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The Israeli army's war on consciousness

The IDF Spokesperson describes its work as part of the army’s operations arm, speaks of ‘media operations,’ and defines ‘tarnishing the name of Israel’s enemies’ as one of its main goals.

IDF soldiers participate in a cyber defense course. (IDF Spokesperson)

IDF soldiers participate in a cyber defense course. (IDF Spokesperson)

“In the past few months we at the IDF Spokesperson’s Office have come to the understanding that we are actually conducting media operations,” IDF Spokesperson Brig.-Gen. Ronen Manelis told a room full of Israeli journalists earlier this week. “The IDF’s digital platforms are operational tools in the operational arm of the IDF.”

In the chief spokesperson’s words, the military is engaged of “a war over consciousness” — changing what and how people think of Israel, its army — and if you’re an Arab, what you think of your own leaders, government, and society.

“We actually define different goals for each audience, different platforms, and most fundamentally, different messages,” added Manelis, whose background is as an intelligence officer. “We come up with an operational strategy. We conduct media intelligence about who we are trying to reach with what message.”

For Arabic-speaking audiences, the chief spokesperson explained, those operations are meant “to create deterrence and to blacken (tarnish) the enemy — either by explaining that our enemy is really bad and to tarnish his name and to say don’t join them, or to deter them against Israel.”

By effectively taunting Arabic-speaking audiences, including Hamas leaders, with pointed and controversial messages and posts on social media, the IDF is able to game social media algorithms so that audiences who would otherwise have no interest in interacting with Israel, let alone its army, are exposed to its propaganda, Manelis explained, giving the example of a recent Twitter face-off with senior Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk.

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Manelis also boasted how IDF op-eds and articles published on social media in Arabic are at times reproduced almost in full by mainstream media in countries like Lebanon, and have even elicited direct responses from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. (Manelis also claimed that the army has successfully placed or published information in “two or three opposition sites” in Lebanon in recent months.)

For non-Arab international audiences, the goal is to “legitimize Israel’s freedom of operation,” Manelis continued, which in non-military terms parlance means neutralizing and countering public, political, and diplomatic pressure on Israel over its day-to-day military actions in the occupied territories including the decade-long siege on Gaza, the recent shooting of unarmed Palestinian protesters along the border, of fishermen at sea, carrying out air unprovoked airstrikes in Syria and Lebanon, and quite possibly one day, a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Mourners and fellow journalists carry the body of Yasser Murtaja at his funeral in Gaza City, April 7, 2018. Murtaja was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers during the Great Return March in the southern Gaza Strip. (Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills.org)

Mourners and fellow journalists carry the body of Yasser Murtaja at his funeral in Gaza City, April 7, 2018. Murtaja was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers during the Great Return March in the southern Gaza Strip. (Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills.org)

Do the IDF Spokesperson’s “media operations” include the use of disinformation? Reached by telephone on Thursday, Lt.-Col. Jonathan Conricus, head of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit’s international media branch, didn’t deny that the Israeli army engages in information warfare and deception.

But those types of operations are carried out by the intelligence branch, Conricus explained, not the spokesperson. The spokesperson’s office engages solely in public affairs and public diplomacy and deals “in the truth and only the truth,” he said.

It must be said, however, that the army has on no few occasions indeed put out information that later turned out to be false. We also know from former chief spokesperson Avi Benayahu that the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit has used deceptive and manipulative tactics, like sending military officers to appear on international television as if they were civilian commentators.

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