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Hostage releases and reunions clouded by Hamas’s psychological warfare

todayNovember 27, 2023 8

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Israelis were glued to their TV screens over the weekend, waiting for a first glimpse of the hostages being released by Hamas as part of a ceasefire deal between the terrorist organization and Israel. The unfolding drama had all the makings of an Oscar-winning psychological thriller; there was a mixture of suspense and horror, followed by relief and emotional scenes of relatives reunited, some of whom learned for the first time that other loved ones were still in captivity or had been murdered.

For more stories from The Media Line go to themedialine.org

The second round of released hostages was delayed for hours, putting everyone on edge. Hamas blamed Israel for violating its part of the deal, and Israel denied the claims. Meanwhile, the families of those to be released were kept waiting to welcome them home amid a flurry of reports on what was happening.

“Hamas understands Israel’s soft spots and uses them in a cynical and manipulative manner,” Dr. Gal Yavetz, from Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Information Science, told The Media Line.

Since the war between Israel and Hamas began almost two months ago, psychological warfare has been an additional arena in which both sides are fighting.

The October 7 massacre

On Oct. 7, Hamas conducted a surprise offensive during which hundreds of terrorists—mainly but not solely from Hamas—stormed Israel’s border. They raided communities, military outposts, and a music festival, murdering approximately 1,200 people, the majority of whom were Israeli civilians. They also abducted 240 people, taking them into captivity in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas terrorists hand over Israeli hostages to Red Cross officials, November 27, 2023 (credit: screenshot)

The attack shocked Israel, catching it off guard. Its scope astounded the country as it woke up to what was supposed to be a festive Jewish holiday. Israelis were stunned to see the attack on their country streamed live on Facebook. In addition, images of youngsters being led into captivity were seen on Telegram, and videos of terrorist-filled pick-up trucks driving through Israeli cities and terrorists banging on people’s doors were circulated in the early hours of the attack, leaving a lasting impression.

“This war is unprecedented in the amount, volume, and length of the message being dispatched online,” said Yavetz. “This is the most online war ever in the world. We are witnessing both sides using the online arena in a very precise way to turn to each other and to the rest of the world.”

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“There was intentional usage of any digital platform possible, including bodycams, in order to create panic and spread fear,” Yavetz added.

Psychological warfare is not new and has been employed by warring sides for years. It is used to manipulate information or to demoralize the enemy, but since the dawn of the digital age, it has become easier to reach larger audiences.

“Before and after a war, the aim of psychological warfare is to sway opinion, but during the war, the aim is to change behavior,” Dr. Ron Schleifer a researcher on psychological warfare from the School of Communication at Ariel University, told The Media Line. “For Hamas, who has no cannons or fighter jets, it is their way to convince the other side not to pull the trigger, or at least use less firepower. They believe this will yield the same result.”

Hamas may not be entirely wrong. The war plunged Israel into a major crisis. In the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ massacre, Israel promised a massive retaliation, one that would end with Hamas being overthrown from power in the Gaza Strip. Just hours into the crisis as Israel was still struggling to cope, the Israeli military officer in charge of liaising with the Palestinians posted a video on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter.

“Hamas opened the gates of hell on the Gaza Strip, Hamas made the decision and Hamas will bear the responsibility and pay the price,” threatened Maj. Gen. Ghassan Alian, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. His post was circulated widely, using social media to spread the word and instill fear.

But what further complicated the crisis and served as fertile ground for more psychological warfare and misinformation was the presence of a large number of hostages in the hands of Palestinian terrorists in Gaza, far from Israel’s reach.

Take Hanna Katzir, an example that terrorist organizations tried to use to influence public opinion in Israel. An elderly Israeli woman who was abducted during the Oct. 7 surprise offensive, Katzir was apparently held by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), who, in an attempt to pressure Israel, said she was killed as a result of an Israeli airstrike on the Gaza Strip.

However, over the weekend, Katzir was one of 26 Israeli civilians released by Hamas as part of the ceasefire deal with Israel.

At the beginning of the war, the Israeli government promised to topple Hamas and free all of the hostages. In so doing, one of Israel’s goals was to eliminate Hamas’ intricate web of underground tunnels, which requires the need to use massive firepower as well as forces on the ground. However, for relatives of the hostages, many of whom are believed to be held in those very tunnels, an Israeli military operation could risk their lives.

Ahead of Israel’s ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, fearful relatives of the hostages sat in TV studios, expressing their fear that such an operation would be detrimental to attempts to free their loved ones.

Throughout the war, Hamas and PIJ have tried to take advantage of the public debate in Israel between those in favor of a massive military offensive against Hamas and those who wanted to secure the release of all 240 hostages before pounding the Gaza Strip. Earlier this month, Hamas published a video of another elderly hostage, lying on a bed, attached to monitors. The video shows what appears to be the last moments of his life; afterward, he is shown dead, covered in white sheets.

There were other such videos and announcements as the fighting between Hamas and Israel has raged.

“Hamas’ goal is to convince [others that] they are right,” Schleifer said. “In order to do that, they need to frustrate the other side. They show a snuff video, causing Israel great frustration and helplessness.”

“It is a very delicate balance in which Hamas needs to be careful it doesn’t increase the motivation on Israel’s side. It’s about finding the balance between hurting the enemy but not too much so that it doesn’t go crazy,” Schleifer added.

Israeli media has refrained from broadcasting the videos released by Hamas and the PIJ, in which the hostages are portrayed in varying scenarios. In one of the videos, a hostage read a statement in which she accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of not protecting citizens, claiming they were paying the price for his ‘negligence and failure.’ She was also released over the weekend.

“Hamas is clearly the one setting the tone here from day one, taking the lead in the psychological warfare,” said Yavetz. “Israel is lagging behind.”

With Hamas at a disadvantage against Israel’s military might, it has no choice but to invest more in psychological warfare.

Also worth noting is that the majority of Arab countries surrounding Israel are not democracies, and, therefore, “propaganda is used for the legitimacy of the regimes themselves, leaving Israel decades behind in this arena,” according to Schleifer, who has authored a book titled Psychological Warfare in the Arab-Israeli Conflict. He also said that Hamas has been aided by Qatar in this arena, in addition to the millions of dollars it is believed to have given the terrorist organization.

“Qatar has invested billions of dollars in American academia, as have other Arab countries, in order to promote a positive image of the Arab world and not to have certain truths be, or some of its policies recognized,” Schleifer said. “As part of this, the universities have been targeted in recent decades, in order to educate the future generation of leaders in the Western world.”

During the war, Qatar has been playing a major mediating role between Hamas and Israel, positioning itself in the middle despite its clear, years-long association with the radical Hamas. There has been criticism in Israel against Qatar’s involvement. However, in its efforts to bring the hostages home, the Israeli government has decided to overlook Qatar’s alliance with Hamas.

The ceasefire is expected to continue until Monday as more hostages begin to be released by Hamas. All the while, more psychological warfare will likely be employed—and the suspense will continue.







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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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