Psychology of the fight

Hizbullah's critical weapon is the civilian population. Its target: world opinion.

qana rubble 2 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
qana rubble 2 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
How can you fight, win, but still come out losing? Well, it's all in the psychology of the fight, and like most classical wars, the confrontation between Israel and Hizbullah is featuring the use of psychological warfare to lower the enemy's morale and gain a strategic advantage. But unlike most classical wars, this one also features some clearly ruthless and unconventional psychological methods. Seizing on a technique that has been shown to bear fruit, Hizbullah has included civilians in its battle plans. And its armamentarium of civilians is just as psychologically important as the missiles being hurled toward Israel every day. Those missiles - generally inaccurate, occasionally lethal and always frightening - are designed less to create physical damage and more to wreak havoc, fear and panic. While these are all psychological targets, they nonetheless serve a clear military purpose: to weaken home front resolve and pressure Israel to cease its operations in Lebanon. How Hizbullah views Israel's resolve is best described by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who compared Israeli society to a "spider's web," sophisticated and complex, but also fragile and easily destroyed by a sweep of one's hand. For Hizbullah, sweeping away that web exposes the soft underbelly of a society that cannot tolerate soldier's deaths and surely would not stand up to rocket barrages. PSYCHOLOGISTS say that predicting future behavior is a matter of looking at past behavior, and that is what Hizbullah did in planning the ambush of an Israeli patrol and the kidnapping of two soldiers, an event that precipitated the current battle. In the past, Israeli responses were limited in their scope, and Hizbullah willingly absorbed any losses they sustained as a result. According to their thinking, a limited Israeli response puts them in a favorable negotiating position, one that strengthens their popularity and image as the only fighting force that exacts tangible results when confronting Israel. But when Israel's response was stronger than Hizbullah expected, and when the home front seemed to able to psychologically withstand days and scores of rockets, Hizbullah needed to move from conventional psychological warfare to more unconventional methods. Here is where they turned to their ace in the hole, the civilian population. HOW CAN Hizbullah win this war? No one, not even Hizbullah, expects an outright military defeat of Israel. But for Hizbullah, victory lies not in physically vanquishing Israel - although the more Israeli causalities, the better - but rather in ensuring that Hizbullah stays alive and intact as a fighting and political force after hostilities end. Being able to demonstrate its ability to fight and survive is key to maintaining the organization's image as the premier "resistance" movement in the Islamic world and moving closer to their ultimate goal of leading the efforts to eventually destroy the Jewish state. So, for the moment, Hizbullah does not need to "win," only to survive. For Israel, the goal is much clearer: to ensure that Hizbullah no longer presents a threat to it. And while Israel uses conventional military and political means to reach that goal, Hizbullah's survival is a matter of using psychological warfare that involves a brutal manipulation of its own population. IF THERE IS one thing Hizbullah has learned from history, it is that civilian deaths play to its advantage. That's the way it was after the accidental Israeli bombing of Kfar Kana during Operation Grapes of Wrath resulted in pressure on Israel to end hostilities and agree to a formula that allowed Hizbullah to continue as a formidable force in Lebanon. Learning from that experience, Hizbullah looks to the civilian population to provide a critical weapon, a psychological one whose target is world opinion. It is here more than on the battlefield that Hizbullah hopes to stop Israel. By concealing rockets in the homes of ordinary citizens, by having its fighters dress like civilians and operate out of civilian areas, and by preventing large numbers of people from moving out of battle zones Hizbullah knows that civilians will be struck. Unable to stop Israel on the battlefield, it is relying on the psychological impact of civilian death and destruction on the nightly news all over the world to reach its goal. BUT A FUNNY thing happened on the way to the newsroom. While many indeed have spoken of Israel's use of "disproportionate force," the expected reaction and outcry against Israel did not materialize. And the most important player in this equation, the US, far from condemning Israel, has continued to back Israel's military goals, namely, to continue fighting until Hizbullah is significantly degraded and its standing and influence are marginalized. Hizbullah has also miscalculated in judging the strength of that "spider's web" Nasrallah so mockingly referred to. Far from being the weak collection of fibers the sheikh expected, it is turning out to be far stronger, surprising not only Hizbullah but many in Israel as well. Israelis, having endured some very intense years of home front violence, seem no longer to be the same people that shook and cowed in fear at Saddam's Scuds in 1991. Israelis appear to have been inoculated against the fear of terror, and have developed psychological antibodies to repel the emotional impact of Hizbullah's missiles. Hopefully, the world will learn from Israel that dealing with terror involves being able to withstand bombs and missiles, and also repelling any psychological pressure a terror group may use, including the tragically cynical exploitation of civilians. Failing to do so may enable the good guys to win the battle, but not the war. The writer, a licensed psychologist in Israel and the US, deals with the effects of war and terror. Founder of MATAN crisis intervention services, he was a consultant to the post-9/11 crisis intervention program in New York. This op-ed was written prior to the Kafr Kana incident.