August 21 marks the 53rd anniversary of a terrible attack against an Islamic holy site, when a Protestant extremist from Australia named Denis Michael Rohan set fire to the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, destroying large parts of the site and irreplaceable artifacts.
Rohan’s crime should rightly be widely condemned and the loss commemorated even five-plus decades later. It is important to note that Rohan, who believed his actions would prompt the Second Coming of Jesus, was arrested, tried, and convicted by Israeli authorities. However, if past years are any indication, the coverage of this year’s anniversary by Middle Eastern and North African media outlets from Iran to Mauritania will continue to scapegoat Jews for the 1969 attack. As history has already shown, such disinformation fuels conflicts and contributes to deadly violence.
On August 21, 1995, for example, a suicide bomber blew up a bus in the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood of Jerusalem, injuring 100 victims and killing four, including an American schoolteacher. Hamas issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, declaring it was “no coincidence” the attack was conducted on the anniversary of “the arson of the Al Aksa [sic] Mosque at the hands of Zionist gangs.”
Similarly, Hamas used lies about what really happened in 1969 to incite a deadly attack at the Gaza border on August 21 last year. As a consequence, over 50 people at that riot were injured, and three people lost their lives, including a 21-year-old Israeli border policeman and a 12-year-old Palestinian boy. Compounding things further, many regional news outlets falsely reported that this incident marked the anniversary of a heinous Jewish crime, thus legitimating Hamas’s lie with Middle Eastern audiences.
It is important to understand the breadth of such misinformation about the 1969 al-Aqsa fire. Although false claims about Rohan’s faith are just one part of a broader ecosystem of anti-Jewish libels in relation to the shrine, they are also the most obviously baseless and falsifiable example of such tropes. That they nonetheless continue to be promulgated by state media outlets in so many Middle Eastern countries – including some relatively moderate ones – illustrates how much more work must be done to counter such disinformation as part of the fight against hate and violent extremism.
If the United States is looking for ways to combat antisemitism in the Middle East and North Africa, then pushing back on such incendiary and false propaganda would be a good step. This should include raising the issue with all responsible U.S. allies, as well as calling on the Palestinian Authority to curb its own blatantly false propaganda on the subject, which has a dangerous ripple effect across the entire region.
Hamas’s Deadly Riot
Leading up to August 21 last year, Hamas organized a rally at the Gaza border with other local Palestinian factions, including several other U.S.-designated terrorist groups. The rhetoric was militarized from the start, with organizers naming their rally, “The Sword of Jerusalem Will Not Be Sheathed,” and describing it as a resumption of “the battle” that took place in May 2021.
According to the Associated Press, “The demonstration grew violent after dozens of people approached the fortified border fence and threw rocks and explosives toward Israeli soldiers from behind a black smoke screen billowing from burning tires.” Both the Israeli policeman and the Palestinian boy who were killed each reportedly died from live-fire wounds to the head.
The presence of young people at that riot was a direct result of Hamas’s youth wing specifically urging young people to participate. And it did so using an antisemitic lie about 1969.
Baselessly rejecting that Rohan had acted alone, Hamas’s youth wing proclaimed, “since 1969 the stench of black Zionist malice is still wafting,” and “the fire that ignited was not, as the Occupation claims, an act committed by a crazy person but rather it is a systematic policy and a firm vision adopted by the occupation since the first day that it tread its filthy feet on the pure land of our Jerusalem” to desecrate and destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque.
That a terrorist group such as Hamas would distort this chapter from history is unsurprising. As the following examples illustrate, what is more remarkable is how widely such misinformation was repeated by a panoply of media outlets across the broader Middle East, often starting with reports issued out of Ramallah.
The Palestinian Authority
Last year, on August 21, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas issued a press release to mark the 52nd anniversary of Rohan’s attack. In it, Abbas recklessly claimed that the historic attack was carried out “at the hand of the Jewish extremist Denis Michael [sic],” getting Rohan’s name incorrect as well as scapegoating Jews for an attack they didn’t commit.
In addition to claiming that Rohan was a “Jewish extremist,” Abbas’s statement also provocatively asserted that since 1969 “al-Aqsa and all the holy sites in occupied Jerusalem are still targeted by the Israeli occupation and settlers as incursions continue on a daily basis.” His statement ended by claiming that last year’s anniversary of Rohan’s attack came “in light of continuing daily Israeli attacks and violations against al-Aqsa and its desecration, by sponsoring settlers’ visits and their holding of provocative Talmudic prayers.” This is part of a long line of allegations of nefarious Israeli plots against al-Aqsa.
And yet Abbas was by no means the only official Palestinian source to issue inaccurate claims.
For example, to mark last year’s anniversary the PA’s official television network Palestine TV told viewers that “on the same day as today in 1969, a Jewish extremist Michael Denis [sic] Rohan kindled the fire in the [al-Aqsa] Mosque.” The channel also posted a graphic on Facebook calling him a “Jewish extremist of Australian nationality.”
Graphic from the Facebook page of Palestine TV posted on August 21, 2021. The caption translates to “The Jewish extremist of Australian nationality Michael Denis Rohan committed the crime.”
The PA issued a number of other messages to this effect last year as well, on a range of official media outlets and from other top officials and governmental institutions.
In the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which holds custodianship over the Mosque, such inaccuracies were also promoted last year by government information outlets.
For instance, the official newswire Jordan News Agency (Petra) promoted a statement last August by the secretary general of the Royal Committee for Jerusalem Affairs, an appointee of the monarchy, claiming that the attack was carried out “by the hand of the Israeli extremist Michael [sic] Rohan” and that “the main goal of the Zionist movement” is to destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque.
Similarly, the social media accounts on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter for the Jordanian government’s flagship TV station Channel One or its parent company all propagated the false assertion that the 1969 fire was set by a Jew. Similar claims were also pushed by Jordan’s state-funded public broadcaster Mamlaka TV and the newspapers al-Dustour and al-Rai, which the U.S. government calls partly state-controlled.
As Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute of Near East Studies and a biographer of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, states, “you can’t underestimate” the “centrality of Jerusalem for Erdogan and his administration.” In recent years Erdogan has called for “liberation of the al-Aqsa Mosque” and claimed that “Jerusalem is ours.”
As such, it makes sense for Turkey’s state media outlets to propagate misinformation about Rohan’s arson attack, stirring up public passions and scapegoating Jews in stories syndicated by Turkey’s other press outlets.
For example, around August 21 Turkey’s semi-official newswire Anadolu Agency published four successive articles on developments at the Gaza border that referenced Rohan’s 1969 arson attack but falsely called him “a fanatical Jew.” Those claims were then amplified by Anadolu’s foreign language editions and in syndication by various Turkish newspapers.
Additionally, Anadolu’s foreign language editions translated one or more of these stories claiming that Rohan was Jewish into Albanian, Indonesian, Macedonian, Persian, Russian, and Serbo-Croatian. Meanwhile, Turkish-language news outlets inside the country that republished Anadolu’s incorrect claim last year that Rohan was Jewish included CNN Türk, Hürriyet, Sabah, Takvim, Yeni Akit, and Yeni Şafak. Similar claims were also echoed in print and on air by Turkey’s flagship state-run Turkish-language television news channel, TRT Haber.