Lt. Col. Avichay Adraee. Photo by Eric Sultan.
Lt. Col. Avichay Adraee. Photo by Eric Sultan.
featureIsrael at War

How the IDF spokesperson in Arabic wins hearts and minds

For 18 years, Lt. Col. Avichay Adraee has been at the forefront of the military's public diplomacy effort.

At 6:59 p.m. on Oct. 17, it seemed that the course of the Gaza war was about to change, and not in Israel’s favor, when a rocket exploded at Al-Ahli Hospital in the Zeitoun neighborhood in Gaza City.

Reporters from Al Jazeera were among the first to arrive at the scene and tell the world that the Israel Defense Forces had caused the death of hundreds of innocent Gazans.

It took several hours for Israel to deliver an official response, but this left no room for speculation. IDF Spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari presented imagery and recordings that proved, in black on white, that the explosion was the result of a failed rocket launch by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and not as had been depicted a vicious Israeli strike.

Immediately afterward, he was followed by Lt. Col. Avichay Adraee, head of the Arab Media Branch in the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, who presented the evidence in fluent Arabic to all the Arab media outlets. The IDF is not only fighting in the narrow alleyways of Khan Yunis, but also in the field of public diplomacy, and usually against an extremely hostile and impatient public.

“All the channels in the Arab world, from the Qatari Al Jazeera to the Emirates-based Al Mashhad TV, aired the IDF Spokesperson’s words live, backed up by the facts and the audio recordings, establishing precisely how the IDF had absolutely nothing to do with this incident,” recounts Adraee.

“Did we succeed in fully convincing global public opinion? No. Did we succeed in generating the understanding that Hamas lies? Yes. How could one thousand people be killed from such a small crater in the hospital parking lot?”

Adraee, 41, who has served in the IDF Spokesperson’s Arabic unit since 2005, has seen vast changes in the field over the last 18 years. Today, the public diplomacy war is not confined to the traditional media outlets of the TV networks and the press. It has spread like wildfire to the Facebook pages and the X network, not to mention the world of YouTube clips. Every single incident requires a rapid response so that the narrative is not left to the enemy.

“If you want to be a player on this field then you have to create culture, news, an agenda, and if there is an agenda that you have not created, then at least make the effort to enter into it on time,” an ex-IDF spokesperson explains.

Market the battlefield

The head of the Arab Media Branch is not the only player on this tough playing field. He is supported by a highly active and energetic section. In recent years his deputy has been Maj. Ella Waweya, 34, a Muslim woman, born in the Arab city of Qalansawe, east of Netanya, who as a result of her frequent media appearances is better known in the Arab world as “Captain Ella” (even after her promotion).

“They know that I am an Arab, but many people say that I am lying also because of my name, and they also claim that I don’t have a genuine Arabic accent,” she laughs. “Don’t worry, I remind them of this all the time. Some people are put off by my uniform, but in any event, they choose to listen, and some look at me with a sense of pride too.”

In the propaganda war, Al Jazeera is a massive presence. It is the largest network in the Middle East and North Africa, and has been broadcasting for 27 years without any effort to be objective towards Israel.

They might not be able to change Al Jazeera. In the daily Arabic press, however, possibly as part of the political processes evolving in recent years, there has been a trend of change concerning the military conflict in the Gaza Strip. In the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, for example, the war does not always make the front pages, and if it does—it is portrayed from a local point of view.

When reports surfaces of terrorists raping women during the Hamas onslaught on Oct. 7, the organization immediately claimed that there was no proof. But the footage of the atrocities filmed by the terrorists themselves has become a key tool in the public diplomacy campaign.

Adraee participated in a Zoom meeting with social media influencers and journalists from the Gulf states, a conversation watched in real-time by about one million viewers. The IDF presented a summary of the 47-minute atrocities movie (officially titled “Bearing Witness to the October 7th Massacre”) compiled by the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit from raw footage filmed on Oct. 7.

The Oct. 7 atrocities were also an opportunity to change the momentum in the domestic dialogue with Israeli Arabs. Not long ago, some 150 Muslim clerics from all over Israel came to visit one of the IDF bases to receive a comprehensive explanation of the facts, which they could pass on to their communities, and to stress that it was not only Jews who were butchered but also Arabs, some of whom were abducted.

Both Waweya and Avichay maintain a strong presence on social media. They appear there using their own names rather than under the military framework where they work, to try to encourage broader responses and to convey messages in a more personalized manner. Both favorable and opposing responses are posted, sometimes including more extreme reactions, the main idea being to generate interaction.

Duel with Iran

The Iranians, who are closely monitoring developments along Israel’s southern and northern borders, are afforded special attention by the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. An entire section is dedicated to dealing with the Iranians.

As part of the current war effort, the unit decided to recruit a specialist for this important mission, so they turned to Kamal Penhasi, who grew up in Tehran until the age of 15. In the past, he published a Farsi-language newspaper; he now serves in the Iran section as a reserve soldier.

As there is no existing cooperation with the media in Iran and it is nigh on impossible to penetrate the iron curtain there, the IDF Spokesperson’s Iran Section is forced to turn to social media to convey messages, mainly via the Iranian opposition media outlets that broadcast in Farsi from Europe, and whose reporters came to Israel to cover the war. According to the IDF Spokesperson’s data, some 90% of their material reaches the people in Iran, most of which reaches the urban population, mainly in the capital city of Tehran.

“People tend to think that Iran is a closed society just like North Korea, but that is not the case. Most of the Iranians have lost their fear [of the regime], they no longer care,” Penhasi tells us.

Adraee explains that despite the strong desire of his Iranian desk to respond to every issue emerging from Tehran, more than once has had to dampen the enthusiasm of his soldiers.

“On occasion, you see something and then your gut feeling is ‘I must respond to this,’ but then you need to take a step back and check to see whether this is the appropriate time for it, as on many occasions a tweet can take the place of a bomb,” he says.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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