by Omar Baddar
The Israel military’s horrific record of atrocities has long been established. From using civilians as human shields to blanketing civilian areas with cluster bombs and killing journalists, there is no defensible moral code governing the actions of the Israeli military.
But things took an even more grotesque turn last week, when the Israeli military’s spokesperson for Arab audiences, Avichay Adraee, published a two–part Arabic video on Twitter, employing blatant anti-Shia rhetoric and citing some of the scholars the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or IS) relies on, as a means of mobilizing Sunni Arab hostility towards Iran. Take a moment to get your head around this: At a time when the U.S. is committed to eradicating IS and its offshoots in the Middle East, Israel is working in the other direction, promoting the very ideology animating these groups.
Adraee’s video doesn’t incite sectarianism in passing. It digs deep into centuries-old religious texts to promote hostility towards Shias, then translates that into anti-Iranian arguments. The video opens with Adraee accusing Hamas of promoting Iran’s agenda in the region, thereby “officially becoming Shia, according to the honored sayings of the prophet.”
Adraee then addresses his audience, saying: “have you not read the writings of religious scholars… who have clearly and candidly warned you about the threat of Iranian-style Shiism to you and your people?” The scholars Adraee cites represent the ideological roots of groups like IS. For instance, Adraee quotes Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th-century preacher who inspired an extreme and intolerant strain of Islam, as saying that the Shias “are more damaging to [Islam] than the Jews and Christians.”
Adraee then goes further back and references 13th-century preacher Ibn Taymiyyah about “the Shia threat to the Sunnis, which I find suitable for the current Iranian threat to the region.” He quotes Ibn Taymiyyah describing Shias as “fundamentally hypocrites and liars who invent falsehoods to ruin Islam.” He also quotes a contemporary Egyptian religious leader who warned about Shia “intellectual conquest” among Sunnis. All of this proves, according to Adraee, that “the Iranians are a greater danger to you than anyone else,” warning that creating “mischief” in alliance with Iran would be met with “failure in this life, and punishment in the afterlife.”
Although it is bizarre to see a spokesperson for the Jewish state digging through Islamic texts to opine about Muslim theology and what punishments await Muslims in the afterlife, one can understand such efforts better by looking at the sectarian tensions currently plaguing the Middle East. These tensions degenerated into large-scale violence in Iraq following the U.S. invasion in 2003 and became worse still after the uprising-turned-civil war in Syria drew in regional forces in support of different factions. Sectarianism is a major, bloody problem for the region, but Israel sees it as an opportunity to keep its regional adversaries, particularly Hezbollah and Iran, consumed in their deeply unpopular intervention in Syria on behalf of the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
There is nothing surprising in Israel’s attempts to promote antipathy towards Iran. But the weaponization of religious hatred, which has cost countless lives over the past couple of decades, has conclusively dismantled the myth of Israel’s preference for regional peace. Israel’s refusal to end the occupation of the Palestinian territories garners more attention when there isn’t total chaos in the region, which is one of the ways Israel benefits from bigger regional conflagrations.
Sectarian violence aside, there is also much talk about an “Israel-Sunni alliance” against Iran, specifically the alliance Israel hopes to build with Arab gulf states. This promotion of Wahhabism may be an attempt to win over hardliners in these states to Israel’s side against Iran. But if Israel thinks it can successfully build this alliance with the people of the region at the expense of the Palestinians, it is bound to be disappointed. After all, Arab public opinion is divided between those who precondition any alliance with Israel on an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, and those who oppose any such alliance altogether, regardless of any conditions. Those who currently favor an alliance with Israel against Iran make up a meager 1% of the UAE population and 2% of the Saudi population.
PR in a Post-Truth World
The promotion of sectarianism is just one of many ways Israel is changing the way it does PR in the Trump era. Donald Trump’s ability to triumph despite his utter disregard for the truth has tipped off centers of power around the world to the fact that demonstrable falsehoods are not as damaging as once thought.
The Israeli military has also taken notice. After Israeli snipers killed 21-year-old Palestinian nurse Razan Al-Najjar in Gaza, the IDF dishonestly edited a video of Al-Najjar to justify her senseless killing. In an interview with a news outlet, Al-Najjar said she hoped the presence of a harmless medic like herself might serve as a shield for the Gaza protesters. In essence, Al-Najjar was making an appeal to the conscience of Israeli soldiers. Instead, the Israeli military snipped that “shield” part of the video and accused Al-Najjar of serving as a “human shield for Hamas.”
Israeli leaders are also generally more emboldened to disregard reality and to present all their victims as terrorists. None was more crass and offensive than Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who declared that “there are no innocent people in the Gaza Strip.” This is a reflection of the Trump administration’s total carte blanche for Israel to do as it may with the Palestinians. True, previous U.S. administrations have offered obscene levels of military aid and diplomatic protection that gave Israel a sense of impunity, but the Trump administration’s refusal even to criticize any Israeli actions has taken this enablement of atrocious behavior to a whole new level.
While the Trump administration turns a blind eye to Israel’s promotion of IS ideology and its atrocities in Gaza, a political shift in U.S. public discourse is beginning to crack the bipartisan consensus in defense of all Israel actions. The blatant disregard for civilian lives has prompted senior members of the U.S. Senate to call for accountability, from Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) call for an independent investigation, to Patrick Leahy’s (D-VT) recommendation that the State Department “promptly determine if individuals or units involved in the shootings should be prohibited from receiving U.S. training or equipment, consistent with the Leahy Law.” Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has even released a video featuring Palestinian voices calling for an end to the siege on Gaza, and Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-MN) introduced a bill to prohibit American aid from being used by the Israeli military to abuse Palestinian children.
The more blatant the Israeli leadership’s embrace of hateful rhetoric and disregard for innocent lives, the more powerful the countercurrent to bring about justice and accountability for these crimes.
Omar Baddar is the deputy director of the Arab American Institute and a political analyst focused on US-Middle East policy. You can follow him on Twitter at @OmarBaddar.