Barely visible in the world media, Hamas works hard to scare and demoralize Israelis and portray itself as invincible and even demonic.
Ever since “Protective Edge” began, Hamas has been operating a sophisticated psychological warfare machine with the purpose of sowing panic, disinformation and dissension among the Israeli public • Much like its effort to portray the IDF as a malicious force bent on murdering children abroad, Hamas uses the internet and local media to portray themselves to regular Israelis as an omnipotent monster to be feared • In spite of the clear and even crude nature of this propaganda, local media and politicians fall for it • A look at Hamas’ war of nerves against Israel
On 12 of July, Israelis tuned into their radios, televisions and news websites to discover an unprecedented declaration provided by Hamas: Tel Aviv will be bombarded at precisely 21:00. Of course, the rockets were a few minutes late and merely woke up the Iron Dome, but Hamas achieved its primary purpose: many citizens fled ahead of time to shelters and abandoned stores and hot spots on a Saturday night. Thus did the Israeli media play right into the hands of Hamas, giving it “Prime Time” coverage and importance, increasing its power and serving as an unintended proxy for a campaign of psychological warfare.
This is just one example of a huge, sophisticated machine whose purpose is to sow panic and despair and cause the Israeli public to dance to the tune of Hamas. Indeed, Hamas has made extensive use of this method to pass on messages, often adapted to specific publics, with the aim of undermining morale in the State of Israel. The goal is to cause Israeli leaders, citizens and soldiers to lose faith both in the justice and strength of their cause, undermining both the will to fight the enemy and even defend against threats.
An Old Islamist Tradition
Psychological warfare is called harb nafsia (psychological warfare) or harb al-atzabat (war of nerves). It’s a very old and well-known method of warfare, yet it does not receive proper attention in times of war in Israel.
In fact, it is quite widespread in the Arab world: on the Arabic-language internet, one can find dozens of articles and books on psychological warfare, propaganda and sowing terror for political purposes. These strategies are considered perfectly legitimate and an inseparable part of politics and warfare – whether for internal or external purposes. As far as they are concerned, all means are justified for the end, morality be damned: truth telling, transparency, “fair play”, facts, logic, ethical and moral standards play no part; the opposite is true – they will try to use the enemy’s values to the full to weaken him.
In war, many Muslims on social networks tend to write “May Allah sow fear in their hearts [i.e. of the enemies]”, basing themselves on the following Koranic verse:
And those of the People of the Book who aided them – Allah did take them down from their strongholds and cast terror into their hearts. (So that) some ye slew, and some ye made prisoners. [Koran 33:26]
This is no mere rhetorical flourish, but an institutional approach to conflict. In most Arab states, the Information Ministry or wizarat al-a’alam serves as the body responsible for psychological warfare, or “strategic information” warfare. Palestinians started to successfully use this method already in the 1960s, when they visited Cuba, Vietnam and Algeria to learn of the guerilla and psychological propaganda methods used in those countries. Iran’s wealth of experience in this field also helped to create a global strategy of psychological warfare, which Iran-backed terror organizations enjoy from its fruits and even perfect for their own purposes.
Indoctrination of children; Hamas television programming for kids.
Helpless to the World, Invincible to Its Enemies
Hamas’ local propaganda is aimed at three main audiences:
1. Gaza residents 2. The IDF 3. The Israeli public
The first targeted group is the one most known and discussed in Israel. The propaganda machine of the Hamas dictatorship uses both the media and the public sphere to demonize Israel and portray it as “absolute evil”. In the field of education, the organization works hard to build a wall in the minds of children, the purpose of which is to prevent any doubt in the minds of the indoctrinated children, already from kindergarten. The children are filled with these ideas for a long time until they become “absolute truth”.
In the main, Hamas’ claims to power and prestige among the Gazan population are the exact opposite of the truth. Thus, while most of them have outdated Iranian weapons and there are only about 20,000 activists in the Strip, the organization will claim it has advanced weaponry and a much larger manpower pool. Hamas claims to Gazans that it is a “rooted” organization with a broad base of support while in truth it is internationally isolated and is no more than an armed Islamist militia.
The same is true of propaganda aimed at Israel. The organization will boast that its members “love life more than death”, with the aim of scaring enemies into thinking it’s an irrational and invincible mad dog of an organization, when in truth it can’t even pay its members’ salaries. Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Mashaal went even further, claiming that Hamas “will deny you [Israel] security”, even though its commanders and activists spend most of their time hiding underground in fear of Israeli air strikes.
For the IDF, Hamas has more targeted messages, whose purpose is to encourage defeatism and fear. These include messages like “you’re better off not fighting”, “your war is hopeless”, “Hamas is a strong organization”, “you have no chance of victory”, “Gaza will be your graveyard” and so on in different variations.
The psychological warfare machine of the Iranian-Lebanese terror organization Hizballah, which greatly contributed to then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s hasty and ill thought out withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000, is a model for Hamas. Thus, for instance, the organization tries to play on maternal feelings in order to create defeatism and anxiety among IDF soldiers and their families.
Unfortunately, these messages can be found strewn throughout ‘Haaretz’, which is a proxy and catalysts for spreading the enemy’s messages against the Israeli public. Israeli TV channels meanwhile give Hamas free positive publicity, including coverage of show parades, filled with green flags and meant to create a façade of strength to cover up the weakness.
Divide and Demoralize
Although Hamas propaganda directed at the Israeli public is often the butt of jokes, their primary purpose is still serious – to cause moral pangs of guilt and confusion and to increase defeatism and decrease self-confidence. These messages are passed along through social media, local TV channels and the international press.
For instance, “journalists for Arab affairs” are often used for passing on such fear tactics, often under the guise of an interview with a “Hamas senior official” or an ostensible news item from the organization. The interviews conducted by the Israeli media are apparently conducted on the assumption that society in Gaza is “democratic” and that locals can express opinions not approved in advance by Hamas. In fact, this is a defrauding of the public – and on its dime (Israeli media is state-funded or given a state franchise), as reporters serve inadvertently as messengers for Hamas’ fear tactics.
Another example is the tendency of the media to treat seriously the demand of all sorts of ephemeral terrorist organization’s demands as if they were great powers as well any statement ever made by terror activists. The idea of kalam bablash or “the empty words”, which cost their speakers nothing and often mean nothing, controls the realm of reality. They speak nonsense, and reporters convey them as serious statements.
The overt and covert messages of Hamas are intended to divide and demoralize the Israeli public. For that purpose it attacks via guilty feelings, arguments of justice and morals, dead children, appeals to the heart, conscience and sense of mercy, and even attempt to split the people and its leadership – “we have no qualms with you, only your evil leadership”, “the stupidity of your leaders led you…” and so on in this vein. All this to distort reality as though the Israeli leadership is responsible for the present situation and not on the radical Islamist movement whose goal is “to cleanse the pure land of Palestine from the presence of Jews”.
Know the Enemy
A common folk tale tells of four frogs going through a swamp, until two of them fell in a deep pit. The frogs tried repeatedly to jump out of the pit without success, while the frogs above yelled back: “the pit is too deep, you have no chance of getting out!” and “your efforts are pointless, make peace with your bitter fate!” One of the frogs absorbed the message and sank into despondency and terror and decided to take its own life, while the second continued jumping and jumping, until it successfully left the pit. After resting from its ordeal, its puzzled friends asked how it made it out. “I’m deaf,” it answered in sign language, “so I interpreted your shouting as encouragement.”
The lesson is obvious: even in the Middle Eastern swamp it is both possible and necessary to deal with incessant psychological warfare. The way to do it rests on three pillars: avoiding exposure to the sources of enemy propaganda to the extent possible; the second is understanding that “knowledge is power”: understanding the purpose of psychological warfare, according to the principles laid out in this article; the third is the necessity to engage in an ideological struggle against the enemy’s messages. In other words, not allow doubt, defeatism or confusion to seep in. Thus can Hamas’ weapon be neutralized and disarmed in our struggle against this most cruel enemy.
Roni Bialer is the editor in chief of the web magazine ‘Israel in Arabic‘ and a specialist in Arab media.
English translation by Avi Woolf.