No Israeli civilians were killed in the October 7 onslaught on communities near Gaza, Palestinian diplomat Abdullah Abu Shawesh claimed matter of factly to Al Jazeera last week. Accounts of rape and other atrocities “were lies,” he said, dismissing the overwhelming evidence that Hamas’s slaughter of 1,200 people in southern Israel included indiscriminate massacres and sexual violence.
On the Palestinian street, Shawesh’s claims are not the views of a fringe conspiracy theorist, but rather reflective of mainstream beliefs, with polling and other evidence showing high levels of denialism regarding the savagery visited upon southern Israel that day.
According to a Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) survey published last month, over 90 percent of Palestinians polled believe that “Hamas did not commit the atrocities seen in the videos” on October 7, referring to attacks on civilians. That number rises to a whopping 97% when only including West Bank residents, compared to 83% of Gazans.
The dismissal of the incontrovertible evidence is mainly due to the lack of coverage in Palestinian and Arab media, said Khalil Shikaki, a professor of political science in Ramallah and director of the PCPSR, who conducted the poll.
A full 85% of respondents said they had not seen video footage of the acts, despite widely disseminated videos of the attacks and their aftermath.
Though Palestinians could and can view video footage of atrocities via a wide array of sources online, unless they sought it out, “most Palestinians have not had access to information that showed that Hamas committed atrocities on that day,” Shikaki contended.
Footage of the savagery against civilians, which has been broadcast widely elsewhere, has been largely absent in the Arab media. On Al Jazeera and other networks, coverage feted Hamas or parrotted its claims, portraying the assault as a legitimate military action and ignoring the fact that civilians were brutally targeted for slaughter, to say nothing of the evidence of mutilation, rape and other atrocities.
Survey data from the West Bank and Gaza indicated that those who did see the videos were 10 times more likely to believe that Hamas did commit atrocities against civilians (31%) than those who did not (3%).
Michael Milshtein, head of the Forum for Palestinian Studies at the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, questioned the veracity of the low figure of Palestinians who watched the footage, however. “Hamas filmed everything, and the videos were widely circulated. I say this with caution, but I think everyone knows what happened.”
Shikaki said that since October 7, the main source of information for Palestinians has been Al Jazeera.
Viewership of the Qatari channel stood at about 20% in 2018, the latest poll he conducted on the subject. But Shikaki estimated that it is now the main news outlet for half of the population, while the other half get their news from one of half a dozen channels that can broadcast live from Gaza, mostly from the Gulf, as well as the local Palestine TV.
Their coverage “is not too different from Al Jazeera,” Shikaki said.
While Al Jazeera English did provide some basic coverage of the atrocities of October 7 at the Nova music festival and the kibbutzim, those events were barely mentioned by its Arabic-language flagship, which is what Palestinians actually watch.
“Al Jazeera [Arabic] was more focused on the glorification of what happened, relying on the official statements by Hamas and repeating those quite often,” said Shikaki.
The Qatari outlet published videos of Palestinians celebrating the savage attack in what it described as outbreaks of “spontaneous” and “overwhelming joy.” It also ignored accounts of violence against Israeli civilians, including graphic evidence filmed by Hamas terrorists themselves.
“Sometimes [the outlet] had no way of authenticating the content of those videos,” Shikaki said, “but sometimes they just wanted to deny the evidence.”
Attempts by The Times of Israel to reach Al Jazeera for comment were not successful.
When the Qatari news giant did run video from the October 7 assault, it showed attacks on troops, not civilians, usually adopting non-neutral language that referred to Hamas as “the resistance” and the IDF as the “occupation army,” even when operating inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders.
And its coverage trumpeted instances in which attackers came off as pious Muslims, such as a story about a Hamas member who stormed into a woman’s house in Kfar Aza but spared her life and that of her two children, saying that as a Muslim he would not hurt them.
Even seeing was not always believing, however. Shikaki noted that even among those who saw footage of atrocities, “some may still think that those clips are propaganda from the Israeli side, perhaps filmed in another conflict.”
Palestinians generally mistrust any news coming from the Israeli media, which relies heavily on official accounts provided by the army.
That skepticism was only boosted by reports, especially in the immediate aftermath of the assault, that exaggerated some atrocities and downplayed isolated cases in which civilians may have accidentally been killed by the IDF, as Israeli security officials have hinted.
High-ranking Palestinian officials have also questioned the Israeli reconstruction of events, in the absence of a third-party investigation.
“All you need is just one or two examples [of misreported events], and then you can apply that to the whole picture. Many Palestinians believe that those isolated incidents are representative of a general pattern, and that the large-scale destruction could not have been produced by a small armed group [of Hamas fighters], but rather must have been the work of Israeli tanks or helicopters,” Shikaki said.
Milshtein, however, noted that high-ranking Palestinian officials were also unwilling to be seen as going against the terror group, video evidence or not.
“No single Palestinian Authority official has officially condemned Hamas,” he said. “Hamas carried out October 7 without asking anyone. And yet, nobody protests and nobody rebels against them.”
For many Palestinians, accusations of atrocities, particularly the systematic use of rape by Hamas, are especially hard to swallow thanks to the terror group’s reputation for puritanical Islamism.
According to Palestinian academic Mohammed Dajani, a coexistence activist whose West Bank academic career was curtailed after he took a group of Al-Quds University students to Auschwitz, many Palestinians believe that Hamas’s motivations were not only political, but also religious, meaning the attackers would have been prohibited from such brutality.
“They are taught since childhood that the Jews had incurred God’s anger. Jihadism, martyrdom, and the killing of the ‘infidels’ will open the gates of heaven for them. But those doors will not open if they would commit atrocities such as raping women, beheading babies, burning mothers and children, and even robbery,” said Dajani. “Thus, Palestinians consider such accusations to [be aimed] at demonizing them.”
Shikaki said that even those who admit savagery occurred would be reluctant to blame it on Hamas and not rogue terrorists or unorganized looters who followed the terrorists into Israel.
“It will be extremely difficult to convince Palestinians that a real Muslim would commit sexual violence against civilian victims,” he said. “They believe that if something like this happened, it must be the act of individuals, perhaps Gazan civilians who entered Israel looking for something to steal.”
Palestinians are far from the only group to retreat to the safety of preset narratives during wartime. Many are drawn to news coverage that reinforces their own positions while treating that of the enemy as circumspect, Shikaki noted.
“Obviously, it would be easier for Palestinians, just like it is easier for Israeli Jews, to avoid confronting certain ugly realities, to admit that atrocities were committed. So if they don’t see it, they don’t have to confront that question. A lot of people might be in denial. Not just ignorance, but also denial,” he contended.
According to Shikaki’s polling, support for Hamas actually tripled in the West Bank following October 7, even as over three-quarters of those surveyed maintained that targeting people in their homes was not permissible under international law.
Tel Aviv University’s Milshtein stressed the glaring contradiction between the widespread denial of the atrocities of October 7 and the extensive praise Hamaas received. “The Palestinian reaction has been ‘bipolar’: Some say it never happened, others say many more October 7’s are needed. It is a pathological response, and reminiscent of the approach of many Palestinians to the Holocaust.”
He ascribed the collective denial to a lack of self-criticism, and inability to take responsibility.
“Palestinians live in a state of perpetual victimhood; they always find a justification for whatever they do,” he claimed. “They cannot accept the elevated levels of violence that exist in their midst, nor the fact that they are capable of perpetrating war crimes.”
In much of the world outside of Israel, the media’s focus has long-since largely shifted from the horrors of October 7 to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, where it seeks to eradicate Hamas and rescue its hostages. The offensive has left parts of the Strip in ruins, with over 24,000 killed, according to unverified figures supplied by Hamas health authorities, which do not differentiate between civilians and combatants. Israel says it has killed 9,000 fighters inside Gaza from Hamas and other terror groups.
The deaths and destruction have fueled an upswell of sympathy for the Palestinians in the wider world. In the West Bank — especially given that Arab TV outlets barely reported the full facts of October 7, and largely eschew the Israeli narrative of the nature of the fight against Hamas in Gaza — that coverage is seemingly at least partially responsible for the surging support for Hamas.
West Bank Palestinians have been watching on [Arab] TV channels the continued bombardment of the civilian population, schools, hospitals and buildings. This profoundly impacted their psyche and strengthened their solidarity with their side,” said Dajani. “Even if Hamas loses the war, it has already won.”
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