Fact Sheet: Israel’s History of Spreading Disinformation

October 17, 2023
Fact Sheet: Israel’s History of Spreading Disinformation

Israel’s military and government have a long and well-documented history of making false and misleading statements to cover up and deflect responsibility for war crimes they commit against Palestinians. The following document provides some of the most egregious examples in recent years.

Lying about use of white phosphorus in violation of international law - October 2023

  • On October 10 in Lebanon and October 11 in Gaza, the Israeli military used white phosphorus shells in violation of international law. Israel denied the claim, stating it was “unequivocally false.” However, Human Rights Watch verified videos of “multiple airbursts of artillery-fired white phosphorus” launched by the Israeli military over the Gaza City port and along the Israel-Lebanon border, labeling it a violation of international humanitarian law. Amnesty International also documented the presence of white phosphorus shells at an Israeli army base in southern Israel near Gaza.
  • In 2009, during Israel’s attack on Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead, Israel initially “denied outright” that it used white phosphorus. However, Human Rights Watch subsequently documented Israel’s widespread use of white phosphorus shells in Gaza, including in densely populated urban areas, a UN compound, and a UN school. In total, Israel fired more than 200 white phosphorus shells during the assault.
  • Israel also accused Hamas of firing a white phosphorus shell in 2009, a claim that Human Rights Watch concluded was false.

Unsubstantiated claims about beheading of children - October 2023

  • Israel’s military and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office claimed that Hamas fighters beheaded up to 40 children during their October 7 attack on the town of Kfar Aza. The incendiary allegations spread quickly and were widely repeated in the media and by President Joe Biden, who falsely claimed during a meeting with Jewish leaders that he personally saw photos of beheaded children, which the White House later walked back, admitting he had not seen any such photos and that the US had not verified the claim. However, Israeli journalists who visited the scene of the alleged beheadings saw no evidence to support the allegation and the Israeli military officials accompanying them made no mention of it. The Israeli army subsequently refused to confirm the claim and more than a week later no evidence has emerged to support it.

Claims of rape - October 2023

  • Israeli officials circulated claims that Hamas fighters raped women during their attack on October 7, which were widely repeated in the US media and by US politicians, including President Biden during an address on national television. However, on October 10 an Israeli military spokesperson told a journalist from the Forward, Arno Rosenfeld, that Israel “does not yet have any evidence of rape having occurred during Saturday’s attack or its aftermath” and more than a week later Israel has yet to provide any proof. Journalist Rosenfeld also traced how the story spread based largely on claims made by people who didn’t actually say they witnessed the alleged rapes. [UPDATE: In late November, Physicians for Human Rights - Israel published a position paper citing “currently available information and… accounts indicating that sexual and gender-based violence occurred across several locations” on October 7 and calling for the International Criminal Court to investigate whether they amount to crimes against humanity. The Forward article cited above has also been updated with an editor’s note that states the chief spokesman for the Israeli military “confirmed that rape and other atrocities were committed during the Oct. 7” attack “and other Israeli officials and civilian responders also described evidence of rape since this article was published.”]

Lying about deadly airstrike on civilian convoy seeking safety in Gaza - October 2023

  • On October 13, a civilian convoy fleeing Gaza City as ordered by the Israeli military on a road identified as a “safe route” by Israel, was hit by an Israeli airstrike, killing 70 people and wounding at least 200. The Israeli military denied attacking the convoy. However, Amnesty International verified videos of the attack and concluded it was the result of an airstrike.

Lying about the murder of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh - May 2022

  • On May 11, 2022, renowned Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot in the neck and killed by an Israeli sniper while reporting on an Israeli army invasion of the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, even though she was nowhere near any fighting at the time and was wearing a vest clearly marked “Press.” Then-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and the Israeli military blamed Abu Akleh’s death on Palestinians, distributing unrelated video of Palestinian gunfire during the invasion as supposed proof. However, multiple independent investigations, including by The Washington PostThe New York TimesThe Associated Press, and CNN, as well as by human rights groups like Amnesty International, and the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, all concluded that Abu Akleh was killed by an Israeli soldier. The Israeli military itself later backtracked, stating that Abu Akleh may have been killed by one of its soldiers. 

Lying about bombing of media offices in Gaza - May 2021

  • During its May 2021 assault on Gaza, Israel bombed a high-rise tower housing media outlets - including The Associated Press and Al Jazeera - leveling the 14-story building to the ground. Israel claimed the building contained “military assets belonging to the intelligence offices” of Hamas. However, Human Rights Watch concluded that Israel “provided no evidence to support those allegations” and that the attack “apparently violated the laws of war and may amount to war crimes.”

Lying about the killing of Ahmad Erekat at West Bank military checkpoint - June 2020

  • On June 23, 2020, 27-year-old Ahmad Erekat was on his way to pick up relatives for his sister’s wedding when he crashed his car at an Israeli military checkpoint in the occupied West Bank and was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers. Israel claimed it was an attempted attack on soldiers from its occupying army. However, Forensic Architecture, a research group based at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Palestinian human rights organization Al Haq conducted an in-depth investigation and concluded it was a traffic accident and that Erekat was extrajudicially executed.

Doctoring video to falsely claim medic murdered by Israeli sniper was human shield - June 2018

  • In June 2018, an Israeli sniper murdered a 21-year-old medic, Razan al-Najjar, during protests by Palestinians imprisoned by Israel’s occupation and siege of Gaza. In an attempt to smear her and justify her killing following an international outcry, Israeli officials circulated a video purporting to show her saying she was acting as a human shield for Hamas. However, the video was subsequently revealed to have been doctored by the Israeli military to take her comments out of context. As noted by Israeli rights group, B’Tselem, the Israeli military initially claimed “soldiers did not fire at the spot where she had been standing. Later, the military said al-Najjar might have been killed by a ricochet, before finally accusing her of serving as a human shield… Contrary to the many versions offered by the military, the facts of the case lead to only one conclusion… al-Najjar was fatally shot by a member of the security forces who was aiming directly at her as she was standing about 25 meters (82 feet) away from the fence, despite the fact that she posed no danger to him or anyone else and was wearing a medical uniform.” According to the UN, in total Israeli soldiers killed 214 Palestinians protesters in Gaza during the Great Return March, including 46 children.Those killed included at least 3 medical workers and 2 journalists, all of whom were clearly identified as such.

Lying about the murder of two Palestinian teenagers during West Bank protest - May 2014 

  • On May 15, 2014, two unarmed Palestinian teens, 17-year-old Nadim Nuwarah and 16-year-old Mohammed Salameh were shot and killed by Israeli soldiers using live ammunition during a protest in the occupied West Bank. Israel initially claimed its soldiers did not use live ammunition. Contradicting Israel’s claims, based on videos from the scene and autopsy results, Human Rights Watch concluded both were killed by live ammunition. An investigation by CNN also came to the same conclusion.