Psychological Deterrence: An Arab Tells Us Why Israel is Failing
Particularly relevant today, with Israel’s new coalition government is a piece written two years ago by Abu Ali Express about why Israel is failing to maintain psychological deterrence against her Arab enemies. He is an Arab Hebrew-language blogger writing for an Israeli audience.
Relevant to this discussion, the new coalition government under Naftali Bennett (the rightwing Yamina Party) and Yair Lapid (the center-left Yesh Atid Party) faced their first test just two days after having been sworn in and taking their seats at their new desks. Hamas threatened a return to hostilities if Israel were to go ahead and carry out the traditional flag parade in Jerusalem that had been cancelled on Jerusalem Day in May because of missile fire from Gaza. The rescheduled parade took place two days ago (June 15) and Hamas reacted by launching incendiary balloons over the border from Gaza, causing 26 fires on agricultural and forest lands in Israel. Did the new government respond in the same way as the former government generally did — ignoring this “minor” threat, hoping there would be no escalation? No.
Two things are different under the new government so far:
(1) The police prevented the degree of violence that was expected to erupt in Jerualem during the flag parade.. It is interesting to note how some of the current coalition partners were against the parade when Netanyahu was Prime Minister, calling it a provocation, but they did not insist on cancelling it two days ago. Merav Michaeli (left-wing Labour Party) even complimented the current Internal Security Minister for his professionalism in handling the matter and preventing violence.
(2) After the incendiary balloons, some with explosive devices, rained down in the Gaza envelope region, terrorist bases were struck by the Israeli air force that very night. I do not recall Bibi responding to Incendiary balloon or kite attacks and not even when missiles were launched targetting civilians in Sderot and kibbutzim in the Gaza envelope region. Bibi neglected to retaliate against Hamas missiles even as children and adults there had less than 15 seconds to run for safety when the alert would sound. He responded only when missiles reached urban centers outside the Gaza region, leaving southern Israelis feeling unprotected and unsafe.
An additional ten fires yesterday were caused by incendiary balloons being set off by Hamas in Gaza; yet, there was no report of a second retaliation on the part of Israel. Instead,Bennett ordered a strike against a Hizbullah outpost in Syria near the Golan Heights last night. Perhaps this rapid action of a government that is less than one week old was enough to keep things quiet in Gaza today. Only time will tell. But this behaviour seems to address the issue of deterrence raised by Abu Ali Express and that is, in addition, confirmed by an academic study on the topic written by historian Shmuel Bar.
The point is, how does Israel reclaim the deterrence factor that seems to have been whittled away, a revitalization of which would likely reduce the frequency of terrorist attacks that we have been seeing the past few years.
Abu Ali Express on Israeli Deterrence
On February 28, 2019, The Israel Victory Project Hebrew FB page (website in English here) brought one of his articles to the attention of their readers. I am translating his piece and their introduction. Abu Ali uses a word that in literal translation means “consciousness” but that does not really convey the sense of what he is discussing. I will use the words, “perception” and “psychological deterrence,” alternatively, as being closer to his meaning.
Who is Abu Ali Express?
Abu Ali Express is the name of the blog written by a Hebrew-speaking Arab blogger. He is anonymous and arouses curiousity as he informs Hebrew-speaking Israelis about current events in the Arab world and adds clear and profound analyses.
This week he began to close his blog and cease his valued work [ed. note: that appears not to be true, in fact, as he still maintains his Twitter and Instagram accounts]. In parting from his loyal readership he offered a fascinating analytic piece entitled, “Why Israel does not win in spite of her ability to do so?.” We bring you the compelling article and will be happy for you to share this brilliant analysis and to hear your reactions to it.
Why Does Israel Continue to Lose the Battle for Psychological Deterrence even though She has All the Means for Success? What are the Consequences of this?
I write the following article as on observer on the sidelines, astonished, powerless, sad. I see how a huge state system, with a huge budget is unsuccessful in achieving even a minimal, simple, necessary degree of success over many years in the area of deterrence, against the ability of the enemy to, relatively easily and with a minimal budget, tilt the equation in its favour time after time.
The problem is particularly painful because there is a lot that can be done but nothing is done. They do not even scrape single digit percentage points of what can be done and when they do do something it is usually with lack of understanding of the environment and the object. Shooting in the dark, in fact.
I believe that the Israeli leadership and those below them, both in government and the armed forces, do not understand, at least at the practical level, that investment in psychological deterrence means a huge saving in security expenses and surely in human life. In the contemporary state of affairs I allow myself to say that the functioning of the state and military leadership in Israel in this sphere is seriously lacking. And that is an understatement.
Correct influence on the perceptions held by the enemy changes state processes. It is a matter of strategy of the highest degree. And it must be regarded with reverence (חרדת קודש).
I will include in this article a few examples for illustration, some contemporary, some from the ancient past. But all of them have one thing in common: perceptions change and create reality. Psychological deterrence overcomes wars. It changes a people’s path.
The Torah is the unchallenged source of examples of the power of perception. It was difficult for me to filter. I chose two examples:
- The story of the spies and the whore, Rahab, in the book of Yehoshua (Joshua) Chapter 2, Verses 9-11. Rahab said to the spies (Translation from Chabad.org): “And she said to the men, I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land have melted away because of you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt; and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were on the other side of the Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom you completely destroyed. And as soon as we heard, our hearts melted, nor did there remain anymore spirit in any man because of you, …”
The whore Rahab chooses to betray her people, to cooperate with the people of Israel and to give a significant advantage to the attacking power of the children of Israel just because she hears hair-raising stories about them. That is over and above her description of how all those in the land already fear the children of Israel before they even crossed the Jordan River.
- David and Goliath. Two minutes after the slingshot. (translation from Chabad.org) Shmuel I Chapter 17: 51-52: And David ran and stood up to the Philistine, and he took his sword and drew it from its sheath, and slew him, and with it, severed his head. And the Philistines saw that their hero had died, and they fled. And the men of Israel and Judah arose and shouted, and pursued the Philistines . . .
The Philistines fled only because they saw that a young red-headed boy was victorious over the strongest man among them.
Another, more modern, example:
When did Israel first use nuclear power in war? If you ask the Arabs who fled their homes during the War of Independence, then it was already in 1948.
Already then, they knew that Israel overcame, by means of perception, the numeric differential in weapons and soldiers. Whoever knows the history of the Davidka mortar certainly knows that it mostly made a huge noise. Using it and others like it, Israel won the War of Independence and drove off the enemy. And if, by chance, rain fell afterward,…there already was the rumour spreading that the Jews used nuclear weapons. Yes, it was a well-known fact that after a nuclear weapon is shot, rain falls. . . This certainly sounds frightening.
Another example from the same period of time was the tossing of gas cannisters (Sypholux) from Piper airplanes; these made noises loud enough to sound as if a bomb was dropped.
There are many examples and many successes.
So what has gone wrong in the meantime? And why exactly now, when Israel is militarily stronger by far than all her enemies, is her ability to influence enemy psychology at its lowest of all times? The answer is apparently found in the question. The State of Israel, the start-up nation, grew addicted (and to some degree legitimately so) to technologically groundbreaking solutions, the first of their kind in the world, some of which seem like sheer fantasy. The incredible technological power of israel, and the qualitative advantages of this technology, has allowed her to neglect a simpler sphere of activity, the world of psychology.
Thus, the situation was created in which a good-looking Gazan youth, holding a slingshot during the flotilla incident in the north of the strip, facing IDF soldiers, was awarded with support of the international community that turned him into the “Palestinian” David fighting the “Israeli” Goliath.
Perception reversal thus produced the incomprehensible situation in which the Hamas leader in Gaza, Yehiya Sinwar, goes on-stage in Khan Younis, waves the gun of one of the IDF soldiers, turning him into the victor who defeated the great Israel, while, if one looked at the event with objectivity, the truth was that a unit of IDF soldiers drove about freely in Gaza for quite a while and then left the strip. The achievement was opposite to that presented by Sinwar; this was an incredible Israeli success. Since the disclosure of that feat on November 11, 2018, Hamas security personnel move about Gaza like poisoned mice, suspecting every frightened youth with a popgun. But in Palestinian popular opinion, as well as Israeli, unfortunately, this was turned into a bitter Israeli loss and Hamas victory is imprinted on the psyche. An upside-down world.
Israel has another problem. A quite significant problem.
She is plagued by her self-flagellation mentality that grows stronger by the hour. The cynicism and pessimism devours all her good parts. Lack of awareness of the fact that the enemy reads each letter in the Israeli media and uses it for their own psychological needs means that the politicians, IDF officers (current and past) and many journalists chatter away endlessly without understanding the damage they are causing to the Israeli psyche and the strength they thus give to the enemy. I will give a few examples and I apologize in advance to those insulted by what I write.
Almog Boker is very highly regarded on the Gazan side of the border. He is immediately translated into Arabic and broadcast over all possible Palestinian channels. Why is this a problem? Almog tends to intensify (apparently a bit too much) activities related to The Return Marches and I have no doubt he has no malicious intent. He simply does not understand that his reports exert singificant impact on the other side and add much oil to the fire. The Gazans greatly celebrate his reports and members of the units setting tires on fire derive much encouragement from his articles. He is their measure of the fact that their activities are successful and influential. The anxiety experienced by residents of the Gaza envelope in Israel, something he describes so well, is exactly what they seek to achieve. And when they succeed, then they continue with these activities and increase their intensity. Anyone who follows Gazans on the social media will notice this immediately.
Another example: The resignation of Defence Minister Lieberman immediately after the disclosure of the operation in Khan Younis: Was another moment for timing his resignation not available? Hamas presented this to their population as a huge achievement. An embarrassing event from their point of view (Israeli special forces were moving around Gaza for a long period of time without having been detected) turned, at the end of the day, into an event in which Hamas succeeded in bringing down a sitting Defence Minister. If Gazans had any doubt that Hamas “is pulling the wool over their eyes” and did not really win because, between us, they did not manage to capture IDF soldiers in Gaza, then along comes Lieberman and gives them a gift. The ultimate confirmation. Proof that what Yahiya Sinwar said was actually the truth, because a Defence Minister does not resign for no reason. That is how it works, friends.
And continuing on from that incident, the Israeli newspaper headlines shouted out two weeks ago that “for the first time in history, a commander of the elite forces resigned and will not continue in his position” — the headline is all that Hamas needed and now Izz ad-Din al-Qassam brought down the Defence Minister and caused the removal of the commander of the elite forces. Does anyone doubt what the average Gazan resident makes of this? Hamas wins and wins big. Does anyone remember the cynical and detached Israeli media at the opening of Operation Northern Shield for the destruction of the Hizbollah tunnels? Nasrallah was able to happily remain silent. The Israeli media did his work for him and they only had to quote the Israeli media and Israeli politicians.
Many of the problems I describe above are derived mainy from misunderstanding. Policy makers and those who determine the nature of media conversations do not understand Arabic and do not understand Arabs. If they just knew a bit more, were they just a bit more enlightened regarding what happens on the Arab street in various contexts, half of these problems would be behind us.
Policy makers concerned with psychological deterrence must eat, drink and breath Arabic and Arabs. First hand. Anything else can be compared to a car mechanic trying to carry out brain surgery on a human being. Failure is ensured. What is frustrating is that Israel is at a wonderful opening position in everything concerning perception. Because of the name she made for herself in technological advancements, they will believe almost everything they are told about her and that is a very valuable resource. Israel has a “halo” that has not been exploited as it can be for changing perceptions and modifying behaviour. If you present something about what you can (or cannot) do, in a trustworthy manner, you can cause the enemy to invest much in defence against that and thus you can wear them down or harm their effectiveness. If you cause an entire nation to believe that entry of terrorists, by means of tunnels, into Israel, is the absolute end, the public will push their leadership to invest unbelievable resources in solving this threat, disproportionately to the actual threat itself. And this has already been successful on two fronts. Just not from the right side as far as Israel is concerned. This is the power of perception and this is exactly where Nasralleh, Hamas and Iran are directing their attention — and without much effort or financial resources, they are achieving significant results. They act from a methodically based doctrine, singularly, with one voice, clearly and incessantly, dedicated to their goal to the end. Therefore they have achieved much.
Israel has something to learn from them. With an organized programme, with a bit of colour and cosmetics around and with a deep understanding of the neighbourhood in which she is situated, Israel can become a power in the domain of perception as well. It is not fate. Investment and professionalism in this domain would more than double her power. It can bring Israel to a kind of victory that she wishes for herself and that is so lacking.
Abu Ali Express
Some Points Raised by Historian Shmuel Bar
In a paper entitled Israeli Strategic Deterrence Policy and Practice, he supported points raised by Abu Ali. Bar writes that Israel does not have to prove to her enemies that she has the power to destroy them. They know that. Her deterrence factor comes from her using her power and not threatening to use it and “by inducing fear that the force would be reapplied and even increased.” But the lesson needs to be repeated periodically as its effect wears off during times of prolonged quiet. In addition, when Israel has proven herself able to protect citizens against one kind of threat (as the Iron Dome protects against missiles), terrorist organizations seek novel ways to attack – i.e., incendiary kites and balloons. The lack of immediate response to these over so many years only encouraged their continued use.
Bar describes an idea that never got anywhere — to somehow connect the Gaza electric system (since Israel supplies most of their electricity) to the warning sirens in Israel such that each time a siren goes off, the electricity in Gaza would be shut down for an hour. While this particular idea may not be effective, it opens up the possibility that novel and creative ideas should be brainstormed in the search for increased psychological deterrence.
Yesterday and Today . . . and Tomorrow?
The new government attacked sites connected with the launching of incendiary balloons the very night they were launched. And that is with Ra’am, the Islamist party, as part of the coalition. Israel bombed a Hizbullah post in Syria last night. I wonder if our neighbours are wondering who or where is next. And that is as it should be. Even if the attack against the balloonists in Gaza and against the Hizbullah post in Syria were still part of the previous government policies and guidelines (after all, are 4 days really enough to change direction?), it is the impression of action that may be more significant here. Remember, we are talking about psychological deterrance and perceptions.
Can we rebuild the psychological deterrence edge that we seem to have lost over the past years? And an interesting area for exploration is the effect on psychological deterrence of having an Islamist party in the ruling coalition of Israel.