spokesman saga

The error-prone Israeli government spokesman who wasn’t

Hananya Naftali, who created social media content for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tweeted falsehoods and doctored photos in recent days and implied he’s working for the Israeli government – but no one is willing to claim him

Hananya Naftali gives an interview to Newsmax in his IDF fatigues while standing at a Prime Minister’s Office lectern

As Israel pounds Hamas with airstrikes in Gaza and repels Hezbollah in the north, the digital war, rife with misinformation and raging nonstop, is another kind of dangerous front line. Into this sensitive area of Israel’s online messaging about the war now stands a controversial figure, Hanaya Naftali, a former member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s communications staff. 

More rogue social media influencer than actual government spokesperson, Naftali has caused headaches for the government at a fraught moment. His erroneous and misleading recent online posts about the war, along with questions about his resume, have been cited to claim that Israel is peddling disinformation, or worse – that Israel is responsible for the explosion outside Gaza’s Al Ahli Hospital.

Minutes after Hamas’ Health Ministry in Gaza claimed that Israel bombed the hospital and killed 500 people, Naftali posted: “Israeli Air Force struck a Hamas terrorist base inside a hospital in Gaza. A multiple number of terrorists are dead. It’s heartbreaking that Hamas is launching rockets from hospitals, mosques, schools and using civilians as human shields. #Hamas_Is_ISIS”

Israel has since said that the explosion came from a rocket misfired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a claim backed up by video taken by independent news outlets and supported by President Joe Biden and others. According to a U.S. intelligence community assessment, the blast was also much smaller than initially indicated, mostly impacting the parking lot and causing an estimated 100-300 casualties.

Naftali deleted the original post and posted a correction – but the damage was already done.

Palestinian Ambassador to the U.N. Riyadh Mansour said that Netanyahu’s “digital spokesman tweeted that Israel did the hit thinking that there is around this hospital a base for Hamas, and then he deleted that tweet…Now, they changed the story to try to blame the Palestinians. It is a lie.”

Naftali’s comments were cited in an AFP Fact Check and an Al Jazeera article about the “Israeli narrative.”

Naftali, meanwhile, has done little to dispel the notion that he speaks for the government of Israel or its prime minister.

Naftali became Netanyahu’s deputy social media adviser in 2018, working under the prime minister’s then-social media adviser Topaz Luk, now the Prime Minister’s Office spokesman, who called Naftali a “superstar” at the time.

The adviser mainly courted controversy at the time due to accusations of proselytizing. While both of his parents are Jewish, he has said he “made his own decision to follow Jesus.” Videos in which he said he “read the Bible and shared Jesus” with IDF soldiers led some to say he was trying to convert soldiers to Christianity, which he denied.

When Naftali married his wife, India, in January 2023, Netanyahu spoke at his wedding and said “he works for me. That’s not an easy thing to do. But he does it very well.”

On Oct. 9, two days after Hamas massacred civilians in Israel’s south, Naftali, 28, who had served in a tank unit that entered Gaza in 2014, said he was called up for reserve duty. He posted a photo of himself in IDF fatigues embracing his wife with the message: “I am drafted as well to serve and defend my country Israel. I said goodbye to my wife India, who sent me with blessings and protection of God. From now on she will be managing and posting on my behalf so be nice to her.” 

A few days later, India Naftali, a reporter for i24 News, tweeted a photo of herself from his account, saying that she had been posting for him.

However, an IDF spokesperson said on Sunday that Naftali was “not [serving in] the IDF at all,” before adding: “Out of concern for personal information, the IDF doesn’t disclose details of any individual’s recruitment status.”

That did not stop Naftali from tweeting a video of himself on Oct. 14, once again in IDF fatigues, claiming that he was “called up from the frontline to another front – the digital war.”

“The prime minister has called me to join this task force that has been fighting around the clock to fight and defend Israel in the media,” Naftali said. “This is a war between good and evil and Israel’s battle is your battle as well. There is a lot of disinformation, hate, antisemitism, and lies. We all have to fight it together.”

The Prime Minister’s Office has put together a task force that includes some past staff, such as Netanyahu’s former spokesman and diplomatic adviser, Mark Regev, and President Isaac Herzog’s former spokesman, Eylon Levy, as well as new faces such as journalist Tal Heinrich, to help with wartime communications.

The social media influencer did an interview later that day for Newsmax in his IDF fatigues while standing at a Prime Minister’s Office lectern, something that spokespeople for Netanyahu or  other civilian figures are not authorized to do, a source in the room told Jewish Insider. Naftali was told he should never do so again, and that he is not authorized to speak for the government.

A Prime Minister’s Office official denied that Naftali works for the Israeli government or on the volunteer task force. The source who was in the room when Naftali filmed the video said that he was never introduced to the task force as a member. Someone who used to tweet for Netanyahu said it is unlikely that the prime minister would have personally called him, as Naftali claimed.

Naftali did not respond to multiple phone calls and texts from JI asking where he works. His X (formerly Twitter) profile says only, “I’m that Israeli who talks to the camera about peace in the Middle East,” and features a pinned post calling on people to send him money via the monetization platform Patreon.

Though Naftali was in army fatigues on TV and in X videos, the IDF denied that he is working with its spokesperson’s unit, which controls its social media accounts. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson also said they are not working with him.

Netanyahu’s personal spokesman, Jonatan Urich, said that Naftali created social media content for the prime minister as a freelancer for the Likud party, hired on a project-by-project basis and was not currently in their employ. “We have no control over” Naftali’s tweets, Urich said.

A Likud insider explained that some of Netanyahu’s aides are technically employed by the party, which is able to pay more than the government.

Asked about Naftali, another Likud insider responded: “What did he do this time?”

The tweet about the Gaza hospital was not Naftali’s only misleading tweet since the start of the war on Oct. 7.

“Israel is striking terror targets in Gaza right now. More of that, less talking,” Naftali tweeted the following day, along with a video labeled “Israel News on Telegram.”

Kareem Rifai, a social media strategist for the American Enterprise Institute, however, said the images in the video were of the Syrian town of Arihah.

On Friday, Naftali tweeted blurry photos of Hamas leader Khaled Mashal living in luxury in Doha, Qatar, leading many to accuse him of generating the photos with AI. The photos were real, but they had been “poorly upscaled” with AI, Forbes reported.

Ashley Perry, a former senior government adviser, who served under then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, among other officials, said that “in the battle to fight the disinformation of Hamas and its supporters, it is vital that everything Israel and its supporters put out is verified and accurate.”

“There are those who are looking for any opening to delegitimize and discredit any pro-Israel content, so we should not give them cannon fodder,” Perry, who specializes in strategic communications, added. “The world has finally been exposed to Hamas’ lies, so we have to be extra careful in providing content that has been checked and verified as much as possible.”

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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