The American-born jihadist Omar Hammami, who became a leader in the Somali Islamist terrorist organization al-Shabaab, once observed: “The war of narratives has become even more important than the war of navies, napalm, and knives.”
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Although Hammami himself met his demise in 2013, his insight remains true today. Perhaps nowhere was “the war of narratives” more actively pursued by a terrorist organization than in last summer’s Gaza war. For although the IDF was successful on the tactical and operational levels during Operation Protective Edge, at the strategic level Israel lost the information operations campaign.
This point is most clearly demonstrated with regards to global perceptions of the IDF’s adherence to the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC ). In December, we took part in an assessment of Operation Protective Edge by five retired American generals sponsored by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, and while we were not provided with specific IDF targeting data, we were able to glean a number of observations about targeting methodology from talking to multiple sources.
In our report, we agree with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen.
Martin Dempsey’s statement that “Israel went to extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties.” We concluded that the IDF’s conduct during the operation represents an admirable case of restraint, on par with and in some cases exceeding US procedures for minimizing civilian casualties.
Conversely, Hamas violated the LOAC in terms of the nature of its attacks against Israel, which were mostly indiscriminate or intended to terrorize Israel’s civilian population.
Hamas also significantly increased the danger to civilians in Gaza – and consequently increased the number of civilian fatalities – by locating its rockets, command and control facilities and munition depots at protected civilian sites such as mosques, schools, hospitals, and in residential areas.
Further, Hamas unlawfully discouraged and, reportedly, in some cases prevented civilians from leaving areas they knew would be targeted by the IDF. If Hamas did not intentionally use Gaza’s population as human shields, at a minimum it clearly acted with a reckless disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians.
Yet despite the chasm between IDF efforts to spare Gaza’s civilians and Hamas’s apparent willingness to incur civilian casualties on both sides of the conflict, international condemnation primarily fell upon Israel.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay stated in regards to IDF operations: “There seems to be a strong possibility that international law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes.” Amnesty International claimed that Israeli forces displayed “callous indifference to the carnage caused.” And even the US State Department asserted that “Israel could have done more to prevent civilian casualties.”
This disparity between reality and international perceptions of Operation Protective Edge was largely the result of the IDF losing the war of narratives. Hamas understood it could not defeat the IDF on the battlefield, and hence pursued a strategy of undermining Israel’s legitimacy by exploiting an asymmetric advantage in information operations.
Hamas supported false claims against the IDF by distorting stories and images and by manipulating the international media covering the war. Hamas operated an array of websites and social media accounts with each online outlet tailored to a specific audience: its Arabic-language content focused on glorifying jihad against Israel and the number of rockets fired into Israel, whereas its Western languages websites emphasized Israel’s aggression and civilian deaths.
This disinformation was coupled with restrictions on international journalists’ movements and reported coercion. Even the Foreign Press Association condemned Hamas for conducting “blatant, incessant, forceful and unorthodox” intimidation of international journalists in the Gaza Strip who attempted to film rocket launches, while concurrently providing the media free access to Gazan hospitals to obtain images of bloody civilians.
Conversely, Israeli strategic communications proved largely incapable of overcoming Hamas’s narrative.
As one IDF officer whom our team interviewed admitted, “We are good at doing the right things, but not very good at talking about them.” Another Israeli general conceded that “information operations were pretty poor in this operation.”
This is not to say the IDF public affairs branch was complacent or inactive in response to Hamas’s efforts. The IDF’s strategic communications during Operation Protective Edge were by all accounts better than in the 2006 Lebanon War or during Operation Cast Lead.
It was a success with regard to Israel’s domestic audience – one public opinion poll last summer showed that 95 percent of Israeli Jews believed the military campaign in Gaza was justified. Yet Israel was not nearly as effective at garnering broader international support for its actions or marshaling significant international condemnation of Hamas’s actions.
In our judgment, Israel encountered a series of institutional and external challenges that reduced the effectiveness of its information operations campaign.
First, there is a roles and capability mismatch. The IDF views its strategic audiences as the military and the Israeli domestic audience. Responsibility for international audiences fell to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which lacked the timely military information, videos and images, and the understanding of military operations and the laws of war to effectively inform international reporting.
Second, the IDF’s public affairs branch had a difficult time countering Hamas’s claims of civilian casualties due to procedural impediments to releasing full-motion videos and other forms of intelligence because they were classified or subject to a potential investigation by the military advocate-general. This is not a problem for Hamas, which is not held to the same standard as the IDF to conduct an investigation into war crimes by its operatives.
Similarly, whereas Hamas appeared comfortable making unfounded accusations freely, as a democracy Israel is expected by international audiences to be more accurate in its statements to the media. This higher standard for precision is challenging in a constant, instantaneous news cycle, for by the time the truth emerges the media has moved on to the next headline-grabbing incident.
These challenges are not unique to Israel. During the fight for Fallujah in April 2004, an Al Jazeera news crew invited into the city by insurgents became the source for pooled video of the battle broadcast throughout the world, transmitting deceptive images from Fallujah’s hospital, grossly exaggerating the number of civilian casualties, and transforming the coalition’s tactical success into a strategic defeat.
Moreover, coordinating strategic communications efforts between the US military and our diplomats in Iraq was imperfect at best even during the 2007 “Surge.” Like Israel, the US government must develop a “whole-of-government” approach to countering non-state actors’ advantages in the information domain.
Finally, these institutional constraints are compounded by media biases towards bloody imagery, sympathy towards the weaker combatant, blunt condemnations rather than nuanced assessments of international law, and at least in some instances what appeared to be a pro-Palestinian/anti-Israeli bias.
Although many IDF officers believe any strategic communications campaign will be an uphill battle given these obstacles, ceding the information domain to Hamas only compounds Israel’s problem. Israel’s – and America’s – future adversaries will seek to employ Hamas’s template of exploiting civilian casualties to create and propagate a narrative that undermines the legitimacy of its military operations.
Deception, denial, untruthfulness, manipulation, intimidation, and threat of violence against their population and media are tools readily available to these adversaries.
Fortunately, Israel has advantages in the information domain upon which it has yet to capitalize. The IDF has not extensively employed embedded media to circumvent Hamas’s control of images emanating from Gaza or taken advantage of the credibility of the young Israeli men and women engaged in the fight.
The IDF could utilize its “Lone Soldiers” from multiple nations in a strategic communications role or its Arab or Druse soldiers as spokespersons to demonstrate the amazing diversity of Israeli society. Finally, the number of combat cameras deployed – currently one per battalion – or body cameras could be increased to allow information, such as the ubiquity of booby traps planted by Hamas in residential areas or other LOAC violations to be conveyed properly.
If, as Clausewitz said, war ultimately is a contest of wills, the information age increases the importance of fighting war in the information domain.
Given the moral chasm between how the IDF and Hamas regard civilians during military operations, Israel has by far the better story to tell. But to do so, it must harness the same resourcefulness it uses to win the tactical fight to winning the war of narratives.
Retired LTG William Caldwell is president of Georgia Military College and former spokesperson for Multinational Forces-Iraq. He is a member of the Gaza Conflict Task Force commissioned by Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). Benjamin Runkle is a former director of speechwriting on the National Security Council and director of programs for JINSA.