Is IDF deception against Israeli citizens okay?

The September Hezbollah attack first appeared to be a success – the cell that fired the missiles scored direct hits against the base and the jeep.

Smoke rises along the border with Lebanon during fighting in September 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Smoke rises along the border with Lebanon during fighting in September 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Five months ago, war almost broke out between Israel and Hezbollah.
It was on a Sunday afternoon in September when Hezbollah fired a few guided anti-tank missiles at an IDF base and armored jeep stationed along the border with Lebanon. Israel had a feeling the attack was coming, after Hezbollah vowed to retaliate for two attacks a week before: one against an Iranian cell planning to launch explosive-laden drones into Israel from Syria (which Israel took credit for), and one against a key missile-production system in Beirut (which Israel did not take credit for).
At first, the Hezbollah attack appeared to be a success – the cell that fired the missiles scored direct hits against the base and the jeep. In Israel, though, the situation was unclear, and the IDF Spokesperson’s Office wasn’t saying much.
As the nation started to brace itself for possible war, a helicopter landed at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, unloading a few soldiers on stretchers and rushing them into the hospital. Some of the men appeared to have blood streaming down their shoulders.
The thing is, no soldiers were wounded that day. The jeep that had been hit by Hezbollah was empty and had been intentionally placed along the border so Hezbollah would be able to attack it. The helicopter that had taken off to Rambam was planned ahead of time, and the soldiers were made to look wounded with ripped uniforms, fake blood and bandages that looked like they had been dressed during a rushed evacuation.
At the time, the move appeared to be a brilliant military ploy and another successful deception by Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi and his then-spokesman Ronen Manelis. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah had sworn he would avenge the attack in Syria, and Israel knew that he needed a victory image or else he would continue, and the situation could escalate into a larger conflict. Nasrallah needed to draw Israeli blood, and if he accomplished that – or at least thought he did – he would then be able to stand down.
At the same time, the move set off an internal debate within the IDF that months later has yet to dissipate. Should the IDF Spokesman’s Office engage in information warfare and deception? Is that the role of an official military spokesperson’s unit? And did that deception operation in September potentially damage the IDF’s integrity and trustworthiness?
This isn’t to say that information/influence warfare should not be used during a war or even in times of peace. Deception and psychological warfare have been around since David and Goliath and Sun Tzu.
Similar to psychological warfare, information warfare is a critical tool needed to influence the enemy’s way of thinking and calculations. If Israel wants to prevent a war from erupting with Hezbollah, there is value in making it clear to the Iranian-backed group now what would happen if that war ever broke out.
There is also value in using information to destabilize an adversary. Kochavi’s predecessor, Lt.-Gen. (res.) Gadi Eisenkot, was known to be extremely fond of information warfare and used it frequently. One known example was in 2017 after the death of Mustafa Amine Badreddine, one of Hezbollah’s top military commanders, who was killed in a blast near Damascus airport.
While fingers were pointed at Israel as well as at different Sunni militias, Eisenkot said Israeli intelligence had concluded that Badreddine was killed by his own men. Whether he was is not known, but having the IDF chief of staff say so publicly – even if not true – caused tension within the organization and was said to have deeply troubled Nasrallah.
Other ways to use information warfare is by creating hype before the disclosure of classified intelligence. The IDF’s social-media team has done a good job in recent years in getting the world’s attention, provocatively using Twitter and Facebook.
The problem is that using it today is a real gamble. The attempt to use a fake tactical event to create a strategic outcome could backfire because of the limited control any government or military has over the dissemination of information. It might work and it might not. A democracy also has to be careful not to cross the line and start activating this type of information warfare against its own people. The same tactics used against Hezbollah should not be permitted against Israeli citizens.
Unfortunately, that is what seemed to have happened in September. Minutes after the IDF jeep was struck by the Hezbollah anti-tank missile, the initial statement released by the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit confirmed that a military base and an IDF vehicle had been struck by missiles. But the Hebrew used to describe the event was purposely vague and could be interpreted to mean that soldiers were wounded or that only equipment was damaged.
For more than an hour, the military refrained from issuing any clarifications. During that time, the Military Censor sent news outlets a message instructing them to submit any story about wounded soldiers for review before publication. Only after Hezbollah publicly claimed that four soldiers had been wounded did the IDF issue an official statement declaring that no one was wounded or killed.
Let me repeat something I wrote above: In the end, the move was brilliant. It prevented a large-scale conflict with Hezbollah by giving Nasrallah the feeling that he had achieved his objective, had wounded or even killed soldiers, and he could now stand down.
But now imagine that you are a parent with children who serve in the IDF and who, you know, are deployed along the northern border. You hear the news that a jeep has been hit and that a helicopter has landed in Haifa. What do you do? For a country like Israel where news of a wounded or killed soldier can captivate the nation, spreading this kind of disinformation has serious consequences on the trust between the people and its military.
Now imagine you are a journalist. You see the jeep. You see the helicopter, but you also hear from your own sources conflicting information and that no soldiers had been wounded. You call the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit and they don’t answer. You write them messages, and all you get back are laconic responses. What do you do next time there is an attack? Will you believe the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit? Is it reliable?
Add to this what happened just a few weeks ago, when the IDF tried to cover up the damage caused to F-16 fighter jets at the Hatzor Air Force Base that was flooded in a major rainstorm. For days the IDF refused to say anything, and the Military Censor was again activated to prevent stories from being published. To the IDF’s credit, it recognized its mistake and has since been transparent about the case and the subsequent investigation. But again, here is another case of disinformation employed by the military against the Israeli people.
And what about Hezbollah? The IDF will not be able to repeat this tactic in the future. But even if it doesn’t want to and just wants to report the truth, will Hezbollah believe it, or will it assume that the military is again trying to deceive it? This could actually lead to more violence, not less.
And here is a bigger concern: The IDF’s deception in September was extremely successful – maybe too successful. What happens if tomorrow the prime minister or the defense minister asks the IDF to initiate a deception (remember Wag the Dog with Dustin Hoffman and Robert Deniro?) for their personal political gain?
This is a slippery slope that could end in the military being misused by manipulative politicians.
The use of these tactics is still being studied in the IDF, which recently established a new diplomatic and information unit within the Planning Directorate to assess the way information, news and diplomacy can be better employed to advance military objectives. When it comes to disinformation though, military sources openly admit that Manelis and Eisenkot might have blurred the lines of what should be allowed.
The good news is that since taking office, Brig.-Gen. Hidai Zilberman – the IDF spokesperson who replaced Manelis shortly after the Lebanon flareup in September – has instructed his officers to ensure there is always a clear divide between “spokesmanship” and information warfare, apparently a directive he received from Kochavi.
Everyone wants to win a future war. But in a democracy, some values cannot be sacrificed for quick tactical wins. Hopefully, Kochavi and Zilberman will remember this next time the military is tempted to deceive the Israeli public.