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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Psychological Warfare after the Guns Are Stilled

Filed under: Hamas, Operation Swords of Iron
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Psychological Warfare after the Guns Are Stilled
The Psychological warfare of Hamas. From the left: Noa Argamani, Yossi Sharabi, and Itay Svirsky, seen in an undated Hamas propaganda film released on January 14, 2024. Sharabi and Svirsky were shown alive one day, dead the next. (Screenshot)

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 23, No. 4

  • Psychological or “cognitive” warfare impacts Israel’s relationship with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, with Israeli society itself, and with the international community.
  • Ideology lies at the base of any behavior. For Hamas, the ideology is Islamic and religious. The Palestinian Authority, although not overtly Islamist, follows an ideology that rejects Jewish ties to the land and encourages terror as legitimate “resistance.”
  • Post-war plans need to address the psychological-ideological basis of both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and the education and cultural norms created that promote terror, reject coexistence with Jews, and, in effect, protract the conflict.
  • Israeli confidence in the political and military leadership (but not the individual soldiers) has been damaged because of the events of October 7 and will require robust actions that include “zero tolerance” for terror to ensure that a sense of personal security is restored.
  • Tension also exists between an approach to hostage return that demands an immediate end to the war versus the approach that military pressure is preferable. Media discussion of the former approach unwittingly promotes the Hamas war strategy.
  • Any political solution for the “day after,” including reliance on the Palestinian Authority or a “2-state solution,” will need to consider the prevailing psychological state of the Israeli public, whose tolerance for such solutions, based on trusting the Palestinian leadership, is exhausted.
  • International public opinion that criticizes Israel is also largely ideologically based on a “victim-oppressor” model and led by the progressive left, although classic antisemitic themes are also present.
  • “Cognitive reframing,” or re-evaluation of previous attitudes considering the events of October 7, should precede any new policy proposals.

Psychological warfare often plays a significant role in armed conflicts.1 In the current Israel-Gaza war, there are three spheres where psychological warfare will continue after the military portion of the conflict ends. First, the sphere of Israel and its Palestinian antagonists. Second, the sphere pertaining to Israeli society. Third, the sphere of Israel’s relations with the international community, particularly in the Western world. There is a critical fourth sphere, that being the sphere of Israel’s relationship with Iran and its proxies, which also has global implications beyond a bilateral conflict between Israel and Iran and will be dealt with separately.

Sphere One: Israel and the Palestinians

In the repeated battles between Israel and Palestinian and Islamic terror organizations, Israel finds itself time and again at a psychological disadvantage despite holding a clear military advantage. This has been referred to previously as “psychological asymmetry”2 and has played itself out in past confrontations3 as well as in the present Israel-Hamas war.4

Much, if not all, of this psychological disadvantage stems from the lack of any need for Israel’s enemies to conform to accepted standards and “rules of war.” The lack of conforming to these standards gives terror organizations an advantage. Whereas most civil societies would prefer negotiation and/or surrender over self-destruction, Palestinian terror organizations do not. Their goal is ideological continuity, creating a desire for long-term goals and an ability to sustain repeated short-term defeats.5

Once ideology becomes the motor for cognitive choice, it acts as a “map” for how an individual thinks and sees the world.6 When an ideology is religiously based, belief in those religious precepts presents a formidable obstacle to any reality-based argument to the contrary.7 Basic Islamism, within a jihadist philosophy, is the fallback for any ostensive reality-based military defeat. Those who are ideologically addicted will see victory where others see defeat.8

Why Removal of Hamas Rule Is Essential

This religious-ideological mechanism driving Hamas is the primary reason why, for Israel, the insistence on removing any vestige of Hamas rule in Gaza (as well as influence in Judea and Samaria) is essential. While Western eyes and ears see and hear a defeated Gazan population, Hamas’ perspective is still focused on the events of October 7. As seen in polls of Palestinian public opinion,9 those events, despite the subsequent military setback of Hamas, remain the defining elements of Hamas’ view of this war. For Hamas, no matter what happened after October 7, the utter collapse of Israeli intelligence and military defense on the opening day of their offensive represents a victory that will be referred to as another step in the Jihad-based resistance to infidels on Islamic land.10 As long as Hamas retains any capability to continue functioning as an operative body, they will try again and again (as they have promised) to stage more attacks of the same kind.11

For Israel, if the military defeat of Hamas is not followed by its psychological defeat, the remnants of the organization will undoubtedly regroup to fight another day. That is why separating the Hamas ideology from the future residents of Gaza is critical. But the psychological defeat involves more than just Hamas and the ideology spelled out in the Hamas Charter. While those religious-based ideas need to be replaced, so does any ideology that, in practice, supports those goals. That is why the current Palestinian Authority, with its support of terror and its education denying any Jewish connection to the land, must also be changed.12

Operationally, this is no simple task. The education of Palestinian children and the culture of Palestinian society have long held “resistance” as a value and long-valued victimhood as a motif.13 Rather than looking towards cooperative relationships, compromise, and acceptance of Jewish rights and presence in the land as neighbors, the broader Palestinian culture rejects any rapprochement that is not simply a tactic towards the goal of a “free Palestine from the river to the sea.”

This educative revamping needs to extend to UNRWA, which has failed to educate toward peace.14 This should not be a surprise since extreme positions like the Palestinian right of return, something that essentially would end the Jewish state of Israel, have been supported by the United Nations.15 Metamorphizing the Palestinian psyche requires a thoughtful and fair approach that will start with the education of the young but will also include efforts directed at society in general. Akin to what took place in Germany and Japan following World War II and not so successfully attempted in Iraq after the fall of Saddam,16 a combination of educative, legal, and cultural initiatives will need to be put in place. Some models exist in the education system of the Gulf states17 that have established relations with Israel, but an appropriate Palestinian-based system will need to be created.18

Politically, the challenge involves changing longstanding concepts that include the “two-state solution” as the only viable approach to solving the conflict and acceptance of the current Palestinian Authority leadership as the sole authoritative representative of the Palestinian people. Retaining and reinforcing a leadership that ideologically may have differed with Hamas in the religious sense but not in the practical sense of opposing Jewish sovereignty and employing “all means” to eliminate it is counterproductive and must be rejected.19

Much as South Africa emerged from years of oppressive apartheid with a “truth and reconciliation” commission,20 a similar effort needs to be constructed to ensure that a democratic and peace-seeking Palestinian culture that has abandoned the path of violence and denial is created. While Palestinian and other sources have also called for this in the past,21 they largely failed to note the need for a psychological change, rejecting violence, terror, and antisemitism on the part of the Palestinians as a prerequisite for any Palestinian autonomy.

Sphere Two: Israeli Society

There is an inevitable link between the trauma experienced in Israel on October 7, 2023, and the goals and strategy of the war declared in its aftermath.

Trauma is a predictable and natural consequence of war for individuals and society. The events of October 7 created a common societal trauma that is more encompassing and broader than the many circles of deep individual trauma that co-exist with it. This will undoubtedly impact Israeli society in ways we cannot fully appreciate.22

Several factors modulate the current societal trauma in Israel, with ramifications on the conduct of the war:

First, the sudden nature of the attack and the apparent lack of relevant intelligence.

Second, the operational failure of the military to respond to the invasion. This failure resulted in thousands of Hamas terror operatives entering Israel untouched and invading communities in the south. The failure of the military to respond promptly, with dozens of communities under siege for many hours and with residents trapped in shelters while armed terrorists outside their door were trying to get in, is by far the most significant factor in the societal trauma Israelis are experiencing. This failure resulted in many civilian casualties and, more importantly, the traumatic sight of civilians, including children and older people, brutally and mercilessly slaughtered, abused, and taken hostage by Hamas and transported, with no resistance, to Gaza. Words such as “pogrom” and “holocaust” have been used to describe the barbaric nature of the atrocities committed.23

This is a “trauma by observation,” as all this was observed by the population in “real-time,” with live conversations with civilians trapped in their homes pleading to be rescued broadcast on Israeli media and with Hamas videos quickly disseminated on social media. The descriptions of the horrors these civilians experienced continue to be reviewed continuously in the Israeli media, with one main TV channel even presenting a continuous roll call of the dead.24

Early in the war, the country’s political leadership was essentially “missing in action,” with no government representatives or agencies providing any information to a public thirsty for information and to individual families waiting to hear what happened to their relatives. As knowledge of the attacks became known, the absence of clarity and action deepened a lack of confidence in the government and expanded the nature of the trauma.25 Government failure extended to the civil arena, where a robust and broad citizen-based response now provided much-needed basic social services and support.26

Restoration of Public Resilience

A prolonged and successful military action requires restoring the public’s resilience and support. But for that resilience to be effective and intact, the military and political response must promise an effective and lasting feeling of personal security, which is the center of Israeli thinking.27 Without a decisive response, Israel will not be able to enjoy adequate public support, and fighting will not be able to continue effectively.

Any political solution for the “day after” will need to be based on the current broad consensus among Israelis of zero tolerance for terror or the threat of terror. This, considering the prevailing lowered mood and sentiment towards Palestinians, Hamas, and Gaza, presents another challenge and another complicating factor in considering whether public support for cooperating or partnering with any Palestinian entity that has tolerated and celebrated terror is present.28

Complicating these considerations is the issue of the return of the hostages. Unless one accepts the notion that continued military pressure is the best tactic to adopt, the feeling that hostage return needs to be attained “at any price” and “now” is an option for many. This is a choice that many hostage families demand and one that is discussed in various Israeli media channels. While the vulnerable cognitive state of hostage families is understandable, this approach may unwittingly support the very strategy Hamas seeks to end the war.

The role of the psychological state of the public is thus central to understanding both the military and political actions likely to be effective. Key to this is recognizing that the Hamas surprise attack and resultant atrocities have created a psychological environment where societal recovery and resilience for Israel will require that personal safety is restored, that Hamas is utterly defeated, and that no Palestinian threat to personal safety continues to exist. 29

Any proposal for the “day after” in Gaza must incorporate this cognitive reality into the plan.

Moreover, while political divisions are likely to continue after the war, the unity seen in Israel during the war has been noted as a phenomenon that may replace the demonstrations and civil divisions previously seen. These divisions were reported on widely and noted as a factor in preparing the ground for the Hamas October 7 attack.30 It may very well be that the Israeli public has “wised up” to this, and their political leaders will follow this lead in replacing the rhetoric that characterized the society prior to the war.

Sphere Three: Israel’s Relations with the International Community

What we saw in the current war was an initial wave of strong sympathy and strategic support for Israel from the international community, especially in the West, that was gradually replaced with a perception of declining sympathy while maintaining strategic support.31 We also saw significant expressions of strong anti-Israel and antisemitic sentiment from specific parts of the population, chiefly from Muslim and politically progressive individuals and groups.32

The major contributing factor to this declining sympathy appears to be the allegation of the use of disproportionate force against Gaza that resulted in civilian casualties.33 Among strident anti-Israel activists, this translated into accusations of genocide, a charge that the International Court of Justice will likely take up.34 Israel’s response on a diplomatic level was to defend against these charges and to demonstrate how Hamas’ use of Gazan civilians as human shields and civilian facilities as military installations was, in fact, illegal. For example, the IDF spokesperson presented substantial evidence, supported by United States intelligence, of the unlawful use of hospitals for these purposes.35

But on a person-to-person level, the legalities of Israel’s behavior are less impressive than the results, namely a perception of mass casualties caused by indiscriminate bombing and images (although some images are clearly “fake”), to back up the claim. This perception is one that was present not only among those supporting Hamas but also among people who saw themselves as “pro-Israel.”36

Considerable efforts have been placed in citizen-based public diplomacy as well as ongoing efforts by Jewish and pro-Israel organizations to counter claims against Israel and to present reasons justifying Israel’s actions. Like with Hamas, an ideology rather than an objective reality drives attitudes. Notwithstanding the efforts of many pro-Israel supporters, those criticizing Israel are driven not necessarily by the “facts” but rather by their personal ideology that determines how they will interpret the “facts” they see.

When considering relationships with the international community, diplomacy, including public diplomacy, must continue. But it also needs to be tempered by realism that the effectiveness of any effort is more often a function of ideology rather than reality. Consequently, efforts should be considered to challenge ideologies and reality-based misconceptions and falsehoods. Absent that goal, segments of the population will continue to interpret facts as they see fit, regardless of the evidence.

One example of this factor is the ideology of “victims first,” common in more liberal or left-leaning circles. This ideology holds that all civilians are innocent and should not be held responsible for the acts of others;37 here, Hamas terrorists. No amount of explanation or attempted justification can alter the “fact” that those who consider all civilians always innocent would also think that undertaking actions that put them at risk is wrong. Of course, some may intellectually understand that Hamas placed them at risk, but it is Israel, not Hamas, that actually “pulls the trigger,” and since that is what they see, that is how they assign responsibility. That is also why even those who state they support Israel against Hamas still feel that Israel is acting wrongly here.38

Conclusion: Time for Cognitive Reframing: Reverse the Asymmetry

Psychological factors will play an important role in Israel’s post-war behavior. A common denominator and significant determining factor in this “cognitive war” is the adaptation of ideologies that drive thinking and determine behavior. For Hamas, the ideology is religious-based and impervious to modification. For other Palestinian groups, religion may play less of a role, but in effect, the ideology of anti-Jewish thinking and denial of any legitimacy to Jewish nationalism or history in the land renders Jewish residents illegal “settlers” against whom any means, including violence, is acceptable. Among the progressive left, the aspect of “settler colonialism” serves as an intersectional rod that stirs ideological opposition to the existence of Israel.

The realization that so many in both the Muslim world and the world at large maintain basic anti-Zionist and antisemitic attitudes has coalesced Israeli society and created a call for unity that, in practice, was missing before October 7. The trauma caused by the attack itself has also reinforced thinking that demands personal security and prioritizes it above taking risks for peace with a partner in whom any trust has been marred.

Politically, the Israeli public will not likely accept any post-war reality where threats to personal safety continue. This includes a refusal to accept the presence of Iranian proxies like Hizbullah in the north or threats from Yemeni Houthis in the south. Israelis will prefer a strong military to protect the country over diplomatic efforts that bring the weak promise of peace without the content supporting it. Along with this, the tension between sticking to a strong military stance and ending the war to return the hostages is a factor that needs to be considered.

The use of the victim-oppressor dynamic and Islamist religious motifs embellished a situation where Palestinian terror determined policy more than did Israeli efforts for peace.

There is increasing recognition and even frustration that this dynamic of psychological asymmetry continues to be present. Even Israeli satire has taken to pointing out the absurdity of exclusive expressions of empathy for Gazan civilians, ignoring how Hamas exploits them whilst continuing to hold Israeli civilians as hostages under severe conditions.39

Recognizing the psychological reality of the Israeli public after the war is as critical as recognizing the intractability of ideology, including the Islamic ideology of Hamas and the settler-colonial “resistance” ideology of other Palestinian groups and their international progressive allies. Accordingly, the changed Israeli attitude needs to be considered by all who plan to present plans for the “day after.”

In psychological terms, this is known as “cognitive reframing,” a psychological technique that requires identifying how situations, thinking, and experiences are viewed and then evaluating how to change the rationale or attitude behind it. Cognitive reframing is thus a process by which situations and related thinking are challenged and then changed.40

The events of October 7 have helped identify the psychology and thinking that has resulted in the perseveration of terror and, so far, failed to create peace and security between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. The task at hand is now to challenge and change that thinking.

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  38. Op. cit. 30↩︎