International

Gaza: The Perilous Business Of Saving Lives

Deconfliction, not blackouts of media and communications, will save lives in Gaza, says Farhat Mantoo, Executive Director, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) South Asia

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Injured Palestinian people, including children as a result of Israeli attacks are taken to the Nasse
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Humanitarian actors are not oblivious to different parties of conflict using the minds of people as a frontline for victory. To establish dominance and control over the narrative of war, (mis)use of information and communication strategies today is critical. The last decade has progressively proven that this is the new norm. And the Israel-Gaza war is no exception.

The unfolding events in the ‘world's largest open-air prison’ are draining on empathy with sickening visuals and an overwhelming amount of information directed at audiences. A convoluting vocabulary is interchangeably used in a manner where words are co-opted, thereby blurring the context. Civilians, medical professionals, and aid workers are dying while public criticism and popular opinion sway to the question, “Which is the right side?” The rise of disinformation, media blackouts, and internet shutdowns as new-age weapons transcend borders, and has forced the war to news headlines and narrative supremacy.

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Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) constantly grapples with the dilemma of medical and humanitarian aid becoming instrumentalised in armed conflicts or even more heinous ends through narrative warfare in the digital space. In various global contexts, from Sudan, Ukraine, and Afghanistan to the ongoing Israel-Gaza war, disinformation and media blackouts are deployed by warring parties to justify or enable their actions.

In the presence of constructed narratives, the convenient target is “us”. Our opinions are shaped by what we consume or are made to consume (driven by profiling based on our browsing history or paid promoted content appearing on our feed).

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Israel’s relentless attacks on Gaza, following the October 7 horror by Hamas, are unprecedented for two reasons: one, the scale of death, decay, and destruction, and two, the scope of meta and master narratives mobilised digitally in support of warring parties. For example, ‘Pallywood’, an often-used disinformation tactic, involves labelling Palestinian victims as actors and people faking casualties. Images generated by AI, video games, or sourced from other contexts like Syria and Iraq are being used to create disinformation campaigns. These narratives form genealogies of propaganda that only exist to multiply and amplify.

But people in Gaza are oblivious to these narratives just as we are to their plight. They are struggling to access reliable internet and other modes of communication due to a nearly complete blackout in the region. Access to information has

become scarce, directly affecting the capacity to document atrocities perpetrated and the suffering experienced on the ground. These blackouts make invisible those who need aid and attention, making it challenging for organisations like MSF to effectively respond.

Furthermore, power and internet blackouts are also used as tools to cover up human rights violations and war crimes by the parties involved. We have witnessed similar instances in Myanmar and Ethiopia. According to Access Now, there is clear evidence of how internet shutdowns create an air of impunity during armed conflicts, providing cover for grave human rights abuses. In addition, the cut-off means that casualty figures from attacks and details of ground fighting could not immediately be fully known.

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While fact-checking experts are working to counter disinformation around the crisis, communication blackouts and lack of accessibility to the people on the ground are making it harder for them to gather evidence and correct information. In situations like armed conflicts, fact-checkers often rely on audio and visual evidence from the ground, which to get from Gaza is a constant struggle. This is when superspreaders can take advantage of the conditions and come up with manipulated, fabricated, or completely made-up facts attacking the victim or asking: “Who is the real victim?”

In today’s world, everyone has a voice, and everyone has a medium. We are in an era where the monopoly of information does not exist. Although everyone can create content, but critical thinking is crucial, and exposure to multiple perspectives is essential to articulate our voice. The absence of critical thinking can jeopardise humanitarian workers and their ability to work.

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For MSF to be effective on the ground, acceptance, and understanding of humanitarian principles by all parties of the conflict is important. Allegations or rumours can be dangerous and irresponsible in the backdrop of a war in which medical and humanitarian staff continue to suffer heavy losses. They can formulate gross fabrication aimed at undermining the credibility of public expression and humanitarian work of MSF, one of the few independent medical actors currently on the ground to bear witness to the horrors of the war in Gaza.

Digital warfare has ramifications that can lead to the undermining of international humanitarian law and have grave consequences for the future world order. The dehumanisation of humanity and the chaos it leaves humankind with will affect everyone beyond borders at a time when we are entering an era of poly-crisis.

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Usually in the field of our medical humanitarian work, we ask for de-confliction to be able to operate and now it appears the future will also demand de-confliction in the online space. Deconfliction is impossible in this current conflict dynamic where there is no regard for civilians and no ability to provide meaningful assistance. This is one of the biggest challenges in delivering medical assistance and disinformation only makes it more complex.

(As told to Rakhi Bose)

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