Regrettably, even after in-depth coverage of conspiracy theories arising from the coronavirus pandemic in the April edition of the Australia-Israel Review, there is still more than enough new material to compile another article for this month’s edition, particularly focussed on Jews and Israel.
On April 17, Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, released a statement noting that he was “extremely concerned to see that certain religious leaders and politicians continue to exploit the challenging times during this pandemic to spread hatred against Jews and other minorities,” in particular the conspiracy theory that Jews or Israel had unleashed the virus to reduce the world’s gentile population.
A recent report by Israeli Students Combatting Antisemitism (ISCA) has been tracking hundreds of antisemitic posts across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram in multiple languages that blame the spread of the virus on Jews and Israel, although the problem is obviously far more widespread than these specific posts.
Looking beyond the antisemitic conspiracy theories, among the most bizarre ones circulating is that all the virus symptoms are in fact caused by electromagnetic radiation emanating from 5G radio antennae, which has led to dozens of attacks on telecommunication masts and engineers around the world, threatening lives and livelihoods. A surprising proponent of the 5G conspiracy is the former Grand Mufti of Egypt Sheikh Ali Gomaa. He explained the “science” behind the 5G-virus link:
“In 1918, the [Spanish Flu] pandemic was caused by a disruption in the Earth’s electromagnetism, due to the prevalence of electricity…When electricity was first introduced, it caused something in the atmosphere, which prepared it for the splitting of these materials, thus creating that virus. When we apply the same theory to the coronavirus, we see that the fifth generation of communications might be the cause… All our phones are 4G now. For the sake of 4G technology, 20,000 satellites were launched into orbit. In order to introduce 5G technology, which they say will change social relations, they had to launch 100,000 satellites into orbit. This caused additional disruptions in the electromagnetic field, which have made the atmosphere hospitable for the spread of these viruses.”
Celebrities have taken the bait too. Among those spreading the 5G nonsense are Hollywood actors Woody Harrelson and John Cusack and singers MIA and Keri Hilson.
The British organisation HOPE Not Hate has been investigating anti-5G social media groups and has found extensive links to the far-right for over a month. Multiple Facebook groups with tens of thousands of followers actively plot attacks on 5G infrastructure.
Unfortunately, any large collection of conspiracy theorists, regardless of the particular theory under discussion, seemingly always end up at antisemitism. According to HOPE Not Hate researcher Gregory Davis, “People seeking out information on the 5G controversy in Facebook groups will soon find themselves exposed to any number of alternative conspiracy theories, many only tangentially related to 5G. Many of these theories are implicitly or explicitly anti-Semitic, with the rollout of 5G and many other alleged crimes being laid at the feet of prominent Jewish individuals or organisations.”
Meanwhile, Palestinian conspiratorialism and incitement about Israel purposely spreading the virus among Palestinians have reached fever pitch, such that the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) Maj.-Gen. Kamil Abu Rukun (himself an Arabic-speaking Israeli Druze) called on the Palestinian leadership to retract its absurd accusations.
Rukun warned Palestinian leaders falsely blaming Israel for spreading the virus “that there could be repercussions in various spheres… Such shameful remarks, baseless and indefensible, completely contradict the plain fact that Israel has prepared and engaged itself to give all possible assistance in the regional effort to halt the spread of the epidemic, both in Israel and in the Palestinian territories. We see those remarks and accusations as crossing a red line.”
No less a figure than Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh has been spreading lies about IDF soldiers deliberately spitting on car door handles to spread the virus.
The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA) has documented several other instances of senior PA and Fatah officials – as well as international supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement – championing these conspiracies. For instance, leading Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was quoted by the PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida on March 30th saying “…The settler gangs go wild, the latest example of which is… the spitting on Palestinian cars and property in order to transfer the corona disease to them… all of these are expressions of the spirit of hate taking root, the spread of the incitement to racism, and the wild desire to get rid of the Palestinian people in any way…”
Official PA spokesperson Ibrahim Melhem went even further: “It is not strange that the settlers and occupation soldiers are doing acts such as these [trying to infect Palestinian property], as they are striving for the epidemic’s spread in Palestine. In addition, they are attempting to approach our labourers and mingle with them in order to transfer the disease to them.”
This lie about Israel deliberately infecting Palestinian workers is particularly ironic given that, as CAMERA points out, it was PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh himself who insisted that Palestinian workers return to Palestinian Authority-controlled territories, whereas Israel allowed them to stay in Israel to see out the quarantine period, and even mandated their employers provide them accommodation temporarily. This did not stop Fatah declaring on its official Facebook page that Israel “is opening all of the gates and fences throughout the two districts of Qalqilya and Tulkarem in order to ease the smuggling of Palestinian labourers who were infected inside Israel into their villages without passing through the [PA’s] emergency committees, medical inspections, and quarantine…[Israel] is now launching a biological war against us.”
The PA has also been using the spread of coronavirus to pressure Israel into releasing Palestinian prisoners, with one op-ed in the official PA daily newspaper claiming that Israel had “not taken the necessary steps to prevent the spread of the virus, and added insult to injury when they withheld disinfectant and cleaning materials from the prisoners – as if we are on the brink of a holocaust against the Palestinian prisoners…The colonialist and settlement occupation system in the era of Benjamin Netanyahu is proving for the millionth time that it is the most dangerous ‘human virus’ known to man.”
A slew of cartoons comparing Israel to the virus continue to appear in official and unofficial Palestinian media, and the lies have been coming from all levels of the leadership on TV and in print.
Hamas seems to actually have been less vocal than the PA when it comes to these conspiracy theories, but its statements also reflect a parallel reality.
Nickolay Mladenov, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, recently publicly praised Israel for allowing “the entry of critical supplies and equipment into Gaza: examples of critical supplies include swabs for collection of samples and other laboratory supplies required for COVID-19 testing, and Personal Protective Equipment to protect health workers,” as well as facilitating the movement of UN and other personnel moving in and out of Gaza and the West Bank. Israel has even been training Gaza medics, and is reportedly processing coronavirus test results from Gaza.
Naturally, senior Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya’s response to this was to threaten Israel with “other measures” to force it to do what it is already doing. This is even as other Hamas leaders, including Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar, expressed optimism about reaching an agreement with Israel on a prisoner exchange.
Still, at least the Palestinians are not promoting “Islamic medicine”, and can thus avoid the fate of Iranians who have been advised by certain of their clerics to drink fresh camel urine or apply violet oil to the anus to cure the virus.