The business about the ’40 beheaded babies’ had only just emerged when I published the article a week and a half ago on the events of October 7th.
I’d already expressed scepticism about it then, but it subsequently blew up across both social and mainstream media, becoming a major propaganda talking point.
What’s worth exploring is why the specific story of the 40 babies matters: there was already enough demonstrable evidence of Hamas-related crimes on October 7th without the need to put out a possibly dubious story of beheaded babies.
I don’t disbelieve that children were killed – as part of the general rampage that occurred in Southern Israel. It’s the very specific ’40 beheaded babies’ claim that was and still is the elephant in the room. It is still being repeated on an almost daily basis by Israeli officials and media representatives.
And the intention behind this claim – as well as how the claim was handled by media organisations, as well as some political officials – reveals a great deal about how the propaganda dynamics are working.
Now, you could argue that this is just semantics: what does it matter if babies were beheaded or if they were murdered some other way: if babies or infants were murdered by bullets or by burning or some other way, it’s the same thing – it’s still a horrific war crime.
But the reason the specifics matter in this case is to know why such a particular image or idea has been evoked and spread around the world in the way it has: in other words, the story clearly matters to those propagating it.
Because, as much as it might seem like semantics to some, a claim that ‘children were among the victims’ and the claim about ’40 beheaded babies’ are two very different things that evoke two very different visceral or emotional responses.
For one thing, Palestinians can also claim that many, many children are among the victims on their side too: and always have been. Whereas the idea of the ’40 beheaded babies’ is so extreme, so barbaric, and so beyond imagination, that there’s nothing left that the other side can accuse Israel of that would be as bad as that.
Which was presumably a big part of the idea.
The first problem with the story is its original source: which was the Israeli i24 news channel – regarded as a hard-right propaganda outlet linked to Netanyahu and the Israeli hardliners.
The second is the way the story went confusedly back and forth. First, numerous outlets ran the story as fact: then some of them had to start walking it back a little, saying they weren’t sure. Then some returned to the claim as fact, but others didn’t.
All the while, many millions of people on social media shared the story without any concern for verification of facts.
While it’s seemingly true that children were among the victims killed by the Hamas-linked fighters (or at least killed during the course of the events, including Israeli/Hamas crossfire), and therefore that images and evidence will exist of dead children, there’s been no proof of the specifically ’40 beheaded babies’ offered, no matter how much the Israeli state’s spokespeople and its mass media allies try to say otherwise.
I actually thought the tidy, round number of 40 was suspect from the start. Why not 39 or 42? It even crossed my mind that 40 might’ve been meant to evoke the Biblical 40 years that the Israelites were in the desert before being brought out of bondage.
Moses also spent 40 days and nights with God on Mount Sinai. And 40 years in Egypt. Noah was in the ark for 40 days and nights, this being the supposed duration of the Great Flood. And Goliath was said to have provoked the Israelites for 40 days before David attacked him.
There’s more, but you get the idea – the number 40 is highly prevalent in the Israelite or Judaeo-Christian symbology.
But that’s just an aside.
On the surface of it, it seemed unlikely that Hamas fighters beheaded 40 babies. But I do wholly accept that some of them might’ve murdered children as part of the killing spree – and that is atrocity enough. It’s a war crime. It is also likely (and there’s growing evidence to this effect) that some, including children, might’ve been killed in crossfire with Israeli forces: but that’s something we’ll explore in the next article.
The only reason for the specific 40 babies claim to be so heavily pushed then is for its propaganda value.
As my friend over at Wall of Controversy explains, this idea of evoking innocent babies or infants is a well established propaganda strategy to dehumanise the enemy. He aptly cites the examples of the Germans supposedly bayoneting children in a hospital in World War I or the famous babies being thrown out of incubators story from the first Gulf War, which Iraqi troops were falsely accused of doing.
In such cases, the idea of cruelty against children is evoked to paint the chosen enemy as monsters: and thus help justify the retaliatory action to be taken against them.
I would add to this a more recent example: specifically the whole maternity hospital debacle in Mariupol, where the Russians supposedly bombed pregnant women and babies. I covered that business at length here. Of course it turned out to be bollocks. Moreover, the Associated Press was likely complicit in the staging of that false event: and the rest of the mainstream Western media ran with the story as if it was wholly true.
In terms of this 40 babies claim, large parts of the media again ran with it – despite the lack of clear evidence or corroboration.
Therefore the major media (or at least large parts of it) was broadly an active participant in the propagation of an Israeli propaganda campaign.
Some outlets added in a weak disclaimer saying that they hadn’t been able to verify the claims… but only after running highly emotive and sensational headlines or news segments acting as if the information was known to be accurate.
Some didn’t even include the disclaimers. I saw CNN and FOX News broadcasts, for example, stating the 40 babies item as fact. FOX had been the worst offender, repeating the unsubstantiated claim multiple times, and MSNBC wasn’t any better. Sky News Australia has also been particularly deceitful in its coverage (but Sky News Australia usually is).
High profile propaganda agents like Ben Shapiro and also prime broadcasters like Piers Morgan also acted as if the story was a known fact.
Moreover, Israeli representatives appearing in the media have been mostly allowed to repeat the story without being challenged. Everywhere from the BBC’s Question Time and Newsnight flagship shows to prime time anchors across US networks, the Israeli representatives have been free to cite the 40 beheaded babies without challenge.
For example, I’ve lost count of how many times Israeli Ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely, has been allowed to cite the 40 babies story unchallenged. Hotovely, by the way, is a particularly terrible actor, who never comes across as anything but dishonest and smug. She’s even had the audacity to tell Sky News that ‘there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza’. That woman’s worse than Nikki Hayley.
Various other politicians went with it too, including President Biden, who even claimed to have seen the photos of the beheaded babies – an untruth that the White House had to then embarrassingly issue a retraction on, saying that neither Biden nor anyone in the administration had seen any such pictures.
Subsequently, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was apparently shown images directly by Netanyahu himself during a closed-door meeting in Israel. But, curiously, Blinken didn’t substantiate the specific ’40 beheaded babies’ claim when addressing the press afterwards: instead he talked about children being among the bodies he’d been shown, including burnt bodies of children.
Which, again, is an atrocity: but it’s not the ’40 beheaded babies’ story that so much of the media ran with.
Here’s the Reuters piece concerning Blinken’s visit. Interestingly, we’re told ‘The images of the dead infants were included in the video played to NATO. It was not released to the public, but was later seen by Reuters in Jerusalem. Reuters could not independently verify the material…‘
Netanyahu’s office subsequently released an image via social media showing a charred infant body. Which, again, is an atrocity: but it isn’t the 40 beheaded babies story.
And, again, there’s information emerging to even raise questions about who was responsible for many of the deaths being referred to by Israeli officials and the global media (and therefore for some of the bodies shown in the alleged images shown to Biden, Blinken, and select journalists): but we’ll show this in the next article.
Even the IDF officially said they had not seen proof of the 40 beheaded babies. In fact, as Business Insider published here, ‘IDF says it won’t back up its claim that Hamas decapitated babies in Israel because it is ‘disrespectful for the dead’…’
That one’s almost comical. At least it would be comical, if everything unfolding right now wasn’t so oppressively bleak.
Some Israeli officials also contradicted Netanyahu’s office, for example telling CNN they had seen no evidence of decapitated babies.
And yet here’s Fox News.
And here’s the New York Post.
And here’s the Metro in the UK.
And those are just a few examples among many.
Interestingly, the Times of Israel in its report on the matter, compared the IDF giving selected journalists a tour of the of the massacre scene at Kfar Aza to the alleged Russian massacre in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha in April last year. The article says: ‘Israel has yet to organize a tour of the massacre sites for Israeli journalists, showing how strongly the country is prioritizing world opinion… When Ukrainian forces liberated the Kyiv suburb of Bucha from Russian forces in April 2022, Ukraine arranged similar tours for journalists to ensure widespread coverage of Russian war crimes against residents…’
Which is interesting, because the Bucha massacre story, as I detailed here in this piece from the time, was likely staged by the Ukrainians for the foreign journalists in order to provoke further international outrage against Russia.
Again, propaganda: in which most of the establishment media was complicit. There seems to be some parallel between Bucha and Kfar Azar, which the Times of Israel rather unwisely drew attention to: in that in both cases killings did evidently take place, but the nature of the killings was misrepresented or exaggerated in a way specifically staged for the international media.
In both cases, it was a very stage-managed scenario in which select journalists were invited by a military unit to see very carefully arranged scenes and be fed specific information: which they would then dutifully convey to the rest of the world.
Again, the dubious nature of the Bucha Massacre narrative was laid out here.
And it’s interesting again that the 40 babies claim specifically originated with the reporter for the Netanyahu-affiliated i24 news.
Moreover, as the Grayzone highlights here, the specific IDF figure who told the journalists about the beheaded babies – David Ben Zion – is a well known Zionist fanatic and leader of an illegal settler community and who, earlier this year, called for an entire Palestinian village to be wiped out.
As the article shows, Ben Zion previously declared (in 2016) “The Palestinian people… [are] an enemy. We can’t change their barbaric DNA.”
Clearly then, it wasn’t much of a leap for someone like Ben Zion to go from talking about Palestinians’ “barbaric DNA” in 2016 to talking about Palestinian fighters beheading babies in 2023.
So, i24 aside, the other journalists on the scene either didn’t know who it was they were getting their story from… or they were complicit in the falsehood. I’m going to be generous and assume the former rather than the latter.
But none of this reflects well on major media.
There’s nothing new in this, of course.
When it comes to geopolitics, large swathes of the media always become strangely compliant to foreign policy agendas and seem to habitually lose all professionalism when the time comes.
The incubators in Kuwait. Gaddafi handing out Viagra to Libyan soldiers so that they would rape women. Assad gassing children. The maternity hospital in Mariupol. All stories that much of the media – and of the political establishment – went along with… but would rather we forgot about now.
It’s safe to say this 40 beheaded babies business belongs on that list too. But we shouldn’t let things like this be forgotten a few months from now.
The ’40 beheaded babies’ propaganda matters: as an exercise in both cynical disinformation tactics and in mass media complicity.