October 22, 2023 | The Messenger

The Hamas Disinformation Campaign Against Israel Is Also Brutal

October 22, 2023 | The Messenger

The Hamas Disinformation Campaign Against Israel Is Also Brutal

Hamas launched a disinformation assault on Tuesday. Following a week of shock and outrage stemming from its Oct. 7 massacre of more than 1,400 Israelis, the terrorist group backed by Iran needed to turn the tide. The explosion at the Al Ahli Arab Hospital in northern Gaza provided the opportunity to win global sympathy and spur Hamas’s allies and supporters to attack Israel with words and weapons.

Leading news outlets around the world ran with Hamas’s narrative of an Israeli missile strike killing hundreds of

Palestinians at the hospital. None of this turned out to be true, according to U.S. intelligence reports. Israel swiftly responded with a steady stream of videos, images, and audio refuting Hamas’s claims.

This would not be the first time Palestinians invented numbers to win sympathy. In 2002, just after a Hamas suicide bombing left 30 Israelis dead and 140 injured at a Passover celebration, Israel launched a raid on the terror group’s hub in Jenin. Palestinian sources originally claimed there were 3,000 dead in the street fighting, later lowering the tally to 500. An independent report found the actual number to be around 50, more than half of whom were terrorists. Despite the clarification, the myth of a Jenin massacre persists.

Perhaps Hamas was hoping for a similar public relations win here.

Winning Western public sympathy is key to Hamas’s political strategy. It should be noted, however, that Hamas’s tactic of terrorizing Israelis has tarnished its reputation, complicating its public sympathy campaign. In 2017, Hamas released a policy document to soften the image it earned from its deeply antisemitic and effectively genocidal 1988 charter, not to mention years of suicide bombings. The new document did not supersede or replace the original charter, but publishing it allowed some Westerners to claim the group had moderated.

Another crucial part of Hamas’s strategy to win sympathy has been its use of human shields, as confirmed by a June 2019 NATO report. Operating in civilian areas, Hamas forces Israel to risk killing Palestinian non-combatants to protect its own citizens. When Palestinians are killed, Hamas gains valuable ammunition in its information war against Israel. In the current fighting, following Israeli warnings to leave parts of Gaza that Israel intends to strike, Hamas told Palestinians not to evacuate their homes and that roads are unsafe. Hamas has even blocked roads, ensuring that civilians remain near Hamas assets.

Disinformation and propaganda factored significantly into Hamas’s strategy for its Oct. 7 attack. The terrorist group used images of its successes to terrorize Israelis and show that it had punched a hole in Israel’s armor. A weakened Jewish state might inspire Israel’s enemies to join the fray and create a multi-front war against Israel, tipping the scales in Hamas’s favor. 

Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist organization also backed by Iran, has kept Israel’s northern border on edge but has yet to join in full force. Jordanian security forces prevented civilians from rushing the border with Israel. However, large rallies have occurred throughout the Arab world, Europe, and the United States. And Israel appears distanced from its new and potential Arab partners.

But Hamas’s tactical success in its attack on Israel has become a public relations disaster for the terrorist group’s brand. Videos and pictures of the slaughter have belied Hamas’s once-preferred image as a moderate force fighting for justice. Though in the past, sympathy for Israel following Hamas attacks faded as soon as Israel retaliated, the scale and brutality of Hamas’s slaughter has changed the equation. For now, these gruesome images have held off Western pressure on Israel to cease its campaign to destroy Hamas.

In response, Hamas has launched a coordinated disinformation operation to do damage control for its battered reputation. A cyber research group found a coordinated campaign conducted by 67 online accounts spreading disinformation and inflammatory content favoring Hamas in its war against Israel. Hamas will use not only bots and trolls but also a network of social media influencers, and likely will integrate artificial intelligence into its information war strategies

Hamas also sought to reclaim the narrative by downplaying the barbarity of its attacks. According to the BBC, some social media users claimed that footage of Hamas taking hostages was staged in order to smear the Palestinian cause. Some Hamas officials flatly denied that its fighters killed civilians, insisting that it only attacked soldiers, despite videos showing otherwise and captured Hamas documents proving it was their intent. Hamas also tried to soften its image by disseminating videos of its fighters releasing female and child hostages or comforting and holding Israeli children, though the images of militants holding Kalashnikovs and captured kids might have the opposite effect.

Hamas has also sought to spread disinformation by claiming it is treating foreign hostages with care. However, Hamas killed or captured people from nearly 30 countries in its attack. This included a foreign worker a Hamas fighter tried to decapitate with a farm tool.

Hamas needed a Palestinian civilian mass casualty event to reframe the narrative around alleged Israeli brutality, not theirs. Hamas fully comprehends that information is a weapon and will continue to batter Israel in the information space. With only a small investment in information operations, Hamas can pollute the information space with conflicting narratives by spreading disinformation and misinformation. Even though the hospital angle ultimately backfired, for 24 hours, the global media narrative revolved around whether Israel bombed a Palestinian hospital and not Hamas’s heinous Oct. 7 attack.

Videos and images of Hamas’s carnage — mangled corpses, murdered families, and bloody cribs — have harmed Hamas’s image. And Israel’s deft handling of Hamas’s hospital bombing account undermined the terrorist group’s credibility, helping Israel to stave off international pressure. Israel must continue to fight the battle for narratives so that it can continue fighting on the ground to eliminate Hamas.

David May (@DavidSamuelMay) is a research manager at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Ivana Stradner (@ivanastradner) is an adviser. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. 


Arab Politics Disinformation Hezbollah Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Israel Israel at War