Alongside its fight with Hamas, Israel is fighting another battle: to convince the world, and chiefly the United States, that this is a just war.
Israel’s public-relations machine has gone into overdrive in recent weeks to make the case that its pummeling of Gaza has been necessary and conducted in a way meant to minimize civilian deaths. It has allowed journalists, including those from NBC News, to embed with its soldiers in Gaza, maintained a steady drumbeat of social media posts, and made Israeli representatives available for TV appearances.
But in doing so, it has released several pieces of inaccurate or disputed information including claiming that an Arabic calendar was a shift schedule for Hamas kidnappers, and using curtains as evidence that hostage videos had been filmed in a hospital.
The widespread reaction calling out these questionable pieces of evidence has weakened Israel’s credibility, according to some experts, and could lead to a boy-who-cried-wolf situation unless concrete evidence for a Hamas headquarters is found beneath Gaza’s Al-Shifa hospital, one of Israel’s key contentions at this stage of the war.
“The irony is they might find something and nobody is going to believe them,” said H.A. Hellyer, a senior associate fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “At this point their credibility is shot.”
This is not an evenhanded information war between Israel and Hamas, the latter being a terror group banned in the U.S. and Europe that carried out the Oct. 7 attack that killed some 1,200 people.
Among a host of spurious claims, Hamas claimed without evidence that Israel had bombed the al-Ahli Hospital on Oct. 17, killing 500 people. Israel denied this, saying that instead a misfired rocket by Palestinian militants had caused the explosion, a conclusion supported by evidence analyzed by NBC News.
And while some of Hamas’ propaganda has been able to sidestep Western efforts to limit its reach, Hellyer, whose career has included senior anti-radicalization roles in the U.K. government, said this information war should not be seen as one between two equal parties.
“We don’t take seriously what a terror group says, but we do take seriously what an army says, especially one that’s an ally of ours,” he said. “So we naturally hold it to a higher standard.”
Israel knows the international debate matters. While the White House backs Israel’s stated goal to destroy Hamas in response to its Oct. 7 attack that killed some 1,200 people, Biden administration officials have privately expressed concerns that the Israel Defense Forces are not doing enough to avoid civilian deaths, of which there have been more than 12,000, over half of whom were women and children, according to Palestinian health officials.
Pressure isn’t only coming from the United States. This week, the 15-member United Nations Security Council voted for a pause in the fighting. And streets across the world have been filled with hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding a cease-fire.
Polling suggests much of the outpouring of goodwill Israel received after the Oct. 7 attacks has now ebbed in the face of images showing mass casualties and destruction in Gaza.
Nimrod Goren, a Jerusalem-based senior fellow for Israeli affairs at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, the oldest think tank focusing on the region, said these shifts do not go unnoticed.
“The sense is that Israel is taking into account American and other Western concerns when conducting its military operation to ensure that support continues and the criticism doesn’t cross a certain bar,” Goren said.
A mistaken calendar and curtains lead to ridicule
Much of Israel’s PR effort has centered on hospitals, where IDF strikes have contributed to a soaring Palestinian death toll. Israel has maintained that Hamas uses the facilities as military bases, making them legitimate targets. Hamas has denied those claims.
The Israeli military says at Al-Shifa it has found one tunnel shaft, a vehicle containing weapons and other caches of guns and ammo. Nearby, Israel said its soldiers found the bodies of Yehudit Weiss, a civilian hostage, and Noa Marciano, a 19-year-old soldier, who were both taken by Hamas on Oct. 7.
But efforts to prove its case have at times hurt Israel’s cause.
Most notably, IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari showed what he said was evidence that the Al-Rantisi hospital had been used by Hamas to detain hostages. He pointed to a piece of paper, saying that it showed a rota for guarding the captives. “Every terrorist has his own shift,” he said.
Written above the document in pen was “Al-Aqsa Flood,” Hamas’ name for its Oct. 7 assault. But Arabic speakers pointed out that the rest of the paper merely showed days of the week, with no trace of the Hamas captors’ names described by Hagari.
Elsewhere in the hospital, he pointed out curtains had been hung on a wall with no window. There was “no reason” to do this “unless you want to film hostages and deliver movies,” Hagari said.
Some people from the region pointed out that this is a common interior decor theme among Palestinian households.
In response, the IDF told NBC News that it had issued a “prompt correction” to Hagari’s calendar comment, and that any “suggestions that the IDF is manipulating the media are incorrect.”
“We are taking all necessary precautions to report as much information as we can,” it said in a statement, “whilst maintaining the safety of our troops and retaining our operational readiness.”
Nevertheless, ridicule soon followed. Videos on social media have lampooned increasingly ridiculous and mundane objects held up as “IDF evidence.”
Israel has been accused of spreading misinformation before. Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesperson for Arab media, Ofir Gendelman, posted to X a video that he claimed showed Gazans faking their injuries with makeup. Despite countless people correcting him that the footage was in fact from a Lebanese film, it had not been deleted as of Friday.
Attacking a hospital is a war crime unless a military or militant group is using it for operations, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Even then, doctors and patients must be warned, with extra care taken not to harm those who stay.
Israel says it has warned doctors and patients at hospitals it says are being used by Hamas. But many doctors say they are unable to transfer critical patients and unwilling to leave them behind. Doctors at Al-Shifa have vehemently denied it is being used as a militant base.