Israel and the Palestinians are engaged in a war of narratives. As the weaker side, the Palestinians expend tremendous effort on framing incidents so as to delegitimize and embarrass Israel in world public opinion.
As a result, Israeli decision-makers often balk at taking practical steps to quell Palestinian violence because they are afraid of getting bad publicity.
The death of Palestinian-American Al Jazeera reporter/propagandist Shireen Abu Akleh in May offers an excellent example of such manipulation.
The manipulation began with the quick verdict reached by Al Jazeera and Palestinian media websites, which immediately blamed Israel for Akleh’s death during an Israeli counter-terror raid in Jenin. The raid came after a series of deadly Palestinian terrorist attacks in Israel.
According to the Canadian Ministry of Justice, it takes an average of 186 days of court deliberations to arrive at a verdict on assault, sexual assault or manslaughter charges. It took Al Jazeera a few moments after the news of Akleh’s death broke to accuse Israel of deliberately killing the reporter.
The popular news outlet used strong Arabic terms to describe the incident, including one for premeditated murder or tasfia, meaning wiping out or effacing the victim.
Soon afterward, the Palestinian Authority stepped in to make the most of Akleh’s killing. A “state funeral” in Ramallah was broadcast live in anticipation of the actual burial in Jerusalem a day later.
The P.A., its Fatah operatives and members of other factions then made sure they were at the center of the funeral, as close as possible to the casket, in order to hide behind the real mourners and provoke the police. They did so by throwing small but punishing stones and glass objects difficult to capture on camera but sufficiently harmful to instigate the police to respond.
The objective was to hide the provocation from the cameras so they could focus on the police reaction. The operatives were easily identifiable—all young male adults with athletic physiques, wearing the same black t-shirts.
They succeeded in their task. The police, fearful of being injured, tried to capture the operatives. The cameras caught the police reaction and not the provocation.
Did the Israeli media and some Israeli politicians exaggerate the effects of this undoubtedly lousy press?
An analysis of Google Trends demonstrates the danger of exaggerating events easily and effectively manipulated by Palestinian propagandists.
Google Trends tracks the relative number of keyword searches over a period ranging from several hours to years. The highest rank a trend can reach is 100.
To gauge public opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the events in Jenin unfolded, trends for two terms were analyzed—“Free Palestine” and “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions,” widely known by its acronym BDS.
An increase in the number of searches for these terms over a considerable period during these events would suggest that Palestinian manipulation was effective. A small increase would mean little or ephemeral effect.
This is what we found for searches over five years for the term “Free Palestine”:
Most searches took place in “Palestine” (Judea, Samaria and Gaza). Relative to their populations, the highest relative number of searches in Western countries took place in Ireland, Norway and Sweden. An examination of other search terms shows that these countries are the most biased against Israel, and they are known for having high levels of anti-Israel opinion.
Even in the three largest Western countries, the same pattern of relative search frequency prevailed for this term, as it did for other pro-Palestinian terms.
One can see that the Akleh affair had only a minor effect compared to the war between Hamas and Israel in May 2021, which is marked by a spike of 100.
Looking at the searches for the term “BDS,” the Akleh affair had little impact compared to the 2019 BDS conference or the 2021 war.
Once again, Ireland led the searches among Western states (relative to population size), followed by Norway. Regarding the term “BDS,” in the big three Anglo states the least amount of interest was in the United States, with more searches in Britain and at least five times more in Canada.
Analysis of Google Trends indicates that the Israeli media and some politicians exaggerated the effects of the Akleh affair relative to the many media events that captured the attention of the Western public. For example, searches relating to the war in Ukraine, abortion in the United States, inflation, the massacre in Buffalo and other events were more prevalent in May 2022.
What should be investigated is how the Israel Police and the IDF can avoid media traps set by Palestinian propagandists.
The fight over propaganda might not be as urgent as warfare or lawfare, but it also deserves consideration. Akleh’s funeral was an ambush—something best to avoid.
Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on the Arab world at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.