Virtually every British newspaper reported this week that Hamas fighters beheaded 40 babies during the assault last weekend. Most of them used it as a front page.
It was used as clear evidence of the heinous savagery of Hamas, supposed justification for the pummelling of Gaza and the murder of Palestinians.
But days later there is no evidence to support the claim and journalists and politicians are running away from it.
The White House was forced to withdraw comments made by president Joe Biden on Wednesday. He claimed to have seen “confirmed pictures of terrorists beheading children” in Israel.
A spokesperson told The Washington Post newspaper that Biden had not seen any such photos. They said he was basing his claims on assertions made by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and news reports.
Hardly anyone will put that out, and the damage is done anyway. Marc Owen Jones, a Qatar-based scholar said the unconfirmed report had at least 44 million impressions, 300,000 likes, and over 100,000 reposts within 24 hours on X (Twitter).
It’s another lie used to launch a war. The claim about beheaded babies originated with reporters who visited Kfar Aza, a settlement near the Gaza border, on Tuesday, the site of a Hamas attack.
Reporters with i24NEWS, an Israeli TV network, were among the first to report the claim, which they attributed to soldiers who recovered the bodies of victims.
In an interview with Sky on Tuesday evening, Israeli economy minister Nir Barkat echoed the claim, “We’ve seen just now… we’ve heard of 40 young boys. Some of them were burned alive. Some were beheaded. Some were shot in the head.”
The Turkish news agency Anadolu was the first to report that the Israeli army would not confirm the claim. The military later told other outlets that it would not confirm the reports because it is “disrespectful for the dead.”
At least two other journalists later deleted tweets referencing the reports. “Just looked at today’s UK front pages. I am horrified by the headlines claiming ‘40 babies beheaded by Hamas’ in Kfar Aza,” Guardian reporter Bethan McKernan tweeted on Tuesday.
“Yes, many children were murdered. Yes, there were several beheadings in the attack. This claim, however, is unverified and totally irresponsible.”
The Israel state is used to lying. On 9 June 2006 Israeli forces blew up seven civilians on a Gaza beach. The footage of the sole survivor, ten year old Huda Ghalia, screaming amid the ruins of her family was so unbearable that Israel even muttered some apology.
But only for a moment. The army quickly convened a committee to investigate the deaths on the beach and almost as swiftly absolved itself of responsibility.
The committee acknowledged the army fired six shells on and around Beit Lahia beach from artillery inside Israel. But it said that a separate explosion—probably a mine planted by Hamas—had killed the family. That was a lie.
A US pro-Israel pressure group, Camera, which seeks to influence media coverage, went so far as to suggest that the film of Huda Ghalia’s trauma was faked. It asked, “Were the bodies moved, was the girl asked to re-enact her discovery for the camera, was the video staged?” That was another lie.
The beheaded babies story echoes others. Take the Kuwaiti babies story in 1990 used to justify a US war against Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s forces took over Kuwait. Its origins go back to the First World War when British propaganda accused the Germans of tossing Belgian babies into the air and catching them on their bayonets.
The Gulf war version had Iraqi soldiers bursting into a modern Kuwaiti hospital and finding the premature babies ward. Western propaganda claimed that they had then hurled the babies out of incubators so that the incubators could be sent back to Iraq.
The story was first reported by the Daily Telegraph on 5 September. But the story needed more colour to be truly effective. There were no pictures or interviews with grieving relatives. That was soon provided.
An organisation calling itself Citizens for a Free Kuwait was financed by the Kuwaiti government in exile. It had signed a £8 million contract with the giant US public relations company, Hill & Knowlton, to campaign for Western military intervention to oust Iraq from Kuwait.
The US Congress’ Human Rights Caucus was meeting in October. Hill & Knowlton arranged for a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl to tell the babies’ story before the congressmen.
As Phillip Knightley wrote, “She did it brilliantly, choking with tears at the right moment, her voice breaking as she struggled to continue. The congressional committee knew her only as Nayirah and the television segment of her testimony showed anger and resolution on the faces of the congressmen listening to her.”
President Bush referred to the story six times in the next five weeks as an example of the evil of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
In the Senate debate whether to approve military action to force Saddam out of Kuwait, seven senators specifically mentioned the incubator babies atrocity. The final margin in favour of war was just five votes.
It was not until nearly two years later that the truth emerged. The story was a lie. And Nayirah, the teenage Kuwaiti girl coached and rehearsed by Hill & Knowlton for her appearance, was in fact the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US. By then the war was long over.
The US war in Vietnam escalated after a fake report in August 1964. US president Lyndon Johnson claimed North Vietnamese torpedo boats had twice made unprovoked attacks against the US destroyer Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Congress responded by voting Johnson full powers to wage war in south east Asia. It later transpired that the Maddox had been returning from secret operations against North Vietnam and that the second attack never took place. But Johnson had his war clearance.
Civilians were killed in Kfar Aza and in Kuwait and in Belgium. But that was never enough. Lies about dead babies are needed to make enemies literally inhuman, animals who can be slaughtered without any of the usual concerns.
They mean that the proof of dead Palestinian babies being pulled out of the rubble in Gaza can safely be ignored. These are not people like us, they are savages.
And they buttress the bigger lies such as the one that 1948 saw settlers take over a land that was empty and did not belong to the Palestinians. Those who confect and spread such lies are themselves collaborators in murder.
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