“Worse than ISIS” – debunking Israeli propaganda

paramedics carry a stretcher with the body of a baby

Israel’s bombing of Gaza has already killed more than 1,000 children.

Majdi Fathi APA images

Israel’s ongoing genocidal bombing campaign against Gaza has unsurprisingly been accompanied by an intense propaganda blitz in the media specifically intended to justify its murderous violence to a western audience.

Alongside the spurious “Hamas beheads babies” story – widely reported and still being repeated without a shred of evidence beyond the word of an extremist Zionist settler – a key component of the propaganda war being waged by both the media and political class of Israel and the major western nations united behind it, is an attempt to portray Hamas as equivalent to ISIS.

This formulation is not new – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced before the UN General Assembly in 2014 that “Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas” – but it has been a distinctly prominent trope of the response to Operation al-Aqsa Flood thus far and been propagated repeatedly, including in promoted social media posts and YouTube adverts.

In the aftermath of the operation, The Jerusalem Post declared “Hamas is a Palestinian ISIS.” A US spokesperson described Hamas as committing “ISIS-level savagery.”

In the UK, Home Secretary Suella Braverman, posted a chilling video on Twitter/X in which she claimed that Hamas was guilty of “medieval anti-Semitism” and through its methods had revealed itself “to be the equal of ISIS,” a message that was then repeated by UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, who called the Hamas operation a “pogrom.”

Netanyahu then went further and declared that Hamas was in fact “worse than ISIS,” while his thuggish Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant, said: “We will wipe this thing called Hamas, ISIS-Gaza, off the face of the earth.”

The US Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, echoed Netanyahu: “I know a lot about ISIS, and [what Hamas has done] is worse than what I saw with ISIS.”

Dangerous lie

Conveniently for the purposes of this spurious narrative, the Israeli military implausibly claimed to have found an Islamic State flag at one of the Zionist settlements inside historical Palestine which was briefly held by Palestinian fighters.

The accounts of survivors that directly contradict the propagated image of bloodthirsty Hamas fighters indiscriminately raping and killing civilians are, of course, being routinely ignored by mainstream media outlets, as has the flat-out denial by Hamas officials that the group targeted civilians.

What the various aspects of this deceitful campaign all intend to convey is the dangerous lie that Hamas – often used to refer tacitly to all Palestinians, if not Arabs or Muslims as a whole – are barbaric savages beyond all reasoning and logic.

In so doing, Israel’s use of enormous violence against them, however brutal and indiscriminate, is justified as the only option that it has, an ostensibly civilized, “democratic” state forced to take brutal measures due to the backwards and intransigent nature of the enemies it faces.

This is achieved in part by referring constantly to Hamas killing “Jews” and portraying the situation as an ancient religious conflict, thus deliberately obscuring the reality of Zionist settler colonialism. Hamas’ position on this is clear, as the group proclaimed in 2017: The “conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion. Hamas does not wage a struggle against the Jews because they are Jewish but wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine. Yet, it is the Zionists who constantly identify Judaism and the Jews with their own colonial project and illegal entity.”

The success of Israel’s framing is aided by the fact that it is able to draw on the many years of Islamophobic conditioning of Western society, as well as the long-standing dominance of anti-Palestinian, pro-Zionist narratives in the cultural mainstream.

Ghassan Kanafani’s analysis in his 1967 work On Zionist Literature remains pertinent: “Israel’s media campaign is … not a mere passing raid; this is conquest upon well-trodden terrain, striking deep into the consciousness of an audience that has long been deceived … a most grotesque process of cultural disinformation.”

This technique is also reminiscent of the way in which official enemies of the US are routinely demonized as being the same or worse than Hitler; ostensibly deranged leaders with whom any negotiation or appeasement is both impossible and morally indefensible.

In this context, those who seek to counter such a narrative are immediately condemned as “apologists,” and deemed to have lost the moral high ground in a way that shuts down and intimidates dissenting voices.

Mirror, mirror

Like all Zionist propaganda talking points, the conflation of Hamas with ISIS is, of course, wholly inaccurate and deeply misleading, and like so much imperialist and colonialist propaganda it is also a case of psychological projection.

Contrary to these frenzied claims, Hamas has actually been a staunch opponent of ISIS and was involved in a years-long, bloody conflict against it and other like-minded groups that had gained a small foothold in Gaza. As the Financial Times reported in 2015, Hamas moved to “stamp out” ISIS in Gaza, arresting a number of suspected members.

ISIS later “declared war on Hamas” and branded them “apostates” for, among other things, the group’s participation in democratic elections and its friendly relations with Iran and the Palestinian Christian community.

During this conflict, ISIS carried out characteristic acts of extreme violence against Hamas targets – including the execution on camera of a man alleged to have smuggled arms for the group and killing three Hamas police officers in a suicide bomb attack.

An especially sick irony of Israel tapping into the Western public’s fear of barbaric “Islamist” terrorists in this way is that when it suited their strategic interests to do so, Israel actively supported such groups in Syria.

Indeed, Hamas’ deadly conflict with ISIS stands in marked contrast to Israel’s and the West’s position towards them, al-Qaeda and other comparable groups, which they covertly armed, funded and supported for years in their proxy war against the Syrian government.

Lest it be forgotten, Braverman’s predecessor as UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel, was forced to resign from a previous ministerial position in 2017 for holding secret, unauthorized meetings with Israeli officials in which she offered to divert UK aid money into funding Israeli military hospitals then treating al-Qaeda members fighting in Syria – fighters that Netanyahu even met as part of a media campaign.

It is telling that in one of the most disturbing incidents that has taken place in Syria over the last decade – illustrative of exactly the kind of deranged violence that Israel is currently portraying Hamas as guilty of – the victim was a young Palestinian, Abdullah Tayseer Al Issa, decapitated on camera by members of the Nur al-Din al-Zinki brigade, a group armed and funded by the US.

Furthermore, while the widely repeated claims that “Hamas fighters raped women” are unverified, it is well documented that the sexual torture of Palestinian detainees by Israeli authorities is “systemic,” and includes verbal sexual harassment, forced nudity, and physical sexual assault.

This sexual abuse also extends to Palestinian children kidnapped by Israeli forces.

Similarly, while the claim that Hamas beheaded babies remains unverified, the decapitation of multiple Palestinian children in Gaza – just some of the hundreds murdered by Israel’s bombs in the last week – has already been confirmed by the heartbreaking eyewitness account of a CGTN reporter.

James Baldwin once noted: “Whatever you see in other people is what you see in the mirror … everybody knows, or every writer knows … no matter what I may be describing, I am describing myself.”

Israel’s routine depiction of Hamas as barbaric, sadistic torturers brings the searing truth of Baldwin’s words sharply into focus.

Louis Allday is a writer, editor and historian.