My word: The ongoing psychological war

All along Hamas was gaining sympathy and support and looking ahead to the PR victory after the cease-fire.

Dr. Ron Schleifer (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Ron Schleifer
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A former mayor of Sderot, the town that has come to symbolize rocket attacks from Gaza, once told me that residents there were “like a battered wife.
You don’t say, ‘It’s okay, her husband only hits her now and again.’ And she suffers every day, never knowing when the next blow will come.”
It was this image that came to mind this week when the UN Human Rights Council published its report of last summer’s Operation Protective Edge. The report came out the day before yet another rocket crashed into southern Israel and in view of the commission’s findings, you might find yourself apologizing that no Israelis were hurt in the attack; an attack, by the way, which like every one of the rockets and mortar shells that preceded it, was a war crime. Or, as Mary McGowan Davis, who chaired the UNHRC commission, preferred to put it: “In some cases, these violations may amount to war crimes.” 
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The report noted that between July 7 and August 26, 2014, “Palestinian armed groups fired 4,881 rockets and 1,753 mortars towards Israel, killing six civilians and injuring as many as 1,600 people, including 270 children.”
In the 51-day operation, according to the report, based on information that could not be reliably corroborated, 1,462 Palestinian civilians were killed, a third of them children. I haven’t figured out whether the number of Palestinian “civilians” includes the terrorists Israel killed such as those responsible for the abduction and murder of the three Jewish teens, or the Arab driver who plowed into a group of pedestrians in Jerusalem killing one man.
The report, not coincidentally, relates to a period just after the murders of Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah.
Sixty-seven IDF soldiers were killed, although Davis commented: “When the safety of an Israeli soldier is at stake, all the rules seem to be disregarded.”
I guess only Israel was expected to abide by the rules in the first place.
The report took us all back to last summer – something most people want to forget but can’t. I can’t comment on the report itself, which I haven’t seen, but I can describe what I felt when I saw former New York Supreme Court judge Davis reading out the committee’s statement: I felt Israel, not Hamas, was being blamed.
She acknowledged that Israelis had also suffered.
“The idea of the tunnels traumatized Israeli civilians who feared they could be attacked at any moment by gunmen bursting out of the ground,” the report states, mitigating it, however, with the extraordinary statement that the commission could not “conclusively determine the intent of Palestinian armed groups with regard to the construction and use of these tunnels.”
I’m assuming that the tunnels – like the one used to kidnap IDF soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006 or to snatch the body of Lt. Hadar Goldin last summer – were not intended as a shortcut for Palestinians who wanted to chase butterflies through the flowering fields and gardens of Negev communities.
Fear, unlike rockets, cannot be quantified, but it counts for something. Imagine if you had to admit that your children’s nightmares of a monster under the bed might come true.
Not for the first time, I was reminded of Leo Rosten’s classic definition of chutzpah: “That quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.”
The Palestinians have taken it a step further; instead of begging the court for mercy, they are trying to mobilize the International Criminal Court to prosecute Israel for the death and destruction they themselves triggered.
Had Hamas not launched hundreds of rockets a day on Israel (using Palestinian homes, schools and hospitals as depots and launching sites), the war would not have taken place. Had it agreed to the cease-fires Israel accepted more than 10 times in the 51 days of fighting, lives (and property) would have been spared.
But that was not the point.
The Palestinians wanted blood – and they didn’t care whose, as long as there was plenty of it and it was caught on camera.
And Hamas got what it wanted in the UNHRC report – recognition. The standing of the terrorist organization was boosted to that of an unofficial state. It was Israel that was portrayed as the terrorists.
EARLIER THIS week I spoke to a friend from my student days at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the early 1980s. When we both studied for a BA in international relations and MA in communications, I knew him as “Roni.” In the meantime, he has become Dr. Ron Schleifer, head of the Ariel Research Center for Defense and Communication, and an expert in psychological warfare. One of his books on the topic is Perspectives of Psychological Operations (PSYOP) in Contemporary Conflicts: Essays in Winning Hearts and Minds and he drops the term “PSYOP” into conversation as if we should all be familiar with it. And perhaps we should.
I grab him for a conversation just before he left for a trip to London, Manchester, Montreal and New York to promote his latest book, Psychological Warfare in the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Palgrave-MacMillan), as well as the work of the center.
“The idea is to make the enemy fight a physical war while you are fighting the political one,” says Schleifer, “and it’s the political war that wins.”
All along, contends Schleifer, Hamas was gaining sympathy and support and looking ahead to the PR victory after the cease-fire.
Israel all the time was not only trying to stop the rockets and prevent mega-attacks via the terror tunnels, it was keeping in mind the inevitable UN report – preparing for a Goldstone II, a reprise of the 2009 report into Operation Pillar of Defense, which later even its main author, South African jurist Richard Goldstone, retracted.
“The political war is supported by images,” Schleifer points out.
Hence, the photos of dead or bleeding children; blood-soaked adults running through the streets carrying the young wounded; and rubble and destruction.
As in previous operations, it turns out that not all the pictures were taken in Gaza – there are tragically plenty of photos of death and suffering from other events in the Arab world that provide a source. Some of the photos and footage were clearly staged in what Israelis call Pallywood.
It’s an essential part of PSYOP and it’s much harder to fight than the rockets launchers or tunnel terrorists.
Schleifer says that BDS, the current buzzphrase, is just the latest in the series of organized campaigns aimed at winning the psychological war and bringing Israel down.
The Palestinians and their supporters “use the current evil” against Israel to “bring it into the discourse,” says Schleifer, noting that Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions was preceded by a focus on the so-called “Apartheid Wall” and charges of “colonialism,” none of which has gone out of fashion in my experience.
The war in Gaza is just one of a long series of events, he says: These techniques were used in the first intifada, throughout the Oslo period, continuing with the second intifada, the kidnapping of Schalit and Cast Lead, Pillar of Defense and Protective Edge.
Yasser Arafat was a master of PSYOP, Schleifer contends. His idea was simple – and effective: Use psychological warfare to portray Israel as the aggressor and make the country weak from the inside by dividing the Israeli people.
“Arafat presented the Palestinian Arabs as victims, underdogs,” Schleifer says.
“The main idea is to erode Israeli cohesion. According to revolutionary ideology doctrine which Hamas has adopted, civilian casualties of their own people are an acceptable price. Hamas is working according to the revolutionary principle of ‘yanking the chain’: If you cannot defeat the stronger enemy outright, you 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 straightaway. For Hamas, this is the ideal campaign. Israel is constantly in danger of losing its legitimacy if it causes Palestinian civilian casualties. The Palestinians then play on Western and Israeli guilt – an age-old PSYOP technique.”
“Israel has not managed to figure out how to be powerful but still perceived as the vulnerable one,” Schleifer said in an interview with Arutz Sheva in 2012. “That’s the art of contemporary propaganda. Showing that you’re strong without being perceived as a bully. The Palestinians’ strength comes from showing their weakness.”
And it works.
When we were university students, we used to joke that no less important than choosing the topic for your thesis was choosing your mentor.
Mary McGowan Davis replaced William Schabas as head of the UNHRC committee when it was shown that he had previously briefly served as a legal adviser for the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Israel didn’t really stand a chance.
Schleifer, however, says all is not lost. Israel and its supporters should track the source of the allegations and images that harm it, to find out who is behind the funding. Israel also needs to fight back with its own images and narrative via the new media, he says.
We both agree it is essential to keep a sense of humor. Then we both laugh. The absurd has always had that effect on us.