Two containers of soft, 10-inch dolls are not the cargo one would expect to alarm Israeli customs officials at the Haifa port.
But when the dolls are reportedly dressed as Palestinian stone-throwers with “Jerusalem is ours” and “Jerusalem, here we come” written in Arabic on them, it is a different story.
Last week, Israeli officials seized 4,000 dolls dressed in the colors of the Palestinian flag with keffiyeh scarves with their arms raised, appearing to throw stones.
According to NBC News, Doron Samara, the head of enforcement for Haifa Customs, said the shipment originated from the United Arab Emirates and was “intended to reach the Palestinian Authority, and we see these dolls as incitement objects which are forbidden to be imported into Israel.”
Though Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely told The Guardian that “These dolls were making their way to the Palestinian Authority with one clear purpose, and that was to poison the minds of innocent children,” the article noted that “it was not entirely clear who the recipient was intended to be.”
The press office for the Israeli government did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has burst into fresh violence over the past few months, is being exacerbated by the proliferation of social media, as Jay Michaelson noted in The Daily Beast.
“The omnipresence of recording technology, coupled with the opportunistic use of the records by Palestinians and Israelis alike, has opened a Pandora’s box of incitement and extremism,” he wrote.
Mia Bloom, a professor at Georgia State University and co-author of the forthcoming Small Arms: Children and Terrorism, said she had seen toys used as a tactic by Palestinian extremists to reach young children since the early 2000s.
Bloom had not seen evidence of rock-thrower dolls, and was surprised there were such toys because “the whole community goes along with rock throwing,” she said.
Extremists, she said, had also used Farfour, a dead-ringer for Mickey Mouse who starred in the Pioneers of Tomorrow show that aired on Al-Aqsa TV, a Hamas-affiliated station.
In the final episode in 2007, Farfour is told by his grandpa how “unfortunately, the Jews… occupied” the land of their ancestors, and now Farfour must “safeguard” it. The grandpa dies and Farfour laments, “I don’t know how to liberate this land from the filth of the criminal, plundering Jews.”
A man representing the Israeli government demands to buy the land from Farfour. When Farfour refuses to sell the land to the “despicable terrorist,” the Israeli representative is seen punching the cowering Mickey Mouse look-alike. The episode concludes with a girl stating to the audience: “Farfour was martyred while defending his land, the land of his fathers and forefathers. He was martyred at the hand of the criminals, the murderers, the murderers of innocent children.”
“People say ‘martyrdom’ and ‘death to the Jews,’ and it becomes something the child doesn’t see as abnormal,” said Bloom. “It normalizes extremism and dehumanizes the other side.”
Bloom has also seen ISIS rely on toys to de-sensitize children in even more graphic ways.
“They train children to behead dolls,” she said, describing ones “dressed up in orange like Jim Foley,” the American journalist captured and murdered by ISIS in 2014.
In July, the AP reported a group of more than 120 boys were instructed by ISIS to watch beheading videos and practice on dolls.
“Then they taught me how to hold the sword, and they told me how to hit. They told me it was the head of the infidels,” a 14-year-old Yazidi boy told the AP.
These militant efforts to normalize violence is nothing new, said Bloom. It’s a tactic seen throughout history and across continents.
“In World War II, Nazis didn’t refer to Jews as Jews, but as ‘vermin’ [because] it dehumanizes them. The same thing happened with the Hutus in Rwanda. They referred to the Tutsis as cockroaches.
“We see the distortion of language to desensitize individualizes to violence and [thus] normalize it.”
It isn’t just toys that contain propaganda.
Hebrew University professor Nurit Peled-Elhanan critiqued how Israeli children are taught about Palestinians in their textbooks in a 2011 book, Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda.
“They describe them as vile and deviant and criminal, people who don’t pay taxes, people who live off the state, people who don’t want to develop,” she told The Guardian. “The only representation is as refugees, primitive farmers and terrorists. You never see a Palestinian child or doctor or teacher or engineer or modern farmer.”
A 2013 study of Israeli and Palestinian school textbooks aimed at children from ages 5 to 18, overseen by Yale professor Bruce Wexler, found “teachers both portray their neighbors as enemies, though Israel does so considerably less,” as the Economist noted.
It found 49 percent of texts in mainstream Israeli schools portrayed Palestinians negatively, which jumped to 73 percent in Orthodox schools, according to the study. Meanwhile, 84 percent of references to Israelis were found to be negative in Palestinian textbooks.