In times of war, disinformation becomes a weapon. The world has rightfully rallied to counter Russia’s mass mobilization of disinformation in Ukraine. Together with our allies, the United States has dispelled Russia’s lies and exposed its cover-up of potential war crimes.
Unfortunately, this same dedication to truth has not been applied to another conflict in which disinformation has been perniciously weaponized—last year’s hostilities between Hamas and Israel.
Recently, the U.S. State Department stated that “concerns still exist” about Israel’s lawful military operations last May. This week, a United Nations (UN) report “raised serious concerns regarding the compliance of Israel with…international humanitarian law,” even though there is neither truth nor legal basis for such claims.
Instead of being complicit in this disinformation, the United States should—as it has done in Ukraine—be working to set the record straight.
On May 11, 2021, Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, launched unprovoked rocket attacks at the heart of Jerusalem. Over the next 11 days, Hamas indiscriminately fired more than 4,500 munitions at Israel’s civilian population.
Just as potent as Hamas’ rockets, however, was its deliberate campaign to falsely accuse Israel of war crimes, using civilians as its shield and disinformation as its weapon.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) took extraordinary precautions in eliminating Hamas’ arsenals, which were intentionally placed near civilian populations. It warned residents, waited for evacuations and even halted its own defensive military operations. Yet Hamas’ use of human shields inevitably ensured that Israeli military action nevertheless resulted in Gazan civilian casualties.
Hamas distorted and callously leveraged these casualties to accuse Israel of war crimes, while concealing its own role in bringing them about. Even more so than the rockets, this disinformation campaign became its greatest weapon.
The media bought into and amplified it. The New York Times published pictures of children who Israel had allegedly killed, which included several Hamas terrorists and others killed by Hamas’ own rockets. Talk show hosts opined that Israeli actions “sure seemed like a war crime,” with no legal or factual basis to make such assertions. It is lamentable that in the case of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the media aims to fight disinformation, but in the case of Hamas’ attack on Israel, it fuels it.
A consideration of what the law of armed conflict (LOAC) actually requires—like the investigation undertaken by American military commanders under the auspices of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA)—reveals “that IDF military operations complied with LOAC and consistently implemented precautions to mitigate civilian risk, some exceeding those implemented in recent U.S. combat operations,” while Hamas serially and deliberately violated those legal requirements.
Even human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which claim expertise on these pillars of international law and military operations, have unhesitatingly accepted Hamas’ assertions of Israeli war crimes.
A year after the conflict, President Joe Biden‘s administration has sadly appeared sympathetic to Hamas’ false claims. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price recently described one particular Israeli strike last May as “highly troubling” because “journalists were put at risk…their offices came under assault.” His comments are highly inaccurate. The May 15, 2021 strike he referenced targeted Hamas electronic warfare capabilities in the al-Jalaa building. The building also housed journalists, who were all warned by the IDF and evacuated before the strike. No injuries resulted from the operation. Far from being targeted, IDF precautions protected civilians. It was Hamas that put them at risk by hiding its military assets among the media.
Hamas’ long-standing disinformation campaign helped drive the creation of the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry (COI), which is empowered to investigate alleged Israeli LOAC violations in perpetuity. Subsidized by the American taxpayer, this one-sided commission is expected to condemn Israel in its report next month.
The Biden administration should be prepared to respond in kind when it does. The State Department should fight Hamas’ disinformation at the UN against Israel with the same zeal that it fights Russia’s disinformation in Ukraine by setting the record straight on the lawfulness of IDF operations in Gaza. U.S. Ambassador to the Human Rights Council Michèle Taylor must condemn the COI, making it abundantly clear how its findings stem from deliberate disinformation disseminated by Hamas. If necessary, we should move to defund it. We should also spearhead a broader effort to educate international media on the basic principles of LOAC, and hold them accountable for enabling the spread of malicious misinformation.
It is disappointing, but not unexpected, that the UN is quick to hold Russia accountable for its war crimes but is blind to Hamas’ transgressions. But it will be inexcusable if, in the face of such bias, our State Department enables Hamas’ disinformation operation, too. It will send a message to rogue actors around the world that there is no cost for weaponizing disinformation.
Claudia Tenney represents New York’s 22nd District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Michael Makovsky is the president and CEO of JINSA and a former Pentagon official.
Originally published in Newsweek.