When Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of executing 13-year-old Ahmad Manasrah “in cold blood” during a televised speech on Wednesday evening, the gasp at the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem was almost audible.
Manasrah was still alive, it promptly responded, and was being treated at Hadassah Hospital after having stabbed and seriously injured a Jewish teenager of the same age. “Abbas is lying and inciting,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement read.
Earlier that day, Israeli police had released video footage of the attack itself. On Thursday, footage was released of the “executed” Manasrah sitting up in his hospital bed, and police said he had confessed to the attack.
The indirect exchange between Netanyahu and Abbas may not be the first public expression of the war of narratives characterizing Palestinian-Israeli violence, but it is among the most striking. As in previous conflicts, it is not just the reasons for the conflagration that are being contested, but the facts themselves.
And yet, in numerous recent incidents, the facts — in some cases, corroborated by mobile phone footage — would be appear to be incontestable, and are simply being rejected by the Palestinians.
Among Palestinians, it is widely asserted that Shorouq Dwayyat, 18, was shot in Jerusalem’s Old City on October 7 not after stabbing a Jewish man, but rather after a “settler” attacked her, trying to forcibly remove her veil. In reality, Dawayyat had stabbed the man, whose name was not released to the media, injuring him moderately. He fired at her with his personal handgun, leaving her in serious condition. Both Dwayyat and her victim were taken to Hadassah Ein Karem Hospital. She had earlier posted a Facebook status proclaiming her intention to become a martyr.
On October 9, Basaraa Abed of Nazareth allegedly attempted to stab a security guard in Afula’s central bus station. She was shot in the legs by security forces, who repeatedly asked her to drop the knife she was holding.
Sheikh Zidan Abed, Israa’s father, denied his daughter had tried to stab anyone, accusing the security forces of being trigger-happy. “This shows the difference in treatment of an Arab person and a Jewish person,” Abed said. “The man who killed [former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin was not touched, and is now in prison … and here you have an innocent person, standing there, and you see the footage of what happened.”
Arabic news portal Panet included the above footage in its report on the event, but also cited conflicting eye-witness accounts.
“I saw the event before my eyes. From the angle in which I saw it I can confirm that the Arab woman who was shot at did not attack anyone. She was carrying a bag that looked like a school bag, and was shot at merely based on suspicion, nothing more,” said Fadi Khatib, an eye-witness from the town of Deir Hanna in the Lower Galilee. “The young woman certainly did not try to stab anyone, as is being reported.”
Police said Friday that Abed bought the knife shortly before boarding a bus, in her hometown of Nazareth. Investigators were said to be leaning toward a mental-health explanation for her behavior.
— Muhammad Smiry (@MuhammadSmiry) October 12, 2015
Bahaa Allyan, the terrorist who opened fire on passengers aboard bus 78 in Jerusalem Tuesday, claimed he was trying to defend the reputation of Israa Ja’abees on Facebook from accusations by Israeli media that she had been en route to carry out a terror attack in Jerusalem. In fact, Ja’abees was badly injured when she detonated gas canisters in her car after being pulled over by a policemen. The policeman was lightly injured by the blast.
“The way to understand people’s narratives is to add the words ‘I wish that…’ before what they say,” argued Hillel Cohen, an expert in Palestinian history at Hebrew University. “People often say what they wish would happen, not necessarily what they believe did happen. At some point, they start believing it themselves. This applies both to historic narratives and to more recent, local ones.”
Cohen added that such cognitive bias exists on both sides of the conflict. When certain Israeli Jews claim that there were no Arabs in the land at the advent of Zionism, what they really mean is “we wish that there were no Arabs when we came here,” he said. The same goes for the Palestinian denial of the historic Jewish connection to the land.
“It’s a form of wishful thinking that can never be realized,” he said. “There’s something very basic in human nature, where you believe what you think should happen. When you hear a narrative that suits you, you don’t even examine the facts.”
For researchers like Cohen, such local biases are fascinating, since they shed light on the subjects’ perception of the “framework story” or meta-narrative.
“We learn from this that Palestinians see themselves as innocent victims, and therefore ignore the fact that [the teenage terrorist Ahmad Manasrah] came with a knife. Israelis see themselves the same way,” Cohen claimed, “ignoring cases that don’t fit that narrative, such as the shooting of Fadi Alloun [who stabbed Moshe Malka, 15, near the Old City, on October 3] when he no longer posed a danger,” he said.
But unlike Cohen, who believed that Abbas’s reference to Manasrah being killed was an honest mistake, Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said the PA chief’s intentions were far more nefarious.
He argued that the rapid deterioration of the PA’s popularity on the Palestinian street has caused Abbas to intentionally step up his nationalistic rhetoric in a desperate attempt to muster legitimacy.
“It’s scapegoating,” Michael said. “He is trying to accuse Israel for crimes in order to deflect public attention from his own failures.” Michael argued that in Palestinian media, facts are systematically given less importance than “perception.”
“The same thing happens on our side,” he admitted, “and yet there is a significant difference. On our side, the objective, factual basis is much stronger.”