Setting things straight.

Seeing that, in order to discredit the figures and achieve moral superiority while attempting to deflect attention away from the military assault on Rafa, Israel supporters in NZ have seized on reports that casualty numbers in Gaza may be inflated by Hamas (even if corroborated by international agencies), I thought I would recap the truth behind this spin game.

On October 7 Hamas fighters attacked Southern Israel from the Gaza Strip. They were initially said to have killed more than 1500 people (mostly civilians), but after scrutiny that figure was reduced to below 1200 (including military personnel). At least some of the deaths attributed to Hamas were later found to be the result of friendly fire from responding Israeli (IDF) forces. Israeli sources claimed that babies were cooked in microwaves, women were sexually tortured and mutilated and that mass rapes were carried out, but that has not been independently substantiated. Scores of hostages (closest reliable count is 250) were supposedly taken back into Gaza, presumably to serve as human leverage in subsequent negotiations with Israel. A few have been released but many of those have died, not just at Hamas’s hands but as a result of IDF assaults on the places that they were being held captive.

Here are some facts. The killing of IDF soldiers by Hamas is not a crime, as it can be classified as the product of clashes between an armed resistance to an illegal occupying force on Palestinian land (one look at the 1947, 1967, 1973 and recent maps of Palestine/Israel demonstrates the steady annexation of Palestinian land regardless of the formal agreements in place). In other. words, as ugly as that sounds, in a fight with an armed opponent IDF soldiers were fair game.

What is a war crime is if Hamas tortured, raped or murdered soldiers after they surrendered. But in order to prosecute the Hamas individuals or units involved would require international recognition of Hamas as a legitimate fighting force acting on behalf of a recognised State or political community. Although Hamas has a political wing that is related to but separate from the armed wing and has been the de facto government of Gaza since its victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections, leading to the 2007 Hamas-Fatah war that resulted in Hamas gaining control of Gaza while Fatah and other Palestinian Authority factions retreated to the West Bank, the International community (read: the West) does not recognise it as a State or government and instead has designated it a terrorist entity because of the irregular warfare operations, including terrorist attacks, conducted by its armed wing. That may be convenient for Israel and its Western supporters, but it makes it more difficult to hold Hamas accountable for the actions of its members, armed and unarmed (because not all Palestinians, or Hamas supporters for that matter, are fighters). So, in spite of the obvious fact that Hamas was a governing entity in Gaza at the time the war started, charging Hamas fighters with war crimes is difficult because they are not seen as representative of any duly constituted political organisation. They are just terrorists, and if one is to believe the Israel apologists, so are the people they are ostensibly fighting for.

Here I must pause for a brief aside about non-recognition. There is irony in non-recognition of Hamas as a legitimate representative of at least some Palestine people. Hamas exists as a political movement with an ideology (nationalist-religious in this case), as well as a physical presence that extends beyond its armed wing. It will not go away just because it is not recognised abroad, is not liked by many, or if its armed cadres are decimated. And it holds equal if not more legitimacy than the Palestinian Authority of which Fatah is part, which is a corrupt gerontocracy that serves as a laptop of the Israelis in the West Bank. Moreover, Israel itself is not like in many quarters and is not recognised by a number of Muslim-majority States, but it certainly exists and is not going anywhere no matter what other’s may wish or think. In addition, the State of Israel was created in part due to the “terrorist” operations of the likes of the Irgun (which was designated as a terrorist organization by the British), so not recognising Hamas because of its irregular warfare activities in the contemporary era is a hypocritical specious reasoning.

The bottom line is this. Non-recognition may be an attempt at de-legitimation and ostracism, but it is more akin to closing ones eyes and putting fingers in one’s ears while shouting “you are not there” to someone you dislike. The reality says otherwise, and in the international arena non-recognition only serves to absolve political actors from assuming full legal responsibility for their actions. Not recognising Hamas as having a legitimate claim when it comes to representing Palestinians is therefore an own-goal (remember, Hamas won the largest plurality in the parliamentary elections of 2006 and would have been required to form a coalition government before Israel, the US and other Western states backed Fatah’s rejection of the results and subsequent armed assault on Hamas in Gaza. This only played into the hands of the hardline Hamas cadres and strengthened their resolve to prevail in the fight against Fatah, which they did. That set up the subsequent chain of events that has led to the current disaster).

In any event, killing, raping and abducting civilians are crimes against humanity even if the actions of the Hamas fighters are not technically classified as war crimes when it comes to their treatment of IDF soldiers. Remember that it is not the method or instrument of violence that defines a war crime or a crime against humanity. Nor is it the number of victims. Instead, it is who commits atrocities (war crimes are committed by military forces) and who is targeted. Regardless of who the material authors may be, for there to be war crimes or crimes against humanity, the victims must be defenceless. In the case of Israelis attacked by Hamas on October 7, most but not all of them were, so the scale of the atrocities was significant and cannot be downplayed.

In response, Israel unleashed a scorched earth collective punishment approach to the residents of Gaza, and has meted out come collateral punishment to Palestinians in the West Bank as well. Some see the IDF military campaign in Gaza as genocidal in intent–and it may well be–but at a minimum it is ethnic cleansing in effect: entire swathes of Gaza have been cleansed of their inhabitants. The NZ apologists for the IDF approach want to make it seem that 15,000 or 20,000 Palestinian dead is significantly different than 30,000 or 40,000 dead claimed by Hamas (never mind the wounded and maimed or those now enduring mass starvation due to Israeli (including Jewish settlers!)) interference with aid convoys. But at the same time they use the malleable 1200+/- Israeli body count to argue that the IDF response is proportionate to the October 7 attacks. They also clamour for the release of the Israeli hostages but are silent about the thousands of Palestinians detained by Israel since October 7. It seems that Israel also understands the hostage-taking-as-leverage game. Perversely, for the Israel supporters scale and scope of dehumanisation only matters when the numbers favour a particular victimisation narrative. In other words, 1200 Israeli dead is comparable with 20,00 rather than 40,000 Palestinian dead, so moral equivalence applies. That is not a winning argument.

That is in large part due to the fact that collective punishment is illegal under international law and classified as a war crime, most specifically Convention 4, Article 33 of the Geneva Convention. The same convention, article 34, notes that the taking of hostages is prohibited, even if it does not specify the means by which hostages are taken by belligerents (presumably the 3,000 or so Palestinians held in “administrative detention” without charge by the Israelis since October 7 would fit into this category regardless of the institutional/legal facade used to cloak their real status). So although only Israel is guilty of violating the convention when it comes to collective punishment, both sides are in violation of the Geneva Conventions when it comes to hostage taking.

That brings up the truth of the matter. Both Hamas and the IDF have committed war crimes and/or crimes against humanity. Both have committed serious breaches of international law. Fiddling with and sniping about numbers do not alter this fact. Moral relativism does not alter this fact. Trying to comparatively scale and scope the atrocities does not alter this fact. No amount of spin alters this fact.

Most of all, both Israel and Hamas apologists cannot escape this fact.

Media Link: “AVFA” on disinformation and Global South perspectives on the Ruso-Ukrainian war.

In the latest “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I talk about how to approach disinformation in the contemporary media landscape and Global South neutrality or support for Russia in the Ruso-Ukrainian war. The discussion takes a few turns.

Media Link: Disinformation at RNZ.

I was fighting a head cold when I did this interview so was not as lucid as I would have liked to be, but credit to RNZ for giving me the airtime. It has to do with the placing of Russian disinformation talking points in stories on Radio New Zealand’s digital platform. Knowing about Russian disinformation campaigns in the US dating back to at least 2016 as well as similar campaigns in various European states since that time, and watching the spread of foreign sourced disinformation during the pandemic and afterwards here in NZ, I have been trying to call attention to the insidious nature of these types of psychological warfare. After all, if you can subversively undermine trust and confidence in liberal democratic governance from within, then there is no need to confront it from without. The Russians are not the only ones who play this game.

The good news is that Western intelligence agencies, including those in NZ, are belatedly focused on countering the phenomenon.

Counterfeiting information.

Although trite to say so, if knowledge is power, then information is its currency. The more complete the information at hand, the more knowledge that it imparts, which can be wielded for bad or good.

In that light, spreading disinformation is akin to counterfeiting. It is fraud masquerading as fact. The more it is accepted and disseminated, the more genuine informational “currency” (including scientific and factual information) is devalued. The more legitimate information is devalued the more it becomes indistinguishable from disinformation. This is the purpose of many psychological warfare campaigns and is a standard tool for authoritarians that rely on so-called “gaslighting” tactics to keep their subjects confused or ignorant of actual reality and the circumstances of their rule.

Actors who use disinformation campaigns in liberal democracies are no more than imposters and counterfeiters attempting to influence the political market. Counterfeiters and imposters are not accepted in the financial and business markets, so there is no reason to accept them in the political and social realms. Instead, they should be seen as malignancies that need to be excised.

This should be the bottom line for political parties and social media platforms: disinformation is fraud. Peddling information counterfeits should be avoided and blocked rather than enabled, much less encouraged. This is not a “free speech” or civil liberties issue. It is a matter of countering malign deceptions deliberately designed to hinder and cloud the flow of legitimate information in the social and political spheres.

The threat to democracy posed by information counterfeiting is worsening. The proliferation of social media and the descent into “winner take all” disloyal political competition has aided the trend. Information counterfeiting is now used by both domestic and foreign actors who may or may not be working synergistically. It no longer is confined to times of open (inter-state or civil) conflict. For the foreign actor it is a means of weakening a targeted society from within by sowing division and partisan/racial/ethnic/religious/cultural rancour. For domestic actors it is a way to pursue partisan advantage and achieve political gain even if over the long-term it serves the purposes of hostile foreign agents. Be it myopic or strategic in objective, political counterfeiting is inimical to liberal democratic values because it seeks to impede or disrupt the flow of legitimate information in society.

It may seem obvious that disinformation and “fake news” is bad. But it is particularly bad when those who start the spread of disinformation turn around and accuse opponents of doing so when challenged on factual grounds. That is when Orwell meets Alice in Wonderland when it comes to the information stream framing the narrative that informs public opinion.

I have chosen here to rephrase the subject of disinformation as a form of counterfeiting. Not only because it advises caution when validating political claims, much like one would do when checking a label, stitching, material, ink or other components of a branded product, commodity or banknote. Doing so also removes arguments about free speech and rights of expression from the equation when it comes to confronting and countering disinformation in the public square because it frames the matter as one of fraud, not opinion. That should then become the basis for legal approaches to framing fair, just and proper responses to the problem.

Otherwise liars, cheats, agitators and provocateurs will continue to peddle false public narratives in pursuit of selfish gain.

Cloaking hate speech and fake news in the right to free expression.

It should be obvious by now but let’s be clear: The same folk who regularly traffic in disinformation, misinformation and “fake news” are also those who most strongly claim that their freedom of expression rights are being violated when moves are made to curb hate speech (as opposed to protected offensive speech). They lie, they mislead, they conspire and they subvert, only to whine when they are called out on their prejudice and deceit.

That is what might be called message “cloaking” or “masking:” using the legal protections of democracy in order to undermine it from within via propaganda and psychological operations designed to confuse, divide and accentuate extant social cleavages, or what right-wing extremists call “acceleration.” This harks to old Marxist-Leninist notions of exacerbating social contradictions, although for Marxists these are class based in capitalist societies whereas the alt-Right sees race and ethno-religious differences as the main fault lines to be exploited (precisely because capitalism is seen to aggregate ethnicities into socio-economic classes, thereby diluting the racial or ethno-religious basis of “proper”–read: Anglo-Saxon–governance).

Ironically, the alt-Right and white supremacists share Lenin’s view that democracy is “capitalism’s best possible political shell,” and they, like him, see it as an impediment to “pure” government (be it of the workers or of a chosen racial or ethnic group, respectively). Lenin believed that democracy blinds workers to their common interests because of the false promise of choice offered by the universal vote. Conversely, Alt-Right adherents and white supremacists believe that democracy (both in terms of the right to vote and in legal protections for minorities, etc.) gives too much power to “inferior” or “replacement” groups, thereby impeding merit-based efficient (read: White) governance. Perhaps both are right.

All of this happens in a context where public cynicism about political elites runs deep in both mature and emergent democratic societies. Venality, corruption and instrumental opportunism are rife throughout the so-called ‘free” world, leading to disenchantment and anger towards “the system” as a whole. This creates the space where conspiracy theories, false alternative narratives, fear-mongering, scape-goating and other deliberate distortions of the truth take hold in the collective consciousness. Some of this is at play on the Left side of the political spectrum but the majority of notions about the existence of a (presumably homogeneous in outlook and transnational in manifestation) Deep State, climate change being a hoax, 9/11 being an inside job, etc. come from the Right, harking back to previous incarnations of paranoid fantasies like those of the John Birch Society and various anti-Semitic cults that see Jewish control behind every major social organisation. In fact, pushed by social media connectivity, new and old Rightist tropes have merged into a particularly nasty amalgam of hate and manipulated ignorance.

The convergence of hate speech enthusiasts, climate change deniers, bigots, xenophobes and assorted conspiracy mongerers has been facilitated by social and alternative media platforms, which has given them common ground and global reach. They fight vigorously to defend their “right” to voice retrograde views while working equally as hard at propagating all sorts of subterfuge and stupidity in pursuit of their ulterior motives.

The saddest part is that this syndrome has seeped into mainstream politics throughout the democratic world, with Right-oriented parties now adopting both dis-and misinformation campaigns and “cloaking” as political tactics. National-populist parties provide the most obvious example, but one only need to look at the GOP in the US or the ACT and National parties in NZ to see how this seepage works. If I was uncharitable I would call it the “Trump tactic dispersion effect:” lie, deny, invent, obfuscate and obstruct in pursuit of partisan and personal gain without regard to the negative impact it has on the political system as a whole. The GOP is too far gone to recover from its MAGA infection, but the NZ Right parties need to be called out on their attempts to model some of their tactics on Trump’s approach and those of the alt-Right.

The irony is that the major beneficiaries of this dispersion effect are authoritarians, both those internal to the societies in question as well as the foreign despots who see utility in the weakening of democracy world-wide (and who therefore encourage and support disinformation/cloaking efforts globally).

After all, the deadliest thrusts of sharp power are into soft targets.