Conor Gearty KC, a barrister in Matrix Chambers and Professor of Human Rights Law at the LSE, drawing on the work of the late Stan Cohen, an LSE professor of sociology, explains how Israel has used denial in three ways to control the narrative on its assault against Gaza since 7 October 2023: “literal denial (it never happened); interpretative denial (it’s not what you think it is) and implicatory denial (we have to do it/it’s terrible, but it’s not our fault).” The analysis is clear and persuasive, but perhaps the most disturbing feature of Professor Gearty’s work are the illustrations he uses, showing just how predisposed Europeans and American are to be gulled by Israeli manipulation. The original essay in The London Review of Books can be found here.

When​ I joined the London School of Economics in 2002, one of its towering figures was Stan Cohen, a professor of sociology and one of the founders of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights, which I had been hired to run. Born in South Africa, Stan was Jewish and had in his youth been a Zionist. In 1980 he moved to Israel to work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. That finished him with Zionism. When I first met him, he had just published States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering (2000), which shows that denial can masquerade as reason and reasonableness, making the unconscionable appear civilised, measured, even humane. He died in 2013, but his book makes clear what he would have made of Israel’s current operation in Gaza.

In States of Denial, Cohen was highly critical of the way liberal culture had accommodated Israel’s actions. He discussed three versions of denial: literal denial (it never happened); interpretative denial (it’s not what you think it is) and implicatory denial (we have to do it/it’s terrible, but it’s not our fault). It’s much harder for the Israeli authorities to pull off literal denial than it was before the existence of social media, though it lingers on in their dismissal of the dangers facing the population of Gaza (we are creating safe spaces for the innocent; they should go to the south) and of the severity of conditions there (there is enough food and water; there would be a plentiful supply of fuel if Hamas stopped hoarding it). But the essential facts can hardly be denied: more than 23,000 deaths, around 1 per cent of the population; the destruction of a third of the buildings in the territory; attacks on schools, universities, hospitals and cultural centres; and the forced movement of 1.9 million people.

Instead, and in a move not anticipated by Cohen but which the sociologist in him might have admired, Israel and its supporters have flipped the need for denial to the other side: instead of Israel attempting to show that the atrocities it is committing in Gaza are not in fact taking place, the Palestinians and their supporters find themselves having to prove to the world that things that did not happen actually did not happen − or not in the way Israel says they did. Disproving fabrications is an exhausting business, usefully so from Israel’s point of view. Refutation takes time and often comes too late to undermine what have become entrenched truths.

Ten children aged under twelve were murdered during the Hamas attacks of 7 October, but there is no basis for the claim, widely made at the time, that forty babies were beheaded. The number seems to have come from a report on the Israeli news channel i24 on 10 October by Nicole Zedek, who said she had been told by IDF soldiers that ‘forty children had been killed’ and interviewed a soldier who said that Hamas fighters had ‘cut heads off children, cut heads off women’. These statements quickly morphed on social media into the claim that forty babies had been beheaded. When Joe Biden was asked about this on 11 October he said: ‘I never really thought that I would see and have confirmed pictures of terrorists beheading children.’ The White House said he had not in fact seen such pictures but had based his comments on media reports from Israel and on a statement by a spokesperson for the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden repeated the claim on 12 December, but it is no longer being made by the Israelis. It had served its purpose. (The use of the supposed mutilation of babies as a propaganda tool isn’t new: it was used most famously early in the First World War when British newspapers published stories about the Germans bayoneting Belgian babies.)

On 16 November Jake Tapper presented a report on CNN about the ‘ugly fact’ that Israeli women had been raped on 7 October, though ‘sadly often the evidence has been lost along with the victims.’ A report by Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI) had come out a few days earlier. The report makes clear that it ‘does not attempt or aim to meet legal thresholds’, but still asserts in its introduction that with the emergence of ‘a fuller picture of what transpired’, it was ‘becoming more apparent that the violence perpetrated against women, men and children also included widespread sexual and gender-based crimes’. At a press conference on 5 December, Netanyahu urged ‘the world to speak out against the sexual assaults, rapes and mutilations’ perpetrated by Hamas but scandalously ignored by Israel’s critics in the West: ‘Where the hell are you?’ he asked Western women’s and human rights groups.

Any sexual violence carried out during the 7 October attacks – whether or not it was encouraged by Hamas leaders – is clearly contrary to the laws of war and the demands of human rights. There have been accusations that pro-Palestinian groups and the Western feminists Netanyahu complained about have doubted the stories of rape, asking for proof in a way they would not have if the perpetrators had been, say, Russian soldiers. While there may be some truth in this, it was the allegation that sexual violence was systematically used as a ‘weapon of war’ by Hamas that played a key role in flipping the duty of denial. The extent of the sexual crimes committed on 7 October remains unclear, as does whether they were systematic or opportunistic: the PHRI report sticks to ‘widespread’.

Early in the conflict, on 17 October, when it was still plausible to believe that Israel’s military action was targeted at Hamas, there was an explosion in the courtyard of al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City, killing many people who had taken refuge there (the US estimate is between 100 and 300; Hamas’s is 471). Israel was immediately blamed, unsurprisingly, given its bombing in the area and demands that the hospital be evacuated. The day before, Netanyahu had posted on Twitter that the assault on Gaza was a ‘struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle’, but the post was removed when the severity of what had happened at the hospital became clear. Not long after that, a new Israeli narrative asserted that the destruction had been caused by a misfired rocket launched by Islamic Jihad and the IDF released what it claimed was an intercepted conversation between members of the group about the event. The usual IDF expert analysis and intelligence sources were mustered in support of the Israeli line. Many of the media organisations that have investigated the explosion have agreed with Human Rights Watch that the ‘evidence points to misfired rockets’, while acknowledging that this isn’t a conclusive verdict (the same outlets say that the IDF audio was fabricated). Al-Jazeera and Forensic Architecture disagree, claiming that their ‘analysis suggests the missile originated outside Gaza near a reported “Iron Dome” launch site’. Hamas and Islamic Jihad denounced the HRW report as embracing the ‘Israeli narrative’, while ignoring Israel’s ‘policy of systematic targeting of hospitals’. No one can know for sure what really happened, and this uncertainty was all Israel needed. Again, the burden of denial was flipped to the Palestinian side, in this case with helpful cover provided by a US-based organisation that describes itself as working ‘in the field in some one hundred countries, uncovering facts that create an undeniable record of human rights abuses’.

Interpretative denial, as Cohen defines it, relies on construing an event in a way that casts doubt on its obvious explanation, offering instead an alternative that serves to exculpate the apparent wrongdoer. On 15 November Israeli soldiers entered the already encircled al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, which the IDF had been claiming for days was the site of an underground Hamas control centre. After the assault, some evidence for this was produced: a video showing men with guns in a hospital corridor, a gun found behind an MRI machine (a strange place to store it) and a tunnel leading to a room with a couple of bed frames in it, a kitchen and bathroom, all of them apparently long abandoned. There was no evidence of the Hamas nerve centre shown in IDF graphics. The Washington Post published a detailed study on 21 December which appears to destroy the evidential base for such a centre, but the success of Israeli assertions that an underground military complex existed made possible its attack on the hospital, and indeed Gaza’s entire healthcare system. The Geneva conventions hold that military operations against hospitals are legal only if ‘they are used to commit, outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to the enemy’. ‘Small arms and ammunition’ do not count.

On 7 December the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, hosted a meeting for human rights groups, including HRW, to celebrate Human Rights Day, and tweeted: ‘Human rights belong to everyone. They are universal, indivisible and interrelated. Today, as we recognise 75 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the US reaffirms our deep commitment to protect human rights and hold human rights abusers accountable.’ Two days after the meeting, Blinken authorised the emergency sale to Israel of nearly 14,000 rounds of tank ammunition worth more than $106 million. His explanation was a good example of interpretative denial: ‘When it comes to the weapons that we transfer, the rules that go along with them, the rules apply to Israel as they do to any other country, including the way they’re used and the need, the imperative of respecting international humanitarian law.’ You may think Israel is committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, even genocide, but in fact all of its actions are in accord with international humanitarian law, and we know that’s true because we say it is. Few politicians are brazen enough to claim that Israel’s armed forces are complying with international law, but as Natasa Mavronicola and Mattia Pinto argued in a piece on the European Journal of International Law’s blog, the legalistic treatment of atrocities means that ‘states are given the benefit of the doubt in relation to ongoing abuses’ and ‘this enables other states (and other powerful entities) to appeal to plausible legality in erring on the side of facilitating atrocity in real time’. Our new foreign secretary, David Cameron, may be ‘worried’ that Israel is breaking international law, but doesn’t think it’s up to him to make a ‘legal adjudication’.

If bare-faced lies and interpretative denial don’t work – and both are trickier now than they were at the start of the invasion – there is always implicatory denial. An attack on the Greek Orthodox St Porphyrius Church in Gaza City on 19 October which led to eighteen deaths among those sheltering inside was explained as being the result of what was described as a legitimate effort to kill a Hamas commander in a nearby ‘command and control’ centre. Sniper attacks and tank bombardment on the Holy Family Church and the Sisters’ Convent beside it on 16 December killed an elderly woman and her daughter, who was helping her to the bathroom, and destroyed a generator for a building where 54 disabled residents lived, some on respirators. According to an ‘initial review’ by the IDF, the Israeli troops were operating against a Hamas ‘threat that they identified in the area of the church’.

In a letter to the Times on 20 October, David Pannick and Ken Macdonald, both peers and lawyers who have long experience of human rights cases, argued that the ordinary law of self-defence was a guide to what Israel could lawfully do, which means that, like an individual faced with a threat to their life, a state can do what it needs to do to survive. As Pannick and Macdonald put it, ‘criminal law understands that if people, in moments of unexpected anguish, do only what they instinctively believe is necessary to protect themselves from harm, this is the best evidence a jury can have that they are acting in lawful self-defence. What stands for people stands also for nations.’ Nicholas Reed Langen in the Church Times was one of many who pointed out that ‘in domestic law, if you discover that your neighbour is plotting an attempt on your life, you are not allowed to claim that the gunning down of your neighbour and his family was an act of self-defence.’ But by then the story had taken off. The legal experts had given Israel a legal blank cheque. Even Philippe Sands – who has represented the Palestinians at the International Court of Justice – said of Keir Starmer’s persistent refusal to call for a ceasefire that he ‘has got the tone absolutely right in adopting a non knee-jerk response – I respect that and admire that.’ (Sands appeared with Starmer at the ICJ in 2014, both of them representing Croatia when Serbia and Croatia unsuccessfully accused each other of genocide.)

Another kind of implicatory denial is the line that it’s nothing to do with us. Marija Pejčinović Burić, the secretary general of the Council of Europe, which operates the European Court of Human Rights, issued a statement on 14 October condemning the ‘terrorist crimes of Hamas’ and adding that the council’s ‘support and solidarity’ for the 7 October victims was ‘full and unreserved’. Since then the Council of Europe has been largely silent, though its commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatović, made a passing reference in a speech on 30 November about the spillover effect into Europe of what she described as ‘the conflict in Gaza’. A report by the political committee of its Parliamentary Assembly expressed ‘support for Israel in the face of the most brutal terrorist attack of its history’, and affirmed ‘its right to self-defence’ while insisting in the usual way on the need for ‘the parties to the hostilities to strictly abide by international law and international humanitarian law, in line with the principles of distinction, necessity, proportionality and precaution’.

Countries outside Europe can co-operate with the council if they accept its guiding principles of democracy, the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Knesset was granted observer status at the Parliamentary Assembly in 1957 and is represented there by a delegation of three members. Israel plays an active part in many of the council’s proceedings (while steering well clear of the European Convention on Human Rights). The Committee of Ministers can suspend an observing state and, after consulting the Parliamentary Assembly, withdraw that status. There is no sign that this is likely to happen when the Parliamentary Assembly finally gets round to discussing Gaza on 23 January. The European Parliament’s information website, meanwhile, states that ‘the European Union and Israel share a long common history, marked by growing interdependence and co-operation. Both share the values of democracy, respect for freedom and rule of law.’ On 14 October the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, gave an example of implicatory denial when she said of the 7 October events and their aftermath: ‘Let me ... be very clear that Hamas alone is responsible for what is happening ... On the contrary, the horror that Hamas has unleashed is only bringing more suffering upon innocent Palestinians.’ Von der Leyen visited Rwanda before Christmas and on a visit to one of its genocide memorial sites tweeted that she ‘honour[ed] the memory of the victims of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi’, adding that ‘the past shall never be forgotten.’ But the present, it seems, can be denied.

How do we square all these efforts at denial with the celebration by many in Israel at the death and destruction being visited on the population of Gaza, the pressure for the same kind of action to be taken in the West Bank, and the proud circulation by Israeli troops of selfies and videos from the scene to show to their families and friends? Describing the Palestinians as vermin to be removed or killed is hardly the language of denial, but many Israelis combine celebration with a denial that what’s happening is their fault. Denial in Israel is a means of keeping supporters abroad on message. We in the Global North need lies so that we can continue to see our support for Israeli action as morally possible.