In what amounts to a modern blood libel, a baseless claim that the Israeli Air Force (IAF) used tactical nuclear weapons in a reported airstrike against an Iranian base in Syria has gone viral. Despite being debunked, headlines and tweets claiming this to be truth continue.
Sputnik News, a news agency established by the Russian government-controlled news agency Rossiya Segodnya, published an article on Tuesday concerning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s revelation to the world that the Mossad had stolen a trove of secret Iranian documents proving that Iran not only had but still has a nuclear weapons program. Sputnik interviewed Marwa Osman, a Lebanese political analyst, about Netanyahu’s presentation.
After a string of comments disparaging Netanyahu’s claims without bringing any evidence to support her refutation, Osman accused Israel of “attacking Syria nonstop for the past six years.” Her accusation included Israel’s use of “new weaponry” in their recent reported attack against the T4 base in western Syria that killed 38 military personnel, including 18 Iranians.
Sputnik explained Osman’s claim:
“Specifically, she says that the weapons used in the attack on the 47th Brigade of the Syrian Arab Army, a unit made up of Iranian forces and forces from Hezbollah, were similar to either depleted uranium or an ‘enhanced nuclear weapon.’”
With this statement, Sputnik accused Israel of being the first country to use a nuclear device in combat since the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It is important to note that Sputnik based this accusation on a claim by Osman who is a political analyst and not a by a military or nuclear expert. She was also in Lebanon at the time and has never claimed to have seen the aftereffects of the attack in person.
This baseless claim was quickly picked up by others. YourNewsWire posted the story under the headline, “Israel Drops Tactical Nuclear Bomb On Syria.” The story did not bring a source to substantiate the accusation made in the headline and in the lead paragraph. Though the site appears on several lists of fake news sites, the story was shared over 48,000 times.
Individuals on social media also shared the story of an Israeli nuclear strike. Adam Milstein, an Israeli-American real estate investor and philanthropist, posted it on his Twitter feed.
Tens of pro #Assad fighters, mostly #Iranians, killed in attack on #Syria bases in Hama and Aleppo. Raids probably carried out by #Israel using Tactical Nuke – Registered as M2.6 Earthquake, but #Syrian media says US & Brits launched attacks from Jordan https://t.co/uylNAEb6BW pic.twitter.com/3mxrlhZ1sT
— Adam Milstein (@AdamMilstein) April 30, 2018
Milstein is considered to be influential on social media and his adoption of this accusation undoubtedly had widespread effects. The Jerusalem Post selected Milstein for its list of the world’s 50 most influential Jews and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency selected Milstein as one of the top 25 most influential people on “Jewish Twitter.”
Snopes, a fact-checking website, debunked the claim of Israeli use of nuclear weapons, labelling it as ‘false.’
“Modern usage of ‘tactical nuke[s]’ would be globally newsworthy, but no credible news source reported such, nor did either Syrian state media nor the Facebook page responsible for uploading footage of 29 April 2018 missile strikes against Syria make any such claim,” Snopes wrote.