More than 9,000 Palestinians have been killed since Hamas militants attacked Israel on October 7, triggering a still-ongoing Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip. The death toll, provided by Palestinian health authorities, does not include the countless injured in the attacks, and almost half of the dead and wounded are children. The horrors on the ground have been shrouded in a haze of misinformation and propaganda that has choked access to verifiable information about the conflict. Palestine’s opponents are making it worse by reviving an old myth to discredit the suffering, grief, and pleas for help coming from Gaza. They’re claiming, falsely, that the Palestinians are faking it.
“Pallywood” is a derogatory amalgamation of the words “Palestine” and “Hollywood,” and has been used in the past to accuse Palestinians of staging or play-acting scenes of violence and repression in order to engineer public sympathy for their cause. The term has been prominent across reaction to images of video of the devastation in Gaza, the implication being that the past month of human carnage is, at least partially, a hoax.
“Pallywood” originated with Richard Landes, an American historian and professor who in 2005 alleged that Palestinians exaggerated and manipulated interactions with Israeli troops in order to produce anti-Israel propaganda. Landes’ claims focused heavily on the 2000 killing of Muhammad al-Durrah, a 12-year-old Palestinian boy who was shot while attempting to shelter with his father from crossfire between Israeli and Palestinian forces. The incident was captured by Talal Abu Rahma, a Palestinian freelance journalist working for French news station France 2, and sparked international outrage. Israel initially accepted responsibility for al-Durrah’s death, but later retracted the admission, supporting arguments that France 2’s report was flawed. Landes, among others, went so far as to claim that the entire episode had been staged and even argued that al-Durrah was never actually killed.
Since Landes coined the term, “Pallywood” accusations have been lobbed at Palestinians like digital mortars seeking to destroy their credibility. Sam Doak, a senior fact-checker at Logically Facts, tells Rolling Stone that increased online mentions of “Pallywood” tend to coincide with periods of military escalation in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. “Although it’s hard to prove exact causation, you can see this term being used to refute that these kinds of escalations are causing civilian harm on the scale being claimed by Palestinian sources,” he explains.
“Right now, even though the data from October for search popularity is not complete yet, it’s still on par with the uses of the term during the 2014 Gaza war,” Doak adds “These two events are roughly the highest [use of the term] since the 2006 Lebanon War. You can really see how closely this term tracks with these kinds of large-scale conflicts.” A review of Google Trends data does show that searches for the term spiked in 2006, 2009, and 2014, during periods where the decades-long conflict escalated into outright warfare.
“Pallywood” accusations that have gone viral over the past month have been amplified by official accounts connected to Israel, lending credence to the conspiracy theory.
One such claim, which was promoted by Israel’s official X (formerly Twitter) account, accused Gazans of putting living people inside body bags. “Bodies can’t move their heads,” the account wrote, citing a video in which a body’s head allegedly shifts on its own as another man adjusts the body bag’s placement. Israel’s account later deleted the tweet, but not before the post received more than 4 million impressions. Another tweet that cited the video and sarcastically wrote, “In Gaza, people come back to life. It’s real. Hamas filmed the miracle,” was promoted by The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
“You can’t speak to intent,” Doak says, “but it is clear that some of these crisis actor narratives have been at least popularized through official channels.”
Often, accusations of “Pallywood” theatrics turn out to be recycled footage from past conflicts or completely unrelated events. One viral video, purporting to show Gazans staging actors as bodies, was revealed to be footage from a 2013 student protest in Egypt. Another viral image of an alleged Palestinian sitting up and texting while wrapped in a body bag was identified as a Halloween costume from a 2022 contest in Thailand. A video claiming to have caught “Pallywood in action” was revealed to be set footage from a zombie-themed ad filmed in Algeria. A 2017 news segment discussing makeup artists working to build Gaza’s film industry was passed off as evidence that Palestinians fake their injuries.
Some of the most widespread claims of “Pallywood” acting have been leveled at Gazan influencer Saleh Aljafarawi. Aljafarawi, who posts frequently on social media and has racked up a whopping 2.3 million followers on Instagram in the last month, has become a target of online conspiracy theorists who claim his past content and current documentation of the war are proof he’s a crisis actor. Viral posts, including from official Israeli social media accounts, have claimed Aljafarawi had acted out fake injuries at a hospital, before making a miraculous recovery. The video purporting to depict Aljafarawi’s staged hospitalization was later identified as footage of Mohammed Zendiq, a young man who lost a leg during an incursion by Israeli forces at the Nur Shams Camp in the West Bank earlier this year.
One of the most tragic instances of “Pallywood” slander relates to the death of Omar Bilal al-Banna, a four-year-old boy who was killed on Oct. 12, by an Israeli airstrike in Zeitoun, Gaza. On X, posts claiming al-Banna’s body was actually a doll wrapped in a shroud were viewed millions of times, and once again promoted by Israel’s official X account. The BBC was later able to make contact with al-Banna’s family members, as well as the photographers who had captured images of his corpse, and confirm that the images were of al-Banna’s body, and not a doll.
Logically Facts’ review of social media data found that across Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Reddit, “the term ‘Pallywood’ was mentioned over 146,000 times by more than 82,000 unique users between the start of the current conflict on October 7 and October 27.” The country with the most mentions was the United States, followed by India and Israel. The most significant increase in the use of “Pallywood” took place after October 22, when Israel announced plans to increase the severity of its aerial offensive against the Gaza Strip. A second spike can be seen after October 31, following the bombardment of the Jabalia refugee camp, which, according to Dr. Atef Al Kahlout, the director of Gaza’s Indonesian hospital, killed upwards of 80 people and injured hundreds more.
The impact of “Pallywood” claims has been prevalent across social media. On Tiktok, several influencers, including Israeli special effects producer Eve Cohen, were criticized for producing videos mocking Palestinians in Gaza, with Cohen donning a keffiyeh, smearing her face in ketchup to mimic blood, and pantomiming a Palestinian mother faking grief over the death of her child. The “Pallywood” conspiracy theory also dovetails with a rise in anti-Muslim hate speech. Research by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based policy advocacy group focused on hate, misinformation, and extremism, identified a 422 percent spike in keywords associated with online anti-Muslim sentiment in the aftermath of the October 7 attack.
Social media platforms are struggling to curb the rise of hate speech and misinformation coming from all factions of the conflict. Antisemitism has also proliferated in recent weeks, while Telegram, a messaging app favored by militant and terrorist groups like Hamas, has become a breeding ground for raw media that is then disseminated on other platforms as propaganda. For example, Palestinian Telegram channels last month published footage of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, suggesting they blew up a church. Verified X users then shared the footage and claimed the church had been destroyed. The claim was later debunked by the church itself.
X announced last week that they would demonetize posts that had been flagged by their Community Notes function as containing false or misleading information from the platform’s revenue-sharing program. But the pledge has done little to curb the spread of misinformation, as both Community Notes and professional fact-checkers struggle to keep up with the barrage of sensational claims being made on the platform.
Misinformation has always been a tool in the digital warfare that accompanies modern military conflict, but accusations of “Pallywood” serve a uniquely insidious purpose. “It allows people the mental space to disregard real evidence of civilian harm,” Doak tells Rolling Stone. “In a secondary sense, it’s particularly problematic because once somebody sees a video and they are convinced that this is a Palestinian — for example — faking injuries, they will take that context to other pieces of media they see and they’ll approach it with much more suspicion.”
“You end up with this audience really primed to view claims of civilian harm as an attempt to scam them, or as propaganda,” he adds. “It’s dehumanizing.”