Psychological warfare intensifies in Israel-Hamas conflict

Israeli psy-ops tactics, such as false air strike warnings and leaflet campaigns, have in this conflict been met by Hamas’ own efforts in satellite TV and social media

Palestinians read leaflets dropped by Israeli military planes over the northern Gaza Strip in 2010 (AFP)
Mohammed Omer's picture
NUSEIRAT CAMP, Gaza – When the neighbors of Khaled Abu Zayed received a phone call from an Israeli automated machine saying that their home in Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza was to be bombed and they must evacuate – he ran outside in his underwear, screaming that Israeli F-16s were about to strike their home.

Aby Zayed, a father-of-five, says that five minutes after the call no-one was left in the whole neighborhood. Women, children and the elderly were all just running with whatever they were wearing or could grab in a hurry.

Usually houses are bombed within one to three minutes after an automated call, but in this case, 38-year-old Abu Zayed spent all night outside. His house was not attacked and, after hours of waiting, his family and neighbours decided to take their chances and return home.

Despite the anxiety and fear that sent him running into the night, Abu Zayed does not count himself lucky. His neighbourhood was not spared by some kind of glitch in the Israeli operations, he says. Instead, he believes the call was a tactic intentionally meant to cause maximum impact without firing a single shot.

“This is psychological war, meant to terrorise and cause maximum ‘collective fear’, by calling us at night,” Abu Zayed told MEE.

These kinds of calls often impact on entire cities at one time, causing residents to flee for fear that their homes will be leveled to dust and rubble. Just this weekend, leaflets dropped by Israeli forces over northern Gaza, informing residents to flee south or risk putting their family’s risk. “Beware,” the leaflet said.

Gaza’s Interior Ministry urged residents in northern Gaza to ignore the leaflets and stay put, even sending field workers to reassure civilians after such warnings, but many were too scared to stay and an estimated 17,000 thousand fled in less than 24 hours.

Mohammed Tabsh, a political analyst who writes widely on Gaza, said Israel pursues these tactics to “dismantle the Palestinian front by creating public opinion against the resistance”.

Abu Zayed says the 08 number, an Ashkelon-based phone number thought to belong to Israeli intelligence, calls Gazan phone numbers at random, sending a variety of threatening, pre-recorded messages from requesting an evacuation to asking people to inform on Hamas operatives or disclose their whereabouts.

Abu Zayed says some calls have even issued ultimatums, telling residents to cooperate with Israeli security services of face having their homes bombed.

Bombing attacks rarely follow, but the calls create fear and panic nonetheless.

Not everyone gives in to these calls, but almost all are subjected to and somehow affected by this kind of psychological warfare.

Mohammed Akila, a 45-year-old father of nine who works with ambulance crews in Gaza, says that his children are constantly horrified by what they hear or see in the media.

“Psychological warfare has more effect on my family than physical attacks,” Akila says. “The constant humming of drones is a psychological war affecting children and adults alike.”

Hamas hits back

Phone calls and leaflets aren’t the only Israeli tactics. Last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office reportedly offered scholarships to students at Israeli universities to post pro-Israel messages on social media networks.

This followed a “media bunker” set up during Israel’s offensive on Gaza in 2012 with hundreds of young Israeli volunteers posting updates to social media sites with Israel points of view. The student union at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a private Israeli university, have organised a similar initiative during the past week, Electronic Intifada reported.

Over the years, Hamas – much like the civilians it rules over – has been subjected to this form of Israeli warfare. But Hamas is learning. In what analysts call an “unprecendented” move, over the course of Operation Protective Edge, Hamas has adopted Israeli tactics, including using its satellite channel, al-Aqsa, to broadcast messages in Hebrew to warn Israelis that they will be attacked.

Normally busy Tel Aviv stood still on Saturday night after Hamas warned that rockets would be heading that way.

Fathi Sabbah, a Gaza analyst and columnist for London-based al-Hayat newspaper told Middle East Eye that Hamas has focused on promoting its military power in order to replicate the kind of psychological warfare seen in Gaza over the years. The group has also reportedly set up a Hebrew-language website that gives news, videos and pictures of its activity and what is happening in Gaza.

Hamas’s military wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Bridgades, has hijacked phone numbers to send text messages to half a million Israelis, including army officers.

The beginnings of a tit-for-tat propaganda war have started to emerge. Last week, after the Israeli military penetrated the airwaves of al-Aqsa and started broadcasting news in the middle of news coverage, Hamas’ military wing responded by hijacking the scheduled Channel 10 coverage and broadcasting their own message in Hebrew.

“Hamas is conducting the war on two fronts: operational fighting on the ground and psychological war,” Sabah said.

The case of Hamas announcing it would hit Tel Aviv was the biggest psychological tactic so far, drawing attention from around the world.

“This was not just armed warfare,” Sabah said. “Hamas surprised us by making it psychological, using videos to show Israeli’s fear of resistance rockets falling in Israel.”

Authorities and activists have also increasingly turned to social media to try and stop the spread of misinformation and to reassure people, as well as bring more international attention. Still, these tools cannot reach everybody, especially the elderly who remain the most at risk.

Gazan authorities arrested several Palestinians believed to be collaborating with Israel by spreading fear-mongering rumours through allegedly sending threatening phone calls to stir panic.

While Sabah said Hamas’ psychological retaliation is slowly starting to alleviate the pressures that Palestinians feel, he explains that the civilian population in Gaza is slowly getting more experienced in dealing with tactical mind games of war.

“Two previous Israeli military assaults on Gaza and hundreds of random Israeli attacks have weakened the overall impact of Israel’s psychological war on Gaza,” he adds.

But while the population may be gradually getting more used to these kind of tactics, they can still inflict significant damage.

“Because no one wants to die in their house, they leave their homes,” Sabbah explains.

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