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Falling for propaganda and lacking a sense of history

English | العربية

Mohammad Fadhel Al Obaidly

Advisor, Public Opinion Research Center

Tag: Government Policy Middle East
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In his book "By Way of Deception", the former Israeli Mossad agent Victor Ostrovsky admitted that the organisation was behind all the rumours against the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. According to Ostrovsky, this was part of concerted efforts by the specialist psychological warfare department in the Mossad. However, many Arabs repeated some of these rumours as if they were facts and, surprisingly, among them were some intellectuals.
The long story of Arafat and the Palestinian struggle against Israel might reveal two important Arab aspects in Arab mentality: responding to propaganda rather than facts, and lacking a sense of history.
One of the most defamatory rumours the Israelis succeeded in planting among Arabs for decades was that Arafat was a millionaire who stole money from the Palestinian people. Yes, he was managing the assets of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, but when he died Palestinians found that this millionaire owned nothing more than two military suits and did not even have a house. Barely a few know this fact, even among Palestinians. Spreading rumours like this is reminiscent of the golden rule propagated by the infamous Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels, who said you have to say a half-truth to make the lie acceptable and keep repeating it. The half-truth was that Arafat was managing the assets of PLO but the lie was that he owned those assets.
The attempts at smearing the reputation of Arafat and the rest of the Palestinian leaders were developing alongside developments on the ground. As the Palestinian struggle gained new ground and victories, the Israeli psychological warfare escalated and the rumours increased. Unsurprisingly, rumours were spread against Palestinian leaders during the First Intifada (1987-1993) and the Second Intifada (2000-2005). But there was a change in the tone and content; the target changed slightly, especially in 2000. By that time, Arafat was the president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and he was in Palestine, not in exile. As the signs of division were growing among Palestinians, Israeli psychological warfare started targeting a different audience. In that context, we started reading about and hearing rumours claiming Arafat was originally a Moroccan Jew and Mahmoud Abbas was a Bahai.
While a war as nasty as this is expected from the Israelis, the problem is that the Palestinians and Arabs accepted the rumour as fact immediately, without any scrutiny or context. Once it appeared on websites moderated by Mossad, most Arab websites ensured that it spread like wildfire. Many dealt with it as if they had discovered new facts.
The divisions among Palestinians are not a result of Israels psychological warfare alone. But this type of Israeli warfare benefited from all kinds of mistakes committed by the Palestinian political rivals, both Fatah and Hamas.  Most importantly this warfare dealt with a mental characteristic of Palestinians and Arabs that makes them susceptible to propaganda. They Think in the moment, not beyond it, and their reaction is always emotional. 
This warfare contributed towards pushing Palestinians gradually into civil war and, obviously, the Israelis succeeded in achieving their strategic goal. Its not only about the effect of rumours, but also how Palestinians and Arabs read and understand the goals of the Israelis.
This brings us to the second characteristic of Arabs: lacking a sense of history.
The PNA was founded in 1994 and from then until 2002, Israeli military action was aimed only at the PNA. While Hamas was launching suicide attacks against Israelis, the Israeli military response was always to target the small and poorly equipped Palestinian police force and the crumbling infrastructure of the PNA in the West Bank. Israelis were aiming to destroy any possibility of a process that would lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. But Arabs including a majority of Palestinians fell into the Israeli propaganda trap once again when they came to an irrational conclusion: that Hamas was fighting and the PNA (Fatah) had surrendered.
This Israeli strategy exhausted itself in the 2002, with the siege of Arafats headquarters in Ramallah. The siege lasted until he died in 2004. Soon after that, they turned their attention to Hamas, with military actions from 2004 to the present against Gaza and Hamas.
The implications of this shift in the Israeli strategy and tactics havent become visible to those who are repeating the same irrational conclusions: Hamas is fighting and Fatah surrendered. It is recent history but the majority of Palestinians and Arabs never ask themselves: why did Israel change its strategy? Furthermore, those who are obliged more than others to deal with such a question didnt have the courage to reconsider their positions and acknowledge mistakes based on an objective revision of this recent history.


Originally published in Gulf News March 13, 2013

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