In a letter released by Hamas and widely shared on social media, Danielle Aloni, a hostage who was freed on Friday, thanked Hamas leadership for their kindness to her daughter, Emilia, age 5, during their captivity, and extolled her captors’ “gentleness, warmth and love.”
Al-Qassam Brigades share a message from one of the Israeli detainees to the members of the Al-Qassam Brigades who accompanied her during the period of captivity before her release from #Gaza, as part of the exchange deal within the humanitarian ceasefire. pic.twitter.com/WskN6uEYTd
— In Context (@incontextmedia) November 27, 2023
Some have argued that the letter, handwritten in Hebrew on lined paper, was proof of Hamas’ humanity and moral upstandingness, even saying that the hostages had “the time of their lives” in Gaza. Others, however, said the letter was just a piece of propaganda written under duress, or that the way the letter used Hebrew indicated it was a fake.
People who thought the letter was a forgery focused on the opening phrase — “To the generals who accompanied us in the past few weeks.” Critics noted that “generals” was written with a soft g, instead of the Hebrew “generalim” which uses a hard g.
Shiri Goren, a professor of modern Hebrew at Yale, said the use of the soft g is not a smoking gun. Aloni would likely have been introduced to any Hamas generals with their name and rank in Arabic, Goren pointed out, and the pronunciation of “general” in Arabic uses the soft g.
In fact, Goren said, nothing in the grammar or phrasing of the letter sounded off, though the praise seemed exaggerated. “Whether the letter was forced or not — the language of the letter is the language of an Israeli,” she said.
But, Goren emphasized, all the debate seems beside the point. Aloni doesn’t mention her own treatment in the letter — only that of her daughter — and stories emerging from other hostages, including a 12-year-old boy, describe horrific treatment. One letter, no matter what it said or who wrote it, doesn’t change the bigger story of war, including violence, trauma and death in both Israel and Gaza.
“Why does it matter?” Goren said. “Can’t we accept the possibility that individual Hamas members who interacted with Danielle and her daughter in Gaza expressed kindness, and that at the same time, know that Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7 was pure evil and should not have happened?”
A battle for moral superiority
Yet the narrative battle continues, a war for moral superiority as much as one for land and lives. And this leaves little room for complexity, instead driving the narrative to poles and creating echo chambers where increasingly preposterous claims dominate.
The letter is just the newest installment in an ongoing battle over the morality of the war. Since shortly after the Oct. 7 attack, influencers and activists online have been attempting to demonstrate Hamas’ humanity using Israelis’ own words and actions.
On Israel’s Channel 12 news, a woman named Rotem described a Hamas militant entering her home on Oct. 7 but sparing her and her children, even asking permission to eat a banana; the video went viral as a supposed example of Hamas’ kindness. When Yocheved Lifshitz was released in late October, an excerpt of an interview with the elderly woman went viral; in the clip, she speaks of the food and medical care she received in Gaza, but the portions in which she spoke about being kidnapped and beaten with sticks were cut out.
More recently, attention has focused on the videos of hostages freed during the cease-fire, in which many smile or wave to the Hamas militants escorting them to Red Crescent vans. Armchair psychologists online have analyzed their expressions and body language to conclude that they had built strong friendships with their captors.
“Israel is not going to let these people utter a word in public for years” says one viral tweet, implying that the hostages’ experience of supposed comfort would be too dangerous to Israel’s goals.
Pro-Israel accounts, on the other hand, have drawn the opposite conclusion. In one of the videos, you can hear someone in the background instruct freed hostages to keep waving, which has achieved a similar level of virality to argue that the smiling videos are evidence of Hamas’ cruelty.
The debate around the hostages’ experience, and the attempts to leverage it into a broadly meaningful statement about who is right or wrong, good or evil, in the war is just one more example of the way in which the discourse about the war has become so binary that it has become impossible to communicate. On one side, Hamas’ real crimes are erased by a few smiles and waves. On the other, the humanity of some Hamas fighters feels so impossible that believing a toddler was given snacks is pushed away.
While debates over the supposed niceness of Hamas seem like the sort of thing that could never exist in the offline world, the discourse is slowly shifting public opinion in real ways. At a city council meeting in Oakland, California, this week, numerous attendees stepped up to the microphone to defend Hamas.
“Calling Hamas a terrorist organization is ridiculous, racist and plays into genocidal propaganda,” one woman said.
“The notion that this was a massacre of Jews is a fabricated narrative,” said another.
And as the discourse divides further, it becomes easier and easier to believe in made-up facts, and the importance of the debate over Hamas’ kindness becomes clear. After all, if Hamas is so nice, then how could they have killed civilians?
Aloni’s letter, realistically, says little about the situation on the ground, or even the hostages’ experience; it only speaks to her daughter. But the debate around it is key to the narrative battle, and onlookers’ pressing desire to boil down a complicated situation into an easily understandable binary of good guys and bad guys. The real world, however, rarely operates like that.
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