By Ulrike Putz in Ashkelon
Roughly once every hour, Israel hijacks the airwaves: The voice of radio host Kamal Abdu Nasser cuts out for a few minutes and is replaced by that of an Arabic-speaking Israeli. Listeners in the Gaza Strip are convinced that, in those moments, Israel's military is speaking.
Hamas is responsible for the war and Gaza's misery, says the apparent imposter.
A Palestinian man on Friday looks at damage done to a hospital in the Gaza Strip following an Israeli attack.
It was three years ago that Israel's army launched its department of psychological warfare. But its debut was less than stunning. During the Lebanon war in 2006, Israelis dropped poorly-made leaflets down on Shiite civilians in southern Lebanon. The pamphlets included a simplistic drawing of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah cowering behind a cedar tree, Lebanon's national symbol. The clumsily-delivered message was apparently that Lebanon's Schiite militia was hiding behind the country's civilians.
These flyers did not have the desired effect. Instead, the Lebanese showed them to visitors for months on end to show the Israeli army's naiveté. Many wondered whether Israel had honestly thought their pamphlets would change Lebanese minds.
Pamphlets plant seeds of doubt
But in the last two and a half years, Israel's army has learned a thing or two about psychological warfare. For one, they've captured the airways -- but for another, they've also improved their flyers. Pamphlets dropped on the Gaza Strip refrain from relying on simplistic propaganda images. Instead, they provide telephone numbers and e-mail addresses -- Palestinians can use them should they want to report the whereabouts of Hamas leaders or weapons caches.
One can assume the contact information isn't used often -- but the flyers are effective: "Pamphlets like these sow seeds of doubt among Hamas leaders and the civilian population," says Ephraim Kam, deputy head of the Institute of National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. They create a general atmosphere of uncertainty because everyone suddenly holds the tools to betray the leaders of Hamas, he says.
Israeli reports about massive problems facing Hamas have a similar effect, according to Kam. Israeli military speakers have for days been reporting that their generals in the field have observed scores of demoralized Hamas fighters deserting. The claim can't be confirmed -- but it definitely affects morale. It strengthens the Israeli population's will to continue; and in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli media is the main source of information, this message raises questions about whether Hamas may, in fact, be on its last legs.
"Messages like these may or may not be true, but they definitely achieve one desired result," says Kam. "They undermine the confidence and certitude of Hamas."
Hamas fights back with its own bag of tricks
The Islamists in the Gaza Strip have likewise employed the power of suggestion during this war, now almost three weeks old. Hamas has repeatedly released messages claiming that they have captured or killed Israeli soldiers. Translated into Hebrew, these announcements, are then inserted into the radio traffic in the Israeli-controlled parts of the Gaza Strip. Even if the messages are later disproved, they initially undermine the morale of soldiers in the field, according to Kam.
Hamas has instrumentalized the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in a similar manner. Shalit has been in capitivity in the Gaza Strip for more than two and a half years -- his fate is of interest to the entire nation. Indeed, one of the goals of the current offensive is that of bringing Shalit home -- an it is one which the majority of the population supports wholeheartedly.
At the start of the Israeli offensive, Hamas claimed that Shalit had been wounded by Israeli fire. The message was clear: If Israel wanted to see Shalit return alive, it should stop the war. Then, last Sunday, the Gaza Islamists claimed that Schalit's health was no longer important. "He may be wounded or he may be fine. This question is no longer of any interest to us," said Hamas politburo member Mussa Abu Marsuk, thereby raising frenzied concern throughout Israel about the young man's wellbeing.
Israel takes the cake
Even Hamas threats fired off at Israel over the past months seem to have been well-considered. "Shortly before the end of the cease-fire, Hamas started boasting that it had countless surprises awaiting Israeli troops, should they advance," says Kam. Threats that no soldier would ever leave the Gaza Strip alive were supposed to keep Israel at bay.
The threats, of course, were not ultimately successful in preventing an Israeli ground incursion. Still, says Kam, they raised fears of booby-traps, fighters hidden inside tunnel systems and further Hamas attempts to capture Israeli soldiers. "The IDF would certainly have been careful anyway, but Hamas's pre-war propaganda caused them to be doubly careful," says Kam.
Still, the most effective propaganda campaign in this war has certainly been waged by Israel.
On Dec. 26, when war between Israel and Hamas already seemed unavoidable, Jerusalem called for a 48-hour cease-fire. The government claimed it wanted to consider all possible political solutions. In order to give Hamas a sense of security, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak even appeared in a satirical broadcast on Dec. 26 -- by which point the decision to attack on the morning of Dec. 27 was 24-hours old. An unsuspecting Hamas considered itself safe. On the morning of Dec. 27, men met in offices and barracks and dozens of policemen gathered at a defense ceremony. At that point, nearly 60 Israeli fighter jets were already in the air, headed for battle.
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