Heart of darkness By Zarrar Khuhro


ISRAEL pioneered the troll farm: long before anyone understood the internet’s importance in swaying public opinion, it had deployed the online hasbara army to ensure that criticism of Israel, however justified and muted, would be met with hostility, attacks and counter-accusations, most often of anti-Semitism. Comprising hundreds if not thousands of official, unofficial and ‘sock-puppet’ accounts, this online army enjoyed such success that in 2013, Israel officially said it would recruit “covert units” from Israeli students and international supporters to counter critique.

These chosen many would also be rewarded with scholarships and early access to information and have been seen harassing Palestinian activists and running campaigns against those who speak out against Israel including, but not limited to, ‘doxxing’ them by revealing personal information that could be used to target them and their careers. There’s even an app for that by the name of Act.IL.

Now imagine that in 2021, this multimillion-dollar project stands defeated and discredited at the hands of random social media users.

Because that’s exactly what happened during the latest Israeli atrocities, where we saw that for the first time Israel’s slick online propaganda machine was not just halted in its tracks, but subjected to the kind of cutting ridicule and disdain that only digital natives are capable of. The panic was palpable, with Israel’s official and unofficial social media accounts posting memes like hormonal teenagers and promoting what are colloquially called ‘thirst traps’ featuring the Israeli army’s genocide barbies committing war crimes while looking absolutely fabulous. It didn’t work.

But with much of mainstream Western media, wire services included, it was the same old story. When the Gaza headquarters of Associated Press was destroyed by Israel most outlets didn’t even dare to name the aggressor, choosing instead to use the passive tone that is their default when it comes to Israeli crimes: the building wasn’t ‘destroyed by Israel’, it ‘collapsed after a missile strike’, just like Palestinian children are never killed, they simply die. This cowardice isn’t new: in 2018 when Israeli forces shot an AP cameraman, his own organisation didn’t dare name Israel.

If that’s not bad enough, get this: not long after losing their office to an Israeli strike, AP went and fired their correspondent Emily Wilder for allegedly violating social media policy. When Ms Wilder asked exactly which post of hers led to this punitive action, AP refused to tell her. The actual reason, of course, is that a right-wing group of Stanford students (Emily’s alma mater) revealed that Emily, herself a Jew, played an active role in the organisation Jewish Voices for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine while she was in college. By contrast, how many American journalists have been fired or barred from covering the region because they travelled to Israel as part of the Birthright or Hillel programmes that take Jewish students on propaganda/ indoctrination tours? None.

Also during the carnage, a group of Canadian journalists wrote an open letter to Canadian newsrooms demanding “fair and balanced” coverage of “the ongoing nature of Israeli occupation”, and noting the lack of Palestinian voices, or even of Palestinian versions of events, in Canadian media coverage. The response was swift and three of those journalists have now been removed from covering the region by their organisations.

Conflict of interest is a serious issue when it comes to journalism, but here’s the problem: it doesn’t apply to journalists who have affiliations with Israel. Take CNN whose Jerusalem correspondent Hadas Gold proudly posted about her cousin joining the Israeli army. Or take the New York Times Jerusalem correspon­dent Isabel Kershner and former NYT Jeru­salem bureau chief Ethan Bronner, both of whom have children who have served in the Israeli army. Does this skew their coverage?

Take a look and you’ll see that when Western media discusses this issue, it only ever asks the Israeli knife about the trauma it feels when it slices the Palestinian throat, before segueing to a lifestyle segment on how to best remove bloodstains from steel. If you call that out, these court jesters of genocide will level the old and tired accusation of anti-Semitism at you, an accusation which is losing force rapidly as more and more righteous Jews across the world condemn Israel for its atrocities.

The reasons for the Western media’s support for Israel are many and varied, and stem in part from Western guilt at the Holocaust. That guilt is deserved, as it was centuries of institutionalised European anti-Semitism that found its ultimate expression in Nazi death camps. But the West cannot be allowed to wash this historic stain from its hands with the blood of Palestinian children. The white man’s burden is his own to bear.

The writer is a journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2021