Wounded Palestinians wait for treatment at the overcrowded emergency ward of Al-Shifa hospital. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by WAFA from October 11, 2024.

By Mary Turfah / Mondoweiss

Through the fog of October 7 emerged the story of a woman, four months pregnant, whose abdomen was sliced open, her fetus stabbed while she and her children watched, and, when the stabbing was done, the woman was shot and killed, again in front of her children. This, according to Eli Beer, the head of an Israeli rapid response team who claimed he’d seen it “with [his] own eyes.” The story circulated quickly, expanding and contracting like an apocalyptic game of telephone. Another first responder offered the age of one of her children in his account, six or seven years old, and claimed the fetus’s umbilical cord was still attached, the knife left at the mother’s side when he found her.

Superficially, certain details raised suspicions: a fetus, at the end of four months of pregnancy, is about six inches long. Haaretz, Israel’s paper of record and liberal Zionist-leaning, discredited the story in a report published in early December after Israel had killed 15,000 Palestinians in Gaza alone (anti-Zionist outlets such as this one had established this well before).

The Israeli police said they hadn’t encountered such a body at all, and “no children 6 or 7 or near those ages were killed” in that settlement. The police added that these responders, without forensic training, were not qualified to determine age or cause of death. Of course, the point was never the victims, but this line, with which Beer closed his testimony: “These are not regular enemies.”

Atrocity propaganda is a form of psychological warfare that spreads “information about the crimes committed by an enemy, especially deliberate fabrications or exaggerations.” The goal isn’t to stop violence so much as to define the enemy—a monstrosity that threatens woman and child and future—who comes to embody this horror. It also maintains a convenient tautology: everything ‘they’ do is aggression, and everything ‘we’ do is retaliation.

Victimization and aggression become intrinsic states rather than descriptors of behavior. The differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are not material but essential: in the words of the current Israeli Prime Minister, ‘the children of light and the children of darkness.’ And after everything the children of darkness have done, to ask about Israel’s behavior, to call it aggression at all, is to sympathize with the enemy. To try and understand a state’s declared enemy’s behaviors—to suggest the enemy is anything besides a nebulous ideological sink—is to sympathize with the enemy. To recognize the enemy’s humanity is to sympathize with the enemy, and to sympathize with the enemy is to cede your own humanity. Everything ‘we’ do against the enemy is necessary; the violence must be ‘disproportionate’ because ‘this is the only language they understand.’ Nothing short of extermination is enough.

“Are you seriously keep on asking me (sic) about Palestinian civilians? What’s wrong with you?” a former Israeli Prime Minister snapped at a Sky News anchor who’d asked about one of the many consequences of the Israeli siege on Gaza, specifically what ‘no power’ might mean for babies in incubators. The former PM scoffed at the mention of Palestinian children, as though raising the fact of an enemy child’s humanity was a propaganda tactic.

“Atrocity propaganda begets atrocity,” wrote Paul Linebarger in a seminal book on war propaganda, first published in 1948. Atrocity propaganda is quite old, and certain stories are inevitably recycled. During the Irish Rebellion of 1641, English pamphlets circulated this one about Irish rebels, the language easy enough to make out if read phonetically: 

“They being bloodthirsty salvages, not deserving of humanity, without any more words beate out [a man’s] braines, then they layd hold on his wife being big with child, & ravish her, then ript open her wombe, and like so many Neroes undanedly viewed nature’s bed of conception, [and] afterward tooke her and her infant and sacrifiz’d in fire their wounded bodies.”

The truth of these stories was neither here nor there—they evidenced the savagery of the Catholic Irish, who, per the English, wanted the total annihilation of Protestantism. The English slaughtered the ‘Irish rebels’—and a generous quantity of those who fostered, by existing under occupation, their emergence. These were ‘bloodthirsty savages’ (human animals), and they should be treated accordingly.

The pregnant woman, because she carries child and future, symbolizes both immense hope and vulnerability. Harm against her, if carried out with intention, can constitute a measure intended to prevent birth, which is evidence of genocide. Atrocity propaganda has no time for subtlety; the primitive brutes act with their bare hands to make their intentions explicit. On the hierarchy of intention, you can kill a woman and kill a child, you can kill a pregnant woman and leave her body intact. You can kill and dismember her. To kill her and kill the growing life inside her, one by one, leaves no room for questions of genocidal intent. These are stories for going to war. And, any person of honor should fight for their people’s future.

The story of the pregnant woman in the kibbutz reminded me of something I’d read a few months before, in an old print issue of Race and Class mailed to me by a friend in London. The issue, called The Invasion of Lebanon, came out in 1983, some months after the Israeli siege on Beirut and the Sabra and Shatila massacre. In the essay “Lebanon: an American’s view,” I came across this passage:

On 27 July 1981, Israeli jets (US-made F15s and F16s) had swept in from the Mediterranean. That raid, which occurred at mid-morning when the streets were full of women and children, killed over 250 people and wounded 1,100 more. A young Palestinian woman, eight months pregnant, was killed in the attack when shrapnel sliced into her abdomen. Her child, a premature infant girl, was taken to a nearby Red Crescent hospital and placed in an incubator. She survived, and the doctors and nurses named her ‘Filistin’ (Palestine).

It’s not quite the same story. This woman had been torn open by a bomb rather than a knife. The knife requires the assailant to tolerate their victim’s screams. The bomb privileges its users with the ability to kill at a remove. The difference between a bomb and a knife matters if the story is about means rather than ends, if the demonstration of violence addresses the killer before the victim.

Among the differences between atrocity propaganda and testimonies of atrocity is that the former seeks to preemptively justify the unjustifiable, while the latter starts and stops with the event. Testimony doesn’t seek to justify anything. Of course it fits into a larger narrative, a context, but it does not seek to be totalizing, to occlude time and space before and after, the way atrocity propaganda does.

Another difference between the two is how the listener is meant to receive the story. Atrocity propaganda prioritizes gruesome details to the extent that the victim is reduced to an object, a mirror for the perpetrator’s cruelty. The narrative trick is to make the listener blame the perpetrator for the erasure of the victim’s humanity, too.

Still another difference between testimony of atrocity and atrocity propaganda: The initial response to testimony is rarely anger. How, when you are facing a person, and it is about them and what they remember? As a survivor narrates, the worst details might be put away, to protect their dignity. You might sense this and let it pass, because the story does not belong to you, and the reason to act, in the case of Palestine, was established well before you existed. In this moment, before you is a person.

In early March of 2024, a Palestinian woman’s child, a five-year-old boy named Faisal, said they shot his mother in her belly, in front of him. His brother Adam watched his father die—writhing as his soul left his body, he told his aunt. Have you ever seen a soul leave a body? Faisal’s father and mother died in the same week, he said—as he spoke with the interviewer, the Palestinian filmmaker Bisan Owda (whom many of us know from Instagram), he struggled to get the timeline down. He moved between they ‘died’ and they were ‘killed.’ He used the verb takh for shoot; it sounded especially harsh coming from a mouth whose corners are almost tucked under baby fat. His mother, he said, was pregnant. In the seventh month. He said this particular phrase with a solemnity that outsized his tiny frame. His cheeks sunk as he strained himself to remember without expanding the horror in his eyes, blank, so that he could continue. Owda asked him about his favorite foods to distract him. He smiled, cautious even as his face gave. Owda ran her hand through a tuft of his hair, as his mother might have were she there to protect him.

As they testify to atrocity after atrocity, witnesses in Gaza are unafraid to acknowledge narrative gaps, to pause to think, to say ‘I don’t know.’ They struggle with eye contact, and then they don’t, and once again—as a memory floods their consciousness—they look away. A child can’t be trained to carry themselves like that, to struggle against a contracting posture.

Every act beyond the self requires some level of performance. In the interview with Bisan, Faisal performs the seriousness he imagines his testimony requires. He sits still, upright—although much of this is, in spite of himself, a child’s visceral response to touching a wound that will remain raw for a long time. And the interviewer performs some form of detachment so that she can do her job. She reaches to comfort him, then, as a disruption of one performance for another, one that takes infinite precedence. She prioritizes the person, the small child, in front of her, and she is obligated, to him and to his family and to her world, to assume the role of care-giver, in the literal sense. She does it, I am sure, reflexively. Just as he adopts the voice of an adult where he must. If he doesn’t, who else? His parents deserve the whole world from him, and he will give them everything. The story reveals itself how it will. It will shatter you whichever way it lands.

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Mary Turfah

Mary Turfah is a writer and medical student. 

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