Arab World Delusions Fuel BDS Campaign's Coronavirus Conspiracies | Opinion

The past two months have seen an explosion of coronavirus-related anti-Zionist discourse from across the globe. Notably, proponents of the global "Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)" campaign against Israel have lost no time in exploiting the outbreak to feed their obsessive vendetta. But BDS appropriation of coronavirus is only part of a larger effort—popular within the Arab and Muslim world—to incorporate coronavirus into pre-existing anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish ideologies.

Jews have long been accused of producing or spreading diseases. Modern iterations of these charges include Nazi myths of the Jewish biological threat, Hamas' assertions that "Zionists" use HIV-positive women to seduce and infect Arabs and the Iranian regime's habit of terming Israel a "cancerous tumor."

Palestinian media, government officials and activists have recycled these themes by placing coronavirus and Israel at the center of their delusions. Indeed, scapegoating Israel or Zionists enables backward, corrupt leaders to deflect attention from their own failures, project their inadequacies onto a common enemy and mobilize unity among followers by framing Israel as an existential foe.

Hence, Iranian officials' rationalizations of high fatality rates with claims that coronavirus is a "'biological ethnic weapon' created by the 'Americans and Zionist regime' to target Iranian DNA." Iranian bureaucrats repeat such lies while the regime remains a pandemic "regional epicenter" and workers dig enormous mass graves for virus victims. Meanwhile, the regime dedicates resources to suppressing coronavirus media coverage and allows prominent clerics to publicly advocate—and occasionally administer to patients—dubious "cures" for the virus, such as camel urine.

Palestinian Authority (PA) media have also spread false narratives, including that Mossad and CIA created and exported coronavirus to China, that the "virus is surely an outcome of the Jews' concealed hatred for the entire world" with which they seek to "start the conflagration of a third [world] war" and that Israel deliberately infects Palestinian workers with coronavirus in order to contaminate their communities. So-called Palestinian disease vectors have been declared Israel's "mobile suicide bomb, whose direct effects are greater than any weapon, even a nuclear bomb."

The PA has further stated that Israel seeks to infect Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails with the coronavirus and that Israel "particularly refrains from protecting the younger prisoners, causing 'a holocaust' in the prisons." One article in a PA daily—entitled, "The bodies and lives of the Palestinian prisoners are being burned between the fangs of Israel and the coronavirus"—warns against "the occupation's exploitation of the coronavirus in order to annihilate the Palestinian prisoners." In reality, there has not been a single confirmed case of a Palestinian inmate contracting coronavirus in an Israeli prison (there is one inmate for whom this is disputed).

English language Palestinian sources tailor these themes to appeal to Western "humanitarian" sensibilities. One Gaza-based news network invented a story that infected Israeli soldiers spit on Palestinian-owned vehicles to spread the virus. This lie quickly reached Western anti-Israel audiences; New York-based "human rights attorney" Lamis Deek referenced that story when she tweeted, "No question, Israel sees #CoronavirusOutbreak as ally and tool for ethnic cleansing and genocide of Palestinians."

Anti-Israel publications spread such stories uncritically, often embellishing coverage by drawing equivalencies between "the occupation" and coronavirus, insisting, for example, that Israel—via necessary security measures, such as its legal naval blockade of Gaza—has rendered the pandemic worse for Palestinians than for anyone else. Palestinians, we are told, "face two viruses: corona and 'Israel'."

BDS agitators use this analogy constantly. The Palestinian-David vs. Israeli-Goliath paradigm has long been a crucial piece of anti-Zionist propaganda; analogizing Israel to a deadly and virulent virus reinforces anti-Israel narratives of perpetual Palestinian victimhood and lack of agency.

Once the virus analogy is established, it's not much of stretch to blame Israel for every Palestinian coronavirus casualty, regardless of the surrounding circumstances. This situation is exploited by anti-Zionists, who are only too happy to proclaim that if Palestinians are suffering, it must necessarily be Israel's fault.

For instance, by casting Israel's blockade of Gaza as a "medieval-style siege," the writer Ben Norton argues that "every Palestinian death caused by coronavirus is blood on Israel's hands."

Radical activist Linda Sarsour went further, ominously predicting in March that because of Israel, "this COVID virus could potentially be an entire death sentence for over two million people [in Gaza]." Weeks later, Gaza has not seen a single death from the virus, and of its 20 total cases, 12 have recovered.

Regardless, anti-Israel propagandists foment hysteria about coronavirus' impact on Palestinians—the risk of which, they say, can onlybe mitigated by Israel. Neither the Palestinians nor their governments have any real agency, so renewed pressure on Israel must be urgently applied. It's more crucial than ever, apparently, that Israel be forced to acquiesce to the same impossible demands its enemies have made of it for decades—lest coronavirus become a "death sentence" for Palestinians.

Moreover, establishing Israel's sole responsibility for all Palestinian coronavirus casualties allows Hamas, the PA and other anti-Israel actors to disregard multiple Palestinian violations of social distancing or stay-at-home guidelines.

BDS supporters
BDS supporters GALI TIBBON/AFP via Getty Images

Often citing their exacerbated susceptibility to and fear of coronavirus outbreaks, many sources have reported strict Palestinian adherence to pandemic safety protocols. In April, Al Jazeera English published a photo essay entitled, "People in Gaza take no chances as virus threat looms," which purports to show how "authorities and residents in Gaza behave as if coronavirus is already a threat [in order] to prevent potential catastrophe." In reality, Palestinians have convened packed gatherings over the past weeks—primarily to mobilize hatred against Israel.

In Gaza, dense and mostly mask-less crowds of Palestinians have assembled to observe "Palestinian Land Day" and honor terrorists during "Palestinian Prisoners Day." West Bank Palestinians have continued weekly Friday afternoon protest-riots, staged an enormous jamboree celebrating a terrorist's release from Israeli jail and held a mammoth "martyrs" funeral, complete with the corpse paraded through city streets and live-streamed to Facebook.

Unsurprisingly, the Palestinian regimes and their Western enablers have largely ignored these indiscretions—despite the fact that staying at home and social distancing would have been safer for Palestinians. Yet, evidence of Palestinian agency or culpability for their own predicament is often dismissed because it undermines the BDS bottom line: destruction of the Jewish state.

Anti-Zionist ideologues' top priority is political warfare against Israel—even when castigating or inciting violence against it directly threatens Palestinian lives. Such callousness alone should be enough to repel "human rights" activists; instead, BDS' symbiosis with Islamist autocracies reveals the BDS campaign's true illiberal nature.

Samantha Mandeles is senior researcher and outreach director at the Legal Insurrection Foundation. She tweets at @SRMandeles.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.​​​​​