The War of Narratives in Operation Protective Edge
The American-born jihadist Omar Hammami, who became a leader in the Somali Islamist terrorist organization al-Shabaab, once observed: “The war of narratives has become even more important than the war of navies, napalm, and knives.”
Although Hammami himself met his demise in 2013, his insight remains true today. Perhaps nowhere was “the war of narratives” more actively pursued by a terrorist organization than in last summer’s Gaza war. For although the IDF was successful on the tactical and operational levels during Operation Protective Edge, at the strategic level Israel lost the information operations campaign.
This point is most clearly demonstrated with regards to global perceptions of the IDF’s adherence to the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC ). In December, we took part in an assessment of Operation Protective Edge by five retired American generals sponsored by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, and while we were not provided with specific IDF targeting data, we were able to glean a number of observations about targeting methodology from talking to multiple sources.
In our report, we agree with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey’s statement that “Israel went to extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties.” We concluded that the IDF’s conduct during the operation represents an admirable case of restraint, on par with and in some cases exceeding US procedures for minimizing civilian casualties.
Conversely, Hamas violated the LOAC in terms of the nature of its attacks against Israel, which were mostly indiscriminate or intended to terrorize Israel’s civilian population.
Hamas also significantly increased the danger to civilians in Gaza – and consequently increased the number of civilian fatalities – by locating its rockets, command and control facilities and munition depots at protected civilian sites such as mosques, schools, hospitals, and in residential areas.
Further, Hamas unlawfully discouraged and, reportedly, in some cases prevented civilians from leaving areas they knew would be targeted by the IDF. If Hamas did not intentionally use Gaza’s population as human shields, at a minimum it clearly acted with a reckless disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians.
Yet despite the chasm between IDF efforts to spare Gaza’s civilians and Hamas’s apparent willingness to incur civilian casualties on both sides of the conflict, international condemnation primarily fell upon Israel.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay stated in regards to IDF operations: “There seems to be a strong possibility that international law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes.” Amnesty International claimed that Israeli forces displayed “callous indifference to the carnage caused.” And even the US State Department asserted that “Israel could have done more to prevent civilian casualties.”
This disparity between reality and international perceptions of Operation Protective Edge was largely the result of the IDF losing the war of narratives. Hamas understood it could not defeat the IDF on the battlefield, and hence pursued a strategy of undermining Israel’s legitimacy by exploiting an asymmetric advantage in information operations.
Originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on March 29, 2015.