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The Psychology of Palestinian Distortions and Deceptions

26.3.24

Global opinion has moved from outrage at Hamas on October 7, 2023, to criticism of Israel just months later. How? A Palestinian strategy manipulates perception to distort and present an alternate reality.

Dr. Irwin J. Mansdorf, JCPA
  • Global opinion has moved from outrage at Hamas on October 7, 2023, to criticism of Israel just months later. How? A Palestinian strategy manipulates perception to distort and present an alternate reality.

  • While the Hamas of October 7 was a vicious terror organization, the passage of time has shifted perception to “innocent Palestinians” who are “victims,” consistent with the ongoing Palestinian chronicle of victimization used as a central motif in their national narrative.

  • Facts and accurate information will not always effectively counter misinformation based on previous perceptions created by Palestinian sources. The “primacy effect,” where first impressions persist, plays a psychological role.

  • Palestinians distort reality by providing material for perceptions that feed a cognitive set that promotes favoring perceived victims who are presented as suffering, with images of casualties, poor housing conditions, lack of food, and emotional distress.

  • Western thinking that elicits sympathy for victims and absolves them of responsibility feeds into the deception strategy of Palestinian terror.

  • While contextual reality is the basis for accurate information, Palestinians distort this by using civilians as psychological human shields in a cognitive war.

  • Countering with the “truth” is likely ineffective unless the “truth” is framed in a context that appeals to the same cognitive framework of “fairness” and victim appeal that Palestinians have been using.

  • While sterile “counter-narratives” are ineffective, research suggests that adding emotive imagery and personalization can help change perceptions and reality.


Background: Psychological Asymmetry at Work

“Psychological asymmetry” is a term coined in 2008,1 and its manifestation has persisted for years and is currently on full display in the Israel-Hamas conflict. The premise is that despite being a militarily stronger force, Israel, facing an enemy who manipulates and exploits its own civilian population without regard to safety or well-being, will lose its psychological and narrative edge when the suffering of the enemy population is presented. Indeed, this scenario has historically played out when ceasefires, against Israel’s interests, came into play in Lebanon in 19962 and 20063 and in Gaza in 20124 and 2014,5 despite the problematic nature of Palestinian casualty reports.6 Current calls for a ceasefire7 follow this pattern.


Psychological asymmetry elicits these reactions because imagery and pathos, as we will see from the scientific literature, are as important as factual narrative.8 Likewise, deception and distortion, used intentionally, repeatedly, and strategically by Hamas9 and the Palestinian Authority,10 succeed when contextual background is absent, as it is for most noninvolved observers.


While Israel has historically encouraged a Jewish self-image of success and strength as opposed to oppression and hardship, essentially the antithesis of victimization, the Palestinians have worked to create the opposite by generating a narrative of dispossession, weakness, and victimhood even though, in reality, their standard of living has significantly improved over the years.11 This narrative serves as the basis for understanding much of the strategy employed in their attempts at deception and distortion.12


The Swing of Sympathy: Perception and Reality

While Hamas’s October 7 attack was widely condemned13 for its viciousness and atrocities, it was also widely denied by Palestinians.14 A report that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack15 was later retracted.16 By avoiding direct condemnation of an attack almost universally seen as particularly ugly, the Palestinians preserved what Eran Lerman called their victim narrative,17 which functions to assist them in refusing peace and persist in hindering any peace efforts. This is despite data that shows popular Palestinian support for the very attack denied by their leadership.18


For the Palestinians and their supporters, denial and distortion are based on their perception of being the victim despite what happens to Israelis. For the majority of observers, however, reality initially followed the accurate perception of the documented victimization of civilians19 that included wanton murder and rape.20


The difference between the Palestinian reality and the reality experienced by Israelis is a prime example of perception and reality not always being in concert with each other.21 For the Palestinians, this knowledge is a driving force in their creating perceptions, which in turn create alternate realities that do not fit facts. However, as the Israeli counteroffensive gained steam and as the opportunities to present images and reports of Palestinian civilian casualties increased, the perception of Palestinian victimhood turned into reality for many.


A prime example of this took place on October 17, 2023, when Hamas claimed that Israel intentionally bombed Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza, with 471 killed and 342 injured22 (even though the damage was caused by a misfired Palestinian rocket).23 Although U.S. intelligence24 concluded that this was a false claim, initial analyses by news organizations failed to confirm Israel’s denial of responsibility.25 The initial reports of the bombing by various news agencies also included images of civilians severely injured.26


The reality of the Palestinian claims was debunked. Still, the perception created by the images was designed to create a swell of sympathy in the casual, uninvolved observer, and it succeeded. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Palestinian sites continued to blame Israel, providing analyses that purported to “deconstruct” Israeli lies.27


As the war continued, more opportunities to showcase Palestinian victimhood arose, leading to more news reports28 and more images to support those reports. Key to these reports was the ever-increasing casualty toll reported by the Hamas-controlled Gaza Ministry of Health, which, although questionable,29 is still reported by mainstream sources.30


As these figures rose, they were accompanied by reports of a humanitarian crisis, partly by United Nations-affiliated organizations31 and partly by mainstream sources32 basing their assessment on various NGO reports, such as the Red Cross33 or Oxfam.34


These assessments, however, were also presented by more established sources such as the Brookings Institution35 and the Council on Foreign Relations.36 All in all, the perception of humanitarian suffering in Gaza became a reality that overshadowed the original Hamas attack of October 7, 2023. As more reports were filed, they either failed to note the original Hamas attack that started the war37 or mentioned it briefly and dismissively,38 leaving a perceptual imbalance in play for the reader.


Deception Based on Distortion

The cumulative effect of distorted evidence. i.e., evidence from a biased source presented without contextual reference, is to create a deception that turns perception into reality. While there is little doubt that there have been considerable civilian casualties and little doubt that the humanitarian conditions in Gaza are poor, Palestinian strategy aims to embellish these perceptions and have them become the central “story,” replacing and even erasing the context in which this damage was caused, namely, the atrocity-filled attack Hamas of October 7. Since October 7 is in the past, and since Israel’s counteroffensive continues, Hamas is presented with daily opportunities to distort perceptions, turning them into daily deceptions. As the presence of Palestinian activists on social media increases, Israeli narratives take a back seat to Palestinian ones. The result is a battle of “suffering” with which Israel has difficulty competing. In this context, Dr. Lilly Boxman-Shabtai, a Hebrew University researcher of digital culture, notes, “When Israelis compete about whose suffering is greater, they lose.39


This battle of suffering eventually permeates policy decisions where, again, deceptive perceptions become a reality even for Israel’s allies. President Joe Biden, in his 2024 State of the Union address, unconditionally accepted the likely distorted figures of Hamas by echoing the claims of the Gaza Health Ministry that “more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed. Most of whom are not Hamas.40 “This follows an earlier statement by Defense Secretary Austin, who accepted the increased Hamas figures when he claimed 25,000 “women and children” were killed.41


The accuracy of distorted figures morphs into reality as the accuracy of a narrative becomes less critical than its emotional impact. For example, the actual number of civilian casualties versus the image of one suffering child or documentation that only about ten, as opposed to over 100, were shot near a food convoy.42 The distorted Palestinian reports will still elicit a “normal and expected” sympathy that will tend to persist as reality as the events of October 7 tend to fade into the background.


When reputable third parties, acting as Palestinian proxies, publicize and give credence to false narratives, these narratives gain credence in mainstream sources. Perhaps the most egregious and outrageous example is the South Africa case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) accusing Israel of “genocide,” an accusation that some mainstream sources take seriously and quote “experts” discussing the issue.43 44


Some of the deception strategy of the Palestinians stems from being enabled by journalists who are, at best, sloppy and lazy and, at worst, complicit in the deception. Robert Satloff describes in some detail how this works. Using a Washington Post article as an example, he illustrates how the report shows: “over-reliance on anonymous sources; selective citation from interviews; lack of corroboration for key assertions; ignoring discrepancies and conflicting evidence; and an emphasis on speed over accuracy.”45 He also speaks to another problem discovered in the aftermath of October 7, namely, conflicts of interest, with one journalist having established personal relationships with a Palestinian operative not revealed to the editors.


Besides passive journalistic enabling, there have also been cases where journalists were actual Hamas operatives46 or where photographers who accompanied Hamas into Israel on October 7, such as documented by Honest Reporting,47 were employed by mainstream outlets such as the New York Times. Having such staff available to them enables distortions and deceptions to reach the mainstream unfiltered.


Facts Versus Cognitive Set

While one would hope that facts effectively establish reality, this is only partially true. Once a perception, even a distorted one, creates a reality, a “cognitive set” (a temporary readiness to think or interpret information in a particular way) is established and resistant to change.48


The plethora of information that reports Palestinian perspectives influences perceptions and creates expectations among readers and viewers. When these perceptions are repeated by credible sources such as the mainstream media and credible figures such as the President of the United States, countering those perceptions becomes difficult. Facts, thus, are less important than the context they are presented in and are often interpreted based on one’s previous exposure to the information presented. This phenomenon is known as the “primacy effect” in attitude formation, where first impressions are weighted more heavily than information learned later.49 The more Palestinian sources are the first to present information, the more it is likely to gain from the “primacy effect” and have the distortion succeed in becoming a deception.


Can False Narratives Be Reversed?

Several background attitudes are at work in interpreting Palestinian information. For Western observers, concepts such as “fairness” and “innocence” become more important than “right” and “wrong.” Palestinian strategy has been to emphasize “innocence” and, in so doing, to develop an expectation that challenges any possibility of improper behavior, even when it comes to terror.50


Breaking the narrative is difficult once these concepts are established and associated with Palestinian claims. Countering with “truth” is likely ineffective unless the “truth” is framed in a context that appeals to the same cognitive framework of “fairness” and victim appeal. This occurrence has been discussed and explained by Danish researchers Hemmingsen and Castro,51 who, in investigating the effectiveness of counter-narratives against terror organizations, found that they “…are neither necessary nor appropriate, and that the potential negative side-effects are not acceptable when measured against the expected benefits.” Similarly, Carthy and associates found52 that “there is overwhelming consensus in both government and academic spheres that the concept of the counter-narrative is underdeveloped and, to date, there has been no synthesis of its effectiveness.”


Where Does This Leave Israel in Its Cognitive War Against Palestinian Deception?

While the literature on countering narratives is limited, there is evidence that specific strategies are more effective than others. As noted above, the straightforward “tell the truth” approach is ineffective at best and has historically been unsuccessful. However, data suggests that “…narratives consisting of emotional corrective endings are better at correcting attitudes than a simple corrective.”53 Building on this concept, presenting individual “stories” to personalize a narrative helped improve countering misinformation related to vaccines.54 Green also found that personalizing information helps counter misinformation in studying cancer care. This personalization is known as “transportation theory” and has been posited to aid people “…mentally enter a world that a story evokes.”55


Conclusions

Palestinian propaganda has benefitted from a concerted focus on distorting information, leading to creating perceptions that present a deceptively false reality. The action often creates a cognitive set that promotes favoring perceived victims. Images of casualties, poor housing conditions, lack of food, and emotional distress feed these perceptions, which have been intentionally promoted for years by Palestinian leaders as a central element in their national narrative.


When presented against a background of “normal” life for the other side, the images of victimhood will prevail if one’s attitudinal base does not include accurate contextual information. Western thinking that elicits sympathy for victims and absolves them of responsibility feeds into the deception strategy of Palestinian terror groups. It consists of an attitude that what is “fair” is also what is “right.” When images continue to be presented that contrast suffering with stability, the “underdog” effect is triggered, distorting reality and favoring the victim, here, the Palestinians.

Research suggests that the sterile presentation of truthful narratives is not as effective as personalizing narratives and presenting material and imagery that add emotion to information and create “stories” that potentially alter the perception of reality.


More focused research is required to understand better the interface between perception and reality and the mechanisms behind some of the deceptive practices of Palestinian spokespersons in a framework where an asymmetric balance between truth and reality exists. Meanwhile, Palestinians will continue to use the strategy of exploiting civilian “human shields” for military purposes, but more importantly, will persist in psychological warfare to promote a false cognitive narrative to a naive public that at times unknowingly participates in their schemes.

*

Notes

  1. Brig. Gen. (Res.) Yosef Kuperwasser, personal communication, March 2024↩︎

  2. Ibid.↩︎

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