It’s Monday night and Hamas-run Al-Aksa TV broadcasts the speech of its Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh live from Gaza. As a boastful Haniyeh speaks about the “victories of the resistance,” some viewers in the Strip see the following Arabic caption at the bottom of their screen: “Tomorrow there will be snow in Gaza.”
Later another message pops up: “Hamas is lying to you.”
In a flurry of activity, Hamas social media networks upload pictures and statuses about what they are seeing: “The occupation forces are disrupting the speech!” says one. Later, the official Twitter account of Al-Aksa TV confirms: “The occupation forces are trying to disrupt our signal,” and advises the population to switch to a different frequency.
Back in Israel, around the same time, Channel 10 reports that the IDF is preparing to broaden its attacks. Suddenly some viewers see animated booms and frightening flashing images with the following message on their screens: “Your government will not agree to our terms, so prepare yourselves for an extended stay in the bomb shelters.”
While Israel and Hamas trade rocket fire and aerial bombardments, another war is being waged – a psychological campaign in which the weapons are doubt and trepidation and in which the goal is to cultivate fear.
It is the handling of messages disseminated in the media that determines the success or failure of this psychological warfare.
Case in point: At 8 p.m. last Saturday (June 12), Hamas announced that in an hour’s time it would fire a barrage at Tel Aviv.
Staying true to its threat, Hamas launched a slew of rockets at Israel’s commercial capital at 9:07 p.m.
All were intercepted by Iron Dome, but in the world of psychological warfare, that isn’t what counts. What counts is the civilian reaction to the announcement.
That Saturday, instead of going out for a stroll, enjoying an al fresco dinner or getting ready to hit a night club, most Tel Avivians spent the evening huddled in bomb shelters.
Residents usually apathetic to the threat of rockets chose to be cautious.
Israeli television broadcast live shots of vacant Tel Aviv beaches and empty streets and that as far as Hamas is concerned was a victory.
Other Israelis took the warnings less seriously. In true Israeli tongue-in-cheek fashion, Facebook events titled “9 p.m. – rockets to Tel Aviv” popped up shortly after Hamas made its announcement.
Similarly, last week, Elizabeth Tsurkov became an Internet sensation after she decided to publicly address these threats. Tsurkov was a follower of the Hamas Twitter account in Hebrew, one of the many outlets the terror organization uses to try and instill fear.
Like all of Hamas’s messages in Hebrew, it was riddled with spelling mistakes. Tsurkov decided to ridicule Hamas and point out the errors and, much to her surprise, the operator of the account responded with a polite, “Thank you so much for you corrections.”
“Your Hebrew sometimes is really lousy, so it’s not really scary to us...” a bemused Tsurkov responded.
In psychological warfare, victory is often equivocal.
At the end of the Six Day War, no one disputed that Israel had emerged victorious. In recent conflicts, declaring victory has become a much more ambiguous task.
Who won the Second Lebanon War in 2006? Or the last round of conflict with Gaza in 2012 for that matter? In a situation where Hamas understands that it can’t do much more than try and hit (usually with dismal results) Israel with rockets, and in a situation where Israel understands that Hamas isn’t going anywhere, there are no real indicators of who won and who lost.
Hamas is trying its best to come out of this war as a victor. To do so, it must resort to lying and fabricating stories of impressive achievements for the benefit of its population. It sends scary text messages to Israelis. This is not an easy feat when, in reality, Hamas has hardly accumulated any real achievements in this war.
As for Israel, tens of thousands of SMS and voice messages were sent to Gaza’s residents with a succinct message reading: “Hamas and its leaders are responsible for continuing the war.” The IDF dropped leaflets on Gaza that read: It is Hamas that is making you suffer.
Moreover, people in Gaza say that Hamas websites and broadcasts are being interrupted time and again with animated clips, flashing pictures, and videos of Hamas leaders living in luxury while they suffer.
This is a fierce war that takes the form of planes and bombs. Yet, it is also a war of mixed messages and manipulation.
It is a war that targets not the bodies of the enemy, but its hearts and minds. It is a war that is so much more difficult to win.