In early June 2018, right-leaning news outlets published disturbing videos showing small children acting out a violent scene at an elementary school in Gaza:
First reported by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), the video purportedly was recorded during a ceremony in May at the Al-Hoda preschool in the self-governing Palestinian territory.
In the play, a group of commandos – including a camouflaged sniper and soldiers in body armor - busted into an Israeli building on “Al-Quds Street.” They pulled out two “hostages” – one dressed in traditional ultra-Orthodox Jewish attire and the other as an Israeli Defense Force soldier – before mock-killing the IDF soldier.
As Fox News reported, the video was initially exposed to English-language audiences by MEMRI, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that provides "timely translations of Arabic, Farsi, Urdu-Pashtu, Dari, and Turkish media, as well as original analysis of political, ideological, intellectual, social, cultural, and religious trends."
In an explainer accompanying the video, MEMRI said the video was taken at a graduation ceremony for students at Al-Hoda school in Gaza on 13 May 2018:
At the graduation ceremony of the Al-Hoda kindergarten in Gaza, pre-schoolers carrying mock guns and rifles simulated Islamic Jihad militants storming an Israeli building on "Al-Quds Street," capturing a child dressed in stereotypical garb as an Orthodox Jew and killing an "Israeli soldier." To the sounds of loud explosions and gunfire, the children, dressed in the uniforms of the Islamic Jihad’s Al-Quds Brigades, attacked the building, placing a sign reading "Israel has fallen" in Hebrew and Arabic on the back of the "soldier," who lies prone on the ground, and leaving the stage with their "hostage." Then some of the children performed on stage, with an address by Yasser Arafat playing on the speakers
Although alarmed readers asked if the video is authentic, we found no indication it is not. Israeli fact checkers with The Whistle explained similar videos have been reported on in years past and it is not particularly unique or new, telling us:
We suspect that the fact that only conservative-right wing outlets picked up on this video is because mainstream media would by now consider it known news.
In 2018, unlike in previous years, MEMRI said the video was not intended for broad distribution. Instead, parents were alerted via Facebook that they could pick up a copy of the recording at the school. Days later however, the video appeared on YouTube.
Steve Stalinsky, executive director of MEMRI, said that the video is not without precedent:
It’s definitely not an uncommon thing, I don’t know if I would say widespread. We see a few videos a year of summer camps or graduations that have similar types of things happening.
Some questioned whether sharing the video with a wider, English-speaking audience that may be largely unfamiliar with the Israel-Gaza conflict creates a skewed image of Palestinians living in the tiny, impoverished, and densely populated region.
Khaled Elgindy, fellow for the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy think tank, told us even if the video is real it could give viewers who are unfamiliar with the region the impression that Gazans are more predisposed to violence than other peoples:
One of the unfortunate realities of conflict and occupation is you get societies that tend to be very militarized. That’s true of Palestinian society and of Israeli society. There was recently an ad making the rounds on social media, an ad for an Israeli maternity hospital in which they included the image of a fetus in military garb. A lot of people were horrified at the idea that even an unborn child is being militarized.
While this content is something you do see in societies that are in conflict, MEMRI only shows certain Palestinian media — the most extreme and inflammatory cases.
Examples of children and civilians exposed to or acting out violent military scenes can be found in Israeli society as well, Elgindy told us.
Stalinsky said MEMRI is nonpartisan and provides translation services to a range of news outlets, including legacy organizations like the New York Times and Washington Post. Its critics, however, accuse the organization of cherry-picking content that casts Israel's adversaries in a negative light. In 2002, The Guardian's then-Middle East editor Brian Whitaker expressed as much, writing that "the stories selected by Memri for translation follow a familiar pattern: either they reflect badly on the character of Arabs or they in some way further the political agenda of Israel."
Steve Stalinsky told us that those who criticize MEMRI for exposing such videos are deflecting from their incitement and violent content, often involving small children:
Sometimes people criticize us as a way to deflect from what we’re translating and what we’re exposing, because it’s not pretty. It can be very ugly content. It's easier to distract from what were doing than to deal with it.
Gaza has been described as “the world’s largest open-air prison.” It is bordered by Israel to the east and north, Egypt to the south and the Mediterranean Sea to the west. The small, self-governing Palestinian territory has for years been under siege or open military conflict with Israel, although it has no official military of its own. Israel, for the most part, also controls its residents' travel, infrastructure, and borders.
Since 2007, Gaza has been governed by Hamas, an extremist group that refuses to recognize the state of Israel. As of May 2018, more than 110 Palestinians were killed and 13,000 wounded by the Israeli military amid weeks of protests at the border that sought to lift a decade-long blockade by its neighbors and win residents the right of return.
The abysmal standard of living and lack of basic freedom experienced by Gazans in their daily lives prompted Jehad Abusalim, a doctoral student of history at New York University who is from Deir el-Balah, a town south of Gaza City in the middle of the Gaza Strip, to point out that the video cannot be taken as representative of all kindergartens (or kindergarteners) in Gaza:
People are entitled to basic human rights, without exception. Even if this video were true, it represents just one incident and does not justify denying an entire population of about two million people, their right to freedom. That is collective punishment. People in the U.S. wouldn't accept that, so it should be easy for us to understand why Palestinians continue to protest for their rights. Palestinians in Gaza, like all people on this earth, simply want to be free.