August 21 marked the 53rd anniversary of the 1969 al-Aqsa Mosque arson and the ongoing disinformation campaigns scapegoating Jews and Israel for the attack. Although Israeli authorities promptly arrested, tried, and convicted the culprit, Denis Michael Rohan – a Protestant extremist from Australia who believed his actions would prompt the Second Coming of Jesus – Middle Eastern outlets have been publishing inaccurate reports of the event to this day. In a blog published last month, ADL flagged the upcoming anniversary and expressed concern about the annual broadcast of these false reports, which portray Rohan as a Jew and claim there is an Israeli conspiracy behind the crime. For decades, such disinformation campaigns have served to stir up public passions, incite violence against Israel, and deflect Middle Eastern publics’ attention away from the discontent in their own countries.
In 2022, the scapegoating of Jews and Israel for the 1969 al-Aqsa arson unsurprisingly continued with major statements by Iranian regime leaders and others. However, Turkey’s official outlets exercised notable restraint.
Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, an official daily of the Palestinian Authority, published a report the day before the fire’s anniversary, referring to Rohan as an “extremist Jew.” Furthermore, the report alleged that Israeli authorities deliberately impeded efforts to extinguish the fire:
- Our compatriots were then able to rescue what remained inside al-Aqsa Mosque before the fire ruined it, after fire trucks from Hebron, Bethlehem, and elsewhere in the West Bank and other municipalities had rushed to save al-Aqsa, despite attempts by the Israeli occupation authorities to prevent them from doing so and cutting off the water in the area surrounding the Mosque the day of the fire. In addition, the occupation’s fire trucks in Jerusalem were deliberately late in order not to partake in extinguishing the fire. (Emphasis added)
Similarly, the Palestinian Liberation Organization issued a statement, which referred to Rohan as being Jewish. The Hamas-affiliated Shehab news agency, which enjoys a verified-account status on Twitter, also referred to the perpetrator as Jewish in its tweet commemorating the fire. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad-affiliated Palestine Today TV also claimed that Rohan was Jewish in a tweet.
The Islamic Republic of Iran, the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism, antisemitism, and Holocaust denial, was once again at the forefront of disinformation and incitement campaigns. Nasser Kanaani, the spokesperson of the Iranian foreign ministry, claimed that “Zionists set fire to the first Qibla [direction of prayer] of Muslims,” and tried to incite violence by calling “all mosques in the world” to “remain the center of anti-Zionist resistance.”
Al-Alam, the Arabic-language broadcaster of the state-owned media corporation Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), posted a report referring to Rohan as Jewish, while also asserting that the fire is a continuation of Israel’s policies regarding al-Aqsa and Jerusalem.
Jordan TV, which is owned by Jordan’s state broadcaster Jordan Radio and Television Corporation (JRTV), referred to Rohan as being Jewish in a tweet, a claim also repeated in a tweet posted by the country’s privately owned Al Ghad TV. An Al Ghad TV report from its website repeats the false accusation that Israel attempted to prevent Palestinian fire trucks from arriving at al-Aqsa.
Egyptian outlet Al-Youm As-Sabi’, which has a troubling history of disseminating antisemitic content, commemorated the anniversary of the al-Aqsa arson in a report that referred to Rohan as being Jewish and reproduced a false account from the Palestinian Authority’s official daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (mentioned above).
The Muslim Brotherhood’s official web portal, Ikhwan Online, published a post similarly referring to Rohan as being Jewish. The portal also cited statements made by Ahmad Abu Halbiyya, the Head of the Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Committee, in which he implies a denial of the historic existence of the Jewish Temple, claiming that Israel strives to establish “the alleged Temple on the ruins of al-Aqsa.” (Emphasis added)
Qatar’s state-run Qatar News Agency (QNA) reported on a sermon by Al-Aqsa Sheikh Akrama Sabri, in which he referred to Rohan as being Jewish and placed the fire in the context of what he described as an ongoing aggression against al-Aqsa by Israel.
The announcement of Turkey’s full normalization of diplomatic relations with Israel on August 17, four days before the anniversary of the al-Aqsa arson, appears to have led to more restrained coverage in the country’s state media. Although Turkey’s semi-official newswire Anadolu Agency published four successive articles presenting Rohan as a “fanatical Jew” last year, this year the same outlet chose to identify Rohan as a “fanatical Australian.” Anadolu Agency, nevertheless, reproduced statements by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad calling for the “recapture of Jerusalem,” while also accusing Israel of targeting al-Aqsa.
The disinformation perpetuated by a wide range of Middle Eastern outlets this year is a grim reminder of the active efforts to prevent an accurate portrayal of history while commemorating Rohan’s despicable crime. Although the propagation of blatant falsehoods and militant rhetoric that have the potential to incite violence is disturbing, the relative restraint displayed this year by Turkey’s official outlets shows that governments can play a significant role in curbing slanderous disinformation, at least on state-owned and -run outlets.