A group of young Israeli soldiers were at a meeting to evaluate honestly their experiences in the Gaza war to see what could be learned from them to do better in future. The next thing you know there is a global news story about Israel committing war crimes and being a nation unfit to live.
This remarkable development would be amazing enough if there was any evidence that anything of the sort had actually happened. But given the eagerness to find Israel evil and guilty, it falls into the historic category known among Jews as a “blood libel.”
Historically, blood libels were claims that Jews murdered Christian children, drained their blood, and made it into matzoh, the unleavened bread that is eaten during the holiday of Passover. While this seems something out of medieval times, the blood libel is still purveyed as truth in television shows and newspaper stories in Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and other countries.
If you think that is an exaggeration of what happened last week, consider the story in more detail. The charges of war crimes and deliberate murder rest almost entirely on two accounts given during the meeting of soldiers.
The first story was that two Palestinians, a mother and daughter, were being evacuated from their apartment to ensure they weren’t hurt. An Israeli officer told them to go one way but, misunderstanding; they went by a different route. A sniper shot them, as instructed by the rules of engagement to protect soldiers from attacks by suicide bombers. Even the soldier who told the story described this incident as an honest, albeit regrettable, mistake.
The second story was that an officer told soldiers to shoot an old woman in similar circumstances but a big argument broke out among the Israeli troops as to what to do.
In the Western media, these stories were used to suggest that these were bloodthirsty war crimes. However, an examination of the available evidence shows that this amounts to a blood libel. In the first case, an Israeli television station interviewed the specific soldier who had told this story and he stated that he had not witnessed any such event or spoke to someone who was there but had merely heard about it as a rumor.
In the second case, it is not clear that the woman was shot in the end. Actually this story shows the caution and humanitarian standards of the Israeli army as enlisted men argued with an officer over obeying an order that soldiers in most armies would have obeyed without hesitation.
It should be stressed that in both cases, nobody has ever given a specific location or date for these alleged incidents. Thus, while Israel’s military will investigate, it is highly probable that these events never took place.
Of course, Israel’s army isn’t perfect. Soldiers have been tried and sentenced before for shooting or killing individuals when they should have been more cautious. But the real story here is the eagerness of much of the media to demonize Israel.
There are four factors that make media behavior in this instance especially ironic.
First, while Israel’s soldiers are accused of being “baby-killers,” they are in fact defending their country against those who are conscious and deliberate baby-killers. That is what terrorists like Hamas do. Yet many of those who are slandering and seeking to boycott Israel are eager to deal with Hamas and groups like it.
Second, Hamas deliberately uses civilians as human shields and disguises its fighters as civilians. Suicide bombers so dressed have constantly approached Israeli soldiers trying—and sometimes succeeding—in blowing themselves up or stabbing them. This is why international regulations forbid such things: precisely because it places innocent civilians at the risk of being killed. Given such tactics, a wide range of security forces from Western troops in Iraq to British police in London have shot civilians thinking they were acting in self-defense.
This situation creates a genuine dilemma which Israel’s army carefully considered: What do you do if someone who appears innocent keeps walking toward you and refuses to halt? Do you shoot or risk your own life? During the Gaza war, officers urged their men not to take risks.
Third, much of the media has not learned from earlier experiences of being tricked by deliberately concocted stories about Israeli atrocities. These include, for example, the Muhammad al-Dura affair in which charges that Israeli forces murdered a little boy in Gaza a few years ago were shown to be false. Aside from forensic and other evidence, it has now been shown that the boy’s father was giving his son and the cameraman instructions on how to shoot the scene. Several terrorist attacks were staged and Israeli civilians killed in seeking “revenge” for this media-generated blood libel.
Finally, it is ironic that people who can never find the time to write about television shows produced by Arab states or Hamas calling for Jews to be exterminated, Hamas children’s shows teaching kids to be suicide bombers; stories about Hamas’s murders of Palestinian civilians, and so on, go into front-page, major-headlines high gear if one Israeli soldier makes a remark that there might have been an accidental killing of a civilian.
The fact remains that as of this moment, regarding both the 2006 Lebanon war and the recent Gaza war, there is not a single documented case of any Israeli soldier violating international law or committing a war crime. And it isn’t as if a lot of people haven’t tried to find or manufacture such an event. Indeed, things have gone so far that reputable newspapers are repeating the claim that Israel used phosphorus shells in Gaza against international rules when even the UN has already said this accusation is baseless.
Aside from being an Israeli living a few minutes from where Hamas has fired thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians—something often dismissed or ignored in the Western media—I have another reason for having a personal interest in the consequences of blood libels. On May 8, 1886, a little Christian boy named Stanislav Krasovsky disappeared in my grandparents’ town in Russia. He was later found dead.
One of my ancestors was accused of kidnapping him and draining his blood. One month later, fortified by vodka, a mob, on June 12, came looking for him and the results were rather tragic. It would be tragic today if false media incitement took the part once played by vodka.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) and The Truth about Syria.