The tentative ceasefire with Hamas is the beginning of the real war – the political one. This is a good time to assess the psychological dimension of the operation and prepare for the next phase.
In the recent launch of Operation Pillar of Defense, psychological warfare played a critical role in the conflict from the start. Taking lessons from the last major operation of Cast Lead (c. 2009), the Palestinians are using some of their best PSYOPS (Psychological operations, refers to psychological warfare, ed.) abilities – essentially non-violent, yet clearly destructive.
The Palestinians are adroit at using the Internet, considered their main channel. The Islamic Jihad was also able to obtain phone numbers of Israeli citizens, sending them morale-lowering text messages. Notably, this is exactly what the Israelis were doing in Operation Cast Lead, indicating the Palestinians’ ability to learn and implement IDF tactics from the last conflict outbreak.
At the same time, the Israelis have used the social media extensively to present their case and have hijacked Hamas television and radio stations in order to inform Palestinians what areas to avoid in the event of a planned military bombing, thus helping reduce civilian casualties.
Much of what Hamas and Islamic Jihad do over the Internet involves forging clips and other lies that do not adhere to the Western maxim that PSYOPS messages must be true, or at least partially true. Besides reports on false events( our missile hit the Knesset, for example) Hamas and Islamic Jihad also use short pseudo-documentaries exploiting the credibility of the genre to disseminate outright lies to further their cause. The IDF has produced counter videos.
What groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad ultimately desire is to harm the psychological well-being of the Israeli population.
The Palestinians aim to showcase the incapability of the Israeli government.
They aim to burden the economic cost of the war, part of which they are already doing to great effect by launching kassam rockets without explosive warheads. One kassam that costs a few dollars forces the Israelis to expend $35,000-50,000 on an Iron Dome missile. In addition to tstretching Israeli military and diplomatic efforts to the limit, they provoke a response that causes minimal damage due to Israeli technology while gaining international attention and sympathy.
Hamas is meanwhile gaining political status to the point where Western countries are willing to negotiate a ceasefire – not with a terrorist organization, but with what they are treating as a legitimate government.
One must keep in mind that this attack is not an isolated incident – it is one event in a long succession of events. These techniques started being used mainly beginning with the First Intifada, throughout the Oslo period, and then continuing with the Second Intifada, the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, and now during Operation Pillar of Defense. The main idea is to erode Israeli cohesion, in every possible way.
According to revolutionary ideology doctrine, which Hamas has adopted thoroughly, civilian casualties of their own people are an acceptable price.
According to revolutionary ideology doctrine, which Hamas has adopted thoroughly, civilian casualties of their own people are an acceptable price. Hamas is working according to the revolutionary principle of “yanking the chain”: if one cannot defeat the stronger enemy outright, he must degrade the enemy through a series of seemingly minor blood-lettings until, over a long period of time, the enemy has effectively lost the battle – without realizing it right away.
For Hamas, this is the ideal campaign. Israel is constantly under the danger of losing its legitimacy if it causes Palestinian civilian casualties. This is why, it should also be noted, that the Israeli informational messages throughout the operation so far have tended to revolve around the Iron Dome and its effectiveness.
The Palestinians have clearly learned their lessons from Operation Cast Lead and other conflicts of the past. They learned how to distribute the message and how to appeal to Israelis and foreign audiences alike.
The Palestinians will then play on western and Israeli guilt – an age-old PSYOP technique. Israel is facing now a barrage of visual images of destruction, homes, kindergartens, zoos etc. Explanation that these places were launching pads and depots will be futile next to these images.
Israel’s constant dilemma is whether to present counter visuals of destroyed homes in Israel, even though that will give Hamas great satisfaction and no guilt feelings whatsoever. The Tel Aviv bus attack, shown in real time, is a step in that direction.
A possible solution is to demonize Hamas through various means, but as Menachem Begin said once, “we are not Goebbels”.
Despite awareness and accompanying improvement, there is still a long way to go for Israel when it comes to fully deploying the art and science of psychological warfare.