makeup, all of which seemed out of place in a supposedly dire setting.

The purpose of the video was clear, to blame Hamas for the suffering of children and legitimise the Israeli military’s claims that Hamas is using civilians and children as human shields.

Eventually, as the Israeli government was called out over the video, the Foreign Ministry quietly deleted its post – without any explanation.

But spreading disinformation and then deleting it has become routine, raising the question: Why is the Israeli military’s propaganda so sloppy? After all, doesn’t Israel risk losing credibility this way?

No, because the benefits outweigh the costs. The old adage, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”, tells us most of what we need to know about propaganda. The key is not truthfulness, but rather speed and primacy.

Controlling the narrative means getting information out faster than your enemy, and making that information sensational – regardless of whether it is factual. One study showed that 86 percent of people do not fact-check news they see on social media.

Once something false goes viral, the people who see it are unlikely to see the fact-checked version. The audience for such videos aren’t astute fact-checkers. In Israel’s case, large numbers of the audience are English-speaking, Western viewers who won’t catch fake accents and have no reason to believe such information is false.

It’s important to remember, propaganda does not need to be sophisticated to be effective – just fast and sensationalist. Social media is perfect for this.

Hate-filled, Mein Kampf-reading children

Beyond blaming Hamas, a more sinister stage in the legitimisation of Israel’s killing of children is emerging – the attempt to smear Palestinian children as recipients of evil, anti-Semitic Hamas propaganda. That Palestinian children are only trained to become ‘terrorists’.

On November 5, Israel’s official Arabic account tweeted a cartoon showing that Israel brings its babies up with ‘love’, while Hamas fills babies in Gaza with ‘hate’.

Then, on Monday, the official Foreign Ministry-run Israel account claimed on X  that the Israeli military had found a copy of Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ in a child’s room in Gaza. Pristine, with perfect notes and highlights, the ‘finding’ of the book was an attempt to bolster the narrative that Palestinian children are being filled with hate, are beyond redemption and are thus valid targets for killing.

Mein Kampf represents the epitome of anti-Semitism. It is Hitler’s autobiography. The significance of this will not be lost on many in the West, often the intended audiences for Israeli propaganda. The use of Mein Kampf, a copy of which was brandished theatrically by Israeli President Isaac Herzog, demonstrates that Israel is trying to portray older Palestinian children as brainwashed anti-Semites – it’s a simple tool to push that narrative.

Bunker under a children’s hospital

On Monday night, Israel doubled down on its attempts to legitimise its attacks on children. The Israeli military posted a video of its spokesperson Daniel Hagari walking around an alleged Hamas bunker beneath the Rantisi Children’s Hospital in Gaza. In one of the scenes, Hagari is kneeling by guns, grenades and other weapons, in the background, a painting of a tree seemingly created by children.

In another video, also purportedly from the Rantisi hospital basement, Hagari draws attention to a chair and the remnants of a rope that he claims were used to tie hostages. Then, he points to a baby bottle lying above a World Health Organization-marked electrical junction box.

The juxtaposition of childlike innocence in the form of the painting or the bottle with guns serves to legitimise Israel’s narrative of Hamas as inhuman ‘terrorists’ who use children and hospitals as human shields or captives. That in turn is used to justify Israel’s strikes on civilian targets – even if the lives of children are at risk, and even if a UN organisation is involved.

However, the video is clearly a propaganda stunt. Hagari points at a handwritten table written in Arabic pinned to the wall. Hagari then says the list names Hamas fighters. “This is a guardian list where every terrorist writes his name, and every terrorist has his own shift guarding the people that were here”.

The only problem is the list said no such thing. It was a list of the days of the week.

Why is Israel doing this?

Over the weekend, Israel offered al-Shifa Hospital a meagre amount of fuel, after enforcing a total blockade on the Gaza Strip since October 7 that has crippled medical facilities.

The hospital’s director, Muhammad Abu Salmiya, said of the attempt to supply some fuel, that “Israel wants to show the world that it is not killing babies”.

But now that Israel can no longer deny that it is killing Palestinian babies, it is trying to legitimise their murder. In his work on ‘image restoration theory’, William Benoit calls this ‘reducing offensiveness’. Put simply, you blame the victim, or make the victim seem deserving of their suffering.

As the death toll rises, so do the outlandish attempts to shift blame on innocent victims.

But no amount of manufactured videos or planted “evidence” can obscure the truth. Children are dying by the hundreds in Gaza, their blood spilled by Israel’s bombs, bullets and siege.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.