OpinionIsrael at War

The deadly nature of psychological warfare

Journalists must live up to their responsibilities and stop causing further suffering.

“The New York Times” headquarters at night. Credit: Osugi/Shutterstock.
“The New York Times” headquarters at night. Credit: Osugi/Shutterstock.
Irwin J. Mansdorf
Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf, Ph.D., is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs specializing in political psychology and a member of the emergency division of IDF Homefront Command.

It did not take long.

Recently, in an article published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, I wrote that the “psychological asymmetry” that Palestinian terrorists use “includes embellishing and sometimes falsifying scenes of civilian damage and suffering and intentionally creating these scenes to generate opportunities to use them.”

Now here we are, in the middle of a war, and the international media again falls victim to the manipulative use of civilian deaths and unwittingly becomes a pawn in the hands of terrorists, as shown by the recent false reports of Israeli responsibility for a missile strike on a Gaza hospital.

Psychological warfare is real and it can be as lethal a weapon as the deadliest missile aimed at innocent people. It fans the flames of incitement, handcuffs those who defend against terror and reinforces the murderous plans of terrorists, who are given a pass while the media competes with itself to gain “eyeballs” by presenting scenes of what is described as “disproportionate” Israeli aggression.

The rush to judgment after the self-inflicted attack by Gazan terrorists on Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital is but another example of how the rules of reporting are no less important than the much-touted rules of war. Basic journalistic integrity includes verification, and that is precisely what the media outlets involved did not do.

While some media sources “protected” themselves by adding “Palestinians claim” or “according to Palestinian sources” after describing the attack, many did not. The first impression provided by the premature reports not only placed blame on Israel, but also contributed to inflaming the darkest passions of those who could easily turn to violence against innocents.

The purpose of psychological warfare is to gain an advantage without fighting for it. When an Arabic-language Palestinian newspaper publishes the headline “The Baptist massacre turns the tables on Israel,” you know all you need to know about the goal of psychological warfare: To win even though you are losing.

The danger of incitement on the Arab street will remain despite the evidence of Israel’s innocence. Those who do not believe that there really was a massacre against Jewish communities and those who support bloodthirsty terrorists who commit wanton atrocities are not likely to be swayed by evidence.

But this incitement goes further, enabling extremist pro-terrorist demonstrators in Western countries to take to the streets and engage in riots that disrupt public order and encourage acts of blatant antisemitism that threaten local Jewish communities.

False reports also allow legitimate Arab leaders to take actions that endanger lives. The goal of any war is for the good guys to win and to save civilians from suffering. Clearly, Israel is the “good guys” and Gazan terrorists are the “bad guys.” The planned four-way summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority was designed to help ordinary Gazans. But wary of the Arab street, the Arab leaders, who are savvy enough to know what is really happening in Gaza, make statements blaming Israel and then cancel a meeting that could have helped relieve civilian suffering.

The terrorists of Gaza in the south are not the only issue. Both the terrorists of the north and the terrorists of the east lie in wait. Hezbollah and Iran cannot be trusted any more than Hamas and they will undoubtedly try to provoke the Muslim world if and when they decide to enter the war.

Journalistic responsibility goes much further than just getting information “out there.” As long as there are those who describe terrorists as “militants” and reflexively rely on reports by people whom Biden said make ISIS look “more rational,” the psychological war will continue.

As the war continues, there are likely to be more cases in which civilians will suffer and there may be cases in which unintentional mistakes are made. Nonetheless, in a psychological war, accurate reporting is more important than quick reporting.

In this psychological war, the hostages are journalists. Let’s all hope they free themselves sooner rather than later.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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