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Israel and Palestine must cooperate to combat disinformation

Israel and Palestine must cooperate to combat disinformation
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Indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilian populations in Israel, emanating from armed groups in the Gaza Strip, for two decades have prompted Israeli economic and military responses and contributed to a vicious circle of retaliation, occasionally escalating into war. The ongoing threat of rocket attacks hinders prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace and has served to further divide factions within Palestinian society; this much is widely known. However, a far more insidious and targeted force is weighing heavily on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and equally undermining prosperity: Hamas’s information warfare. It is in the best interest of both Israel and the Palestinians to confront this challenge together. 

Challenges surrounding misinformation and disinformation have been at the forefront of public policy discussions in the United States for the past several years. Buzz around the topic reached a crescendo in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, in which an insurgent mob attempted to block the certification of President BidenJoe BidenBiden taps California workplace safety leader to head up OSHA Romney blasts end of filibuster, expansion of SCOTUS US mulling cash payments to help curb migration MORE’s Electoral College victory. Disinformation that spread across traditional and social media played a meaningful role in cropping up conspiracy theories such as QAnon, fomenting the collective delusion of millions in the United States that the election was rigged, and subsequently inspiring the violence that day. 

If they were not already clear, the real-world consequences of coordinated disinformation campaigns became abundantly obvious on Jan. 6. These campaigns — whether deployed on small scale to support tactical objectives or a large scale in furtherance of strategic objectives such as destabilization — can be classified under the umbrella of information warfare: overtly or covertly providing, corrupting or denying information to gain an advantage on an enemy.

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On the ground in Gaza and over the internet from around the world, Hamas long has engaged in deliberate campaigns of disinformation against both Israeli and Palestinian societies. Against Israel, Hamas has propagated disinformation in an attempt to gain sympathy and isolate Israel on the world stage. The group routinely disseminates disinformation to Palestinians and the international community regarding Israeli military operations — for example, in June 2018 when it purported an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) airstrike to have hit a playground when in actuality it struck a terrorist training facility. 

Often, the militant group propagates disinformation about its own military operations as well. Hamas maintains a tight grip over press freedoms in Gaza, manipulates reporting and syndicates children’s shows that urge war and praise martyrdom against Jews. The group targets Palestinians as it does Israelis, with carefully calibrated disinformation campaigns aimed at delegitimizing the Palestinian Authority in order to win support and assert itself as the staunchest ally of the Palestinian cause.

Fraught times bring about an especially high degree of vulnerability in people to disinformation campaigns. Upcoming elections in both Israel and Palestine, a powder keg to begin with, combined with the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and tensions with Iran, create uncertainty that allows disinformation campaigns to thrive. High stakes, human vulnerability and an opportunistic adversary intent on sowing disinformation create a situation the dangers of which are hard to overstate; QAnon and the Islamic State are just a couple of disturbing comparative case studies. It is incumbent upon Israeli and Palestinian leaders to cooperate to meet the urgency of this moment and establish a means of mitigating the impacts of disinformation campaigns.

Given that countering Hamas and disinformation are in the mutual interests of Israel and current Palestinian leadership, the governments should ride the recent momentum of their resumed security cooperation to create a joint task force for combatting disinformation. The task force would be composed of Israeli and Palestinian members from academia and civil society, joined by representatives from Israeli and Palestinian security services. It could have several missions, including serving as an open exchange on disinformation-related matters; exploring opportunities to degrade adversary platforms; identifying opportunities to highlight trusted and reliable sources of information; developing media-literacy campaigns; and liaising with academic and civil society organizations to counter widely-spread disinformation. The task force would have the dual benefit of providing security while fostering a basic level of trust and collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians.

Any meaningful progress toward a negotiated settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians can take place only with a foundation of mutual trust. As an example, while a two-state solution to the conflict remains by large plurality the most popular outcome for both Israelis and Palestinians, majorities on each side still believe that the other side does not support it. Disinformation threatens to erode what little trust exists between the two sides, further deludes parties into believing that they are even more polarized than they really are, and feeds into the agendas of extremists unwilling to consider cooperation. Until there is a means to rebuild trust on a foundation of facts, negotiations will fail and a vicious circle of violence will persist. Israelis and Palestinians can prioritize truth over lies and build a more prosperous future together.

Simon Handler is the assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative under the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, focused on the nexus of geopolitics and international security with cyberspace. He is a former special assistant in the United States Senate, where he worked on foreign policy issues. Follow him on Twitter @SimonPHandler.