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Middle East Misinformation: How to believe what you want to believe


Stalwart supporters of the Iraq war, the Iraq anti-War, the Palestinians and the Israelis may not like what I have to say here, but it has to be said. There is a vast industry in Middle East misinformation, which caters to the need of people to believe what they want to believe, and to believe it quite dogmatically, and exclude any other point of view.

With the help of this industry, the faithful of different causes create a virtual reality that supports their beliefs and excludes the possibility that they might be wrong. The result makes a lot of people quite happy, as ignorance is bliss. It also helps perpetuate the various conflicts in the Middle East by providing rationales for hate. It also makes it fairly hopeless to find solutions to problems in the Middle East, since in the absence of facts, it is impossible to understand the issues or find the best course of action.

Virtual realities are constructed by denying inconvenient facts and inventing others to replace them. Different accounts of the same reality allow you to "choose" what is happening. Shoddy journalists who invent facts and stringers who fake photos provide a good deal of material for partisans. A few industrious fellows like Robert Fisk and Uzi Mahnaimi probably invent a considerable portion of the "news" in the Middle East. Once the canards are out there, they develop a permanent following, regardless of subsequent disproofs. Robert Fisk wrote in the Independent that Israel used a "nuclear bomb" in Lebanon. Investigations by Lebanese and by the UN found no evidence to support Fisk's claim, but many still believe it. Uzi Mahnaimi periodically constructs a virtual Israeli attack on Iran, that will occur using magical weapons that Israel doesn't have, and perhaps some that nobody has. As far as anyone knows, these sensations exist only in his imagination. This past week, a "Washington source" and "Russian intelligence" created a rumor that the US was about to attack Iran. It was illogical and unlikely, but many believed it and it sent the price of oil soaring.

Uzi Manaimi's most infamous "coup" was the canard that Israel had invented a genetically tuned bio-weapon that could kill only Arabs. This science fiction nonsense was believed by supposedly educated people. They insisted that their degrees in political science or sociology gave them a license to belittle or ridicule anyone who pointed out the impossibility of the assertion, and did not think it necessary to consult a genetics textbook. Fox News, Debkafiles, Front Page Magazine and other such "sources" proliferate disinformation of the opposite flavor.

How is the US doing in Iraq? Iraq, like any situation with a lot of unknowns, is disinformation heaven. If you are an anti-War fan, you can point to a rash of suicide bombings. The Red Cross says the situation is getting worse. If you have the opposite opinion, then you can cite Fuad Ajami as a source. He says America is winning the war. In one journal you can read that "100,000" demonstrated against the US in Iraq, in another you can read that tens of thousands or so followers of extremist Moqtada Sadr demonstrated in Najaf. In yet another news source, the demonstration never happened at all. Take your pick. Most of these stories represent honest reporting, but advocates will pay attention only to one version or the other, depending on what they want to believe.

For many weeks, much of the world was convinced that Israel had killed 500 or more Palestinians in Jenin in April of 2002. Even after the claims were disproved, advocates and historians continue to quote this hoax as fact.

Who is at fault for Israeli Palestinian violence? If you want to ignore the Qassam rockets and the occasional suicide bomber who is caught, you can say that Israel is at fault, for constant raids in the West Bank and Gaza and for humiliating Palestinians at checkpoints. The Hamas "kept" the truce - with the help of the IDF. If you ignore the raids in Gaza and the West Bank and the checkpoints, then the Palestinians are at fault.

Most right wing Zionists never heard of any settler violence against Palestinians, or insist that it is the work of a few extremists. Supporters of the Palestinians insist that their violence is the work of extremists too. Nobody is willing to see the tacit or not so tacit support for senseless violence in their own society.

The Deir Yassin massacre of April 9, 1948 is also a case in point. The evidence that innocent civilians were killed there by fighters of the Irgun and Lehi dissidents is massive, and yet on the other hand, there is no evidence whatever that the massacre was planned by the organizations, or that that it was part of any plan by the Zionist organization or leadership. It apparently happened owing to the inexperience of fighters and their commanders. Nonetheless, every year at this time, there are denials by the advocates of one side, and assertions by the other that the massacre was part of any sinister Zionist "ethnic cleansing" plot. Believers can choose whichever version they prefer.

The latest example of this may be the rumor which was floated, that kidnapped BBC reporter Alan Johnston arranged his own kidnapping in Gaza, because he was about to be terminated by the BBC. BBC denied that Johnston was about to be terminated and ruled out the idea that he arranged his own kidnapping. It would have been easy enough to check that Johnston was not being terminated, but the story was so "good" that it was a shame to spoil it. The story exonerates Palestinians, and is therefore seized upon eagerly by true believers of that side.

Disinformation ranges from ordinary honest errors, to somewhat deliberately sloppy reporting, to outright fraud. The Reuters reporter who colored in smoke in photos of attacks on Beirut is a minor example of people improving the data. Fisk's mythical Israeli uranium bomb might be due to wishful thinking and an overactive imagination, to which we may also ascribe the would-be US attack on Iran and some other "events" that never happened. Mahnaimi's ethnobomb was a major effort in this direction. However much of the disinformation is generated on purpose. Journalists may be duped by staged funerals in Jenin, but someone set it up. Usually, if a story is faked, journalists have to make an effort in order not to detect the hoax. Busy activists may mail out thousands of copies of a fake interview with Ariel Sharon, without bothering to check the facts, but someone fabricated that interview from the original fiction by Amos Oz. Others may be spreading rumors about "anti-Semitism" in France from a different hoax e-mail, but someone started the hoax. The hoaxer and the those who spread the word and those who believe it without checking are all equally guilty.

A favorite ploy for neutralizing an inconvenient event is to blame it on the other side. "Our side would not do that, it doesn't make sense." Unfortunately not everything that happens makes sense, but it all happens. However, people insist that the Israeli Mossad or the FBI must be responsible for the bombings of 9-11 and those in London, since it "doesn't make sense" for Muslims to do it. Forensic evidence or confessions don't matter. Once you have found even the flimsiest pretext to believe as you please, it is enough. Likewise, Johnston could not have been kidnapped, because that doesn't make sense either. Therefore perhaps he arranged his own kidnapping or Israelis kidnapped him. The murder of Rafiq Hariri in Lebanon was also blamed on Israel, since it "didn't make sense" that Syria or her supporters would do it.

It is legitimate for different persons to have a different point of view. An Israeli soldier who "liberated" Jerusalem in 1967 surely has a different point of view from an Arab resident of Jerusalem whose cite was "conquered" in 1967. However, the deliberate manufacture and dissemination of untruths, and the tendency to ignore every fact that is inconvenient for a particular point of view, does not support different legitimate narratives, but different and dangerous virtual realities. These should not be legitimized as "narratives."

The journalistic practice of allowing op-eds to contradict known facts with impunity is a massive source of disinformation, but not the only source. "Historians" like Ilan Pappe, who assert that facts are for pedants, help shape it too. But none of these products could be sold without an audience of believers. Those who believe and disseminate hoax letters without checking do so because they want to believe it. Those who believe that Deir Yassin is located on a high ridge, and don't bother to check the geography of Jerusalem, do so because they want to believe it. Those who insisted, and continue to insist, on the reality of Israeli ethnobombs and uranium bombs in Lebanon, are satisfied customers of the hoaxers. These fibs supply a necessary commodity to those who believe them. It is the will to believe that keeps people attached to the media and media gurus who give them the materials to maintain their virtual reality.

Ami Isseroff

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000581.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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Replies: 11 comments

Interesting. In the spirit of fact-checking which you advocate, can I ask you to provide links to the original articles by Robert Fisk and Uzi Manaimi?


Posted by Chris @ 04/12/2007 04:17 PM CST


Robert Fisk: Mystery of Israel's secret uranium bomb - Independent ...Robert Fisk: Mystery of Israel's secret uranium bomb.

I am sure you read that one, as there are dozens of copies in all the usual places. In Google, type Fisk Independent Israel "Uranium Bomb" and there it is.

You can also quite easily find the refutations both by the UN and Lebanese authorities using a search engine.

If you do use a search engine you will see that this sort of rubbish and Mahanimi's stuff is parroted in the IHR and various "peace" Web sites.

Fisk's sort of reporting is called Fiskery by his journalistic colleagues. I thought it was an in-joke, but it has been used in fairly public places.

israel planning ethnic bomb as saddam caves in
www.times-archive.co.uk/cgi-bin/BackIssue - Similar pages

But as you cannot read it there, you can read a summary in this liberal source:

Israel is Developing 'Ethnic Bomb' for Growing Biological Weapons ...... front-page report in the London Sunday Times, November 15, 1998 ("Israel Planning 'Ethnic' Bomb as Saddam Caves In," by Uzi Mahnaimi and Marie Colvin). ...
Likewise Mahnaimi has had several reports of iminent Israeli attacks on Iran with imaginary strategies. In the latest one, he and Sarah Baxter claimed that Israel would use tactical nuclear warheads on cruise missiles. Nobody knows if Israel has cruise missiles or tactical nuclear warheads, but that doesn't matter to Mahnaimi. Next time he will write that Israel will use Kryptonite. The story is here:

Also that and other stories are at ihr, rense.com and probably in the stormfront Web site and other good sources.


Posted by Ami Isseroff @ 04/12/2007 09:22 PM CST

Dear Ami,

Thank you very much for that article on misinformation. It is very enlightening; I just posted it on my facebook profile page because I think its messages (e.g. not to confuse "narratives" with "virtual realities") are worth spreading around.

Whenever I come across someone interested in following opinions about Middle East topics I usually recommend this website.


Posted by Gaston Yalonetzky @ 04/13/2007 01:14 AM CST


Posted by Ami Isseroff @ 04/13/2007 01:35 AM CST

Antoher Rense.com supporter is WhatReallyHappened.com. I know for a fact that their facts are not checked if not out right lies. They had a story they ran on a doctor who was supposed to be at the OK city bombing who witnessed some strange ATF activity and had proof it was an inside job. I proceeded to do a little investigation myself because the story went on to report that the doctor mysteriously died in a plane crash shortly after theincident. I found "Online" court documents in which this same doctor was the co-defendant in a case years after the story clamied he was dead. The net (and the media for that mater) is a wasteland of lies and BS.

Posted by OMFG @ 04/13/2007 06:34 PM CST

Thank you Ami for posting the Fiskery link. I had of course already tried using Google, but to no effect, principally because I was searching for your quoted phrase "nuclear bomb", which appears nowhere in the article.

The implication in your original essay is that Fisk is accusing the Israelis of using a nuclear device; in fact he claims there is some evidence to suggest that they might have used similar munitions to the depleted uranium shell-casings used by the US in Iraq. He also points out that Israel used phosphorous weapons in Lebanon (not refuted so far as I am aware).

I couldn't find the refutations you mention, but I have limited time to search.

I'm not actually familiar with Mahnaimi, but the gist of the only article you linked to which I can actually access is that Israel is "sabre-rattling" over Iranian nuclear ambitions. In this scenario, the suggestion that Israel has tactical nukes comes from Israeli intelligence, and is intended as a deterrent. Journalists do of course dramatise and exaggerate on occasion.

If Mahnaimi did say that Israel was developing a genetic weapon which could target Arabs and not Jews that was obviously stupid, but judging by the disconnect between your claims and the source articles, I'd want to reserve judgement until I saw the original.

Your main point about people believing what they want and cherry picking evidence to suit is well made, however it seems to me that you are indulging in similar practices.

Posted by Chris @ 04/17/2007 05:02 PM CST

Back in the 1980's a US journalist (Lawrence Randall?) described his experiences in the Middle East and how the situation sucked him in to the point where he constructed stories that would ensure his continued access to key individuals and not expose him to any life-threatening risks. The way he described it was as an incremental progression towards this point of fundamental journalistic corruption, and how fear coloured all decision making. Eventually this journalist left the region seemingly disgusted by his own decline in relation to the journalistic standards he had set himself at the beginning of his career. His account made clear that his experience was common amongst his peers.
We can only guess at the degree to which this tendency has become an integral part of journalistic culture in the ME. Certainly few journalists would own up to it. However the willingness we demonstrate to afford these journalist continuing credibility often begards belief. Perhaps the driving force is our own prejudices which various journalists pander to in order sell copy, and publishers papers, books and air-time. Why are we so willing to believe that the Israelis would massacre Palestinians in Jenin or deploy nuclear / chemical weapons in Lebanon. My own opinion is that it allows to put aside the continuing guilt we feel about historic treatment of the Jews and how our actions provided the rational for Zionism.

Posted by Rod Davies @ 04/19/2007 09:45 PM CST

Well the reason Fisk was inclined to suppose there might be a massacre in Jenin was that he personally witnessed the massacres in Sabra & Chatila which took place under the watchful eyes of A Sharon and others.

It seems to me, from fairly regular reading of his stuff over the past few years, that he is prepared to have a go at pretty much anyone without fear or favour, including people he claims he liked personally such as Hariri.

Posted by Chris @ 04/23/2007 03:54 PM CST

I would have perhaps agreed with you re: Mr. Fisk, until a couple of years ago. I read an article of his in which he compared the response of a rabbi who lives in the same block as flats as himself in Tel Aviv (I was surprised that Mr. Fisk has a flat in Tel Aviv) and the general demeanour of Mr. Fisk Snr, his father.
The rabbi's car had been vandalised and this rabbi uttered some angry words, which in the heat of the moment were not meant. But Mr. Fisk took this incident and wove it into a parable where Jews are inherently cruel and murderous and Christians are somehow saintly.
Underlying the entire article was an anti-Jewish thread which echoed the religious intolerance of the past. It was like a window into Mr. R. Fisks soul and not a pretty scene at all.

Posted by Rod Davies @ 04/23/2007 09:56 PM CST

Now that I managed to find (excerpt follows). Please note Fisk does not say he has a flat in Jerusalem. People can decide for themselves if the rabbi meant what he said or not, but it does accord precisely with views I've seen expressed elswhere on the internet. And I think the point about old/new testament would be just as valid if applied to, say, George Bush/Helena Cobban:-

One Sunday afternoon, my phone rings in Jerusalem. It's from an Israeli I met in Jaffa Street after the Sbarro bombing. An American Jewish woman had been screaming abuse at me - foreign journalists are being insulted by both sides with ever more violent language - and this man suddenly intervenes to protect me. He's smiling and cheerful and we exchange phone numbers. Now on the phone, he says he's taking the El-Al night flight to New York with his wife. Would I like to drop by for tea?

He turns out to have a luxurious apartment next to the King David Hotel and I notice, when I read his name on the outside security buzzer, that he's a rabbi. He's angry because a neighbour has just let down a friend's car tyres in the underground parking lot and he's saying how he felt like smashing the windows of the neighbour's car. His wife, bringing me tea and feeding me cookies, says that her husband - again, he should remain anonymous - gets angry very quickly. There's a kind of gentleness about them both - how easy it is to spot couples who are still in love - that is appealing. But when the rabbi starts to talk about the Palestinians, his voice begins to echo through the apartment. He says several times that Sharon is a good friend of his, a fine man, who's been to visit him in his New York office.

What we should do is go into those vermin pits and take out the terrorists and murderers. Vermin pits, yes I said, vermin, animals. I tell you what we should do. If one stone is lobbed from a refugee camp, we should bring the bulldozers and tear down the first 20 houses close to the road. If there's another stone, another 20 ones. They'd soon learn not to throw stones. Look, I tell you this. Stones are lethal. If you throw a stone at me, I'll shoot you. I have the right to shoot you.

Now the rabbi is a generous man. He's been in Israel to donate a vastly important and, I have no doubt, vastly expensive medical centre to the country. He is well-read. And I liked the fact that - unlike too many Israelis and Palestinians who put on a "we-only-want-peace" routine to hide more savage thoughts - he at least spoke his mind. But this is getting out of hand.

Why should I throw a stone at the rabbi? He shouts again. "If you throw a stone at me, I will shoot you." But if you throw a stone at me, I say, I won't shoot you. Because I have the right not to shoot you. He frowns. "Then I'd say you're out of your mind."

I am driving home when it suddenly hits me. The Old and New Testaments have just collided. The rabbi's dad taught him about an eye for an eye - or 20 homes for a stone - whereas Bill Fisk taught me about turning the other cheek. Judaism is bumping against Christianity. So is it any surprise that Judaism and Islam are crashing into each other? For despite all the talk of Christians and Jews being "people of the Book", Muslims are beginning to express ever harsher views of Jews. The sickening Hamas references to Jews as "the sons of pigs and monkeys" are echoed by Israelis who talk of Palestinians as cockroaches or "vermin", who tell you - as the rabbi told me - that Islam is a warrior religion, a religion that does not value human life. And I recall several times a Jewish settler who told me back in 1993 - in Gaza, just before the Oslo accords were signed - that "we do not recognise their Koran as a valid document."

Posted by Chris @ 04/24/2007 03:41 PM CST

Chris the article I read, I recall being somewhat different. There was much more about R. Fisk's childhood etc. It also was much longer. Perhaps my memory is failing in my old age! Nevertheless your efforts are appreciated.

Perhaps I was wrong. But in my defence I have had to deal directly with various journalists of similar standing over the years and I am afraid I have rarely been impressed. I think I found Pilger the worst... horrible manipulative man who I felt couldn't give a damn really about the people he wrote about. He seemed to be nothing more than a grubby mercenary.

Posted by Rod Davies @ 04/24/2007 10:16 PM CST

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