Many Israelis were stunned and embarrassed by the media footage of a Palestinian teenager, Ahed Tamimi, and her friends accosting IDF soldiers on duty near the village of Nabi Saleh, pulling their arms, punching them and even slapping an IDF officer in the face. We don’t tolerate disrespect for IDF soldiers and certainly are uncomfortable seeing young girls and women taking advantage of their restraint. Our Middle Eastern instinct tells us to respond with force, to hit back, to chase them away or arrest them.
But that would be unwise. The new war, the media war, the battle for consciousness, requires different rules of conduct. The truth is that Israel has already formulated these rules and the soldiers acted in accordance with them. Their conduct, it’s sad to say, was correct and worthy.
A short history lesson. Starting with the First Intifada, the Palestinians learned the advantages and power of the media, and they became increasing media-savvy during the subsequent 25 years. What began then as a “battle over the television” has today become a confrontation on social media and websites.
The Palestinians learned that the media are the “weapon of the weak.” When they are unable to operate as a terrorist organization, they shift the battle to the public arena. True, in terms of damage, this is less devastating. However, they continue to win points in the media and public opinion, and leverage this for political gain. Indeed, the Palestinians have managed to boost their standing in many countries and international bodies.
The new war is asymmetric, between a weak side and a powerful one. The focus is not necessarily on the number of soldiers and weaponry. Instead, the new war is based on the impact generated by acts of terrorism, as reflected on television screens and social media.
Therefore, while the number of casualties is still important to terrorists, their main effort is directed toward leveraging media coverage. For this reason, the targets of terrorist attacks are often state or public symbols; an attack against them is seen as a blow to sovereignty and control. International terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida and ISIS have applied these lessons and, closer to home, Hezbollah and Hamas have done likewise.
IDF soldiers on duty are not media experts. They have a clear mission: to thwart terrorism and quell disturbances. They train for this during compulsory service and as reservists. The IDF is an army. However, even the most restrained and cautious soldiers cannot remain indifferent.
The result is the distressing picture we received last week from the southern front. A disabled man, a double amputee on a wheelchair waving his arms at IDF soldiers, was later shot dead. I don’t know the circumstances of his death or why he was shot. The IDF investigated, of course. But this is not relevant to our discussion here.
In the test of results, this picture will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the symbols of the Palestinian struggle. The media do not check what led to the shooting and in what circumstances it occurred. For the media, this picture tells the whole story. And, like it or not, in terms of journalism, it’s a good story.
IDF soldiers are responsible for security in the territories; the Border Police operates in Jerusalem and along the Green Line. These fighters find themselves in hundreds of situations like this every day. They act correctly by refraining from using firearms unless necessary.
Those who wholeheartedly believe and always say that the IDF is a moral army – some say the most moral army in the world – must understand that this is the price we have to pay. We must endure a spit or a punch, but refrain from opening fire. In fact, the goal of the demonstrators is to make our soldiers lose their cool and commit mistakes.
Casualties are the “oil” that drives the wheels of the resistance. Under the media radar and quietly, Israel has also developed an organizational array, based on intelligence and operational information, aimed at taking initiatives in the war for consciousness. This aspect of consciousness has become an integral part of every IDF operation.
The objective is to look for the effects that will create deterrence among the enemy and prevent attacks and other hostile activity. The war for “hearts and minds” is one of the major challenges of states and armies today. The IDF can share our knowledge with friendly states.
Since the incident in Nabi Saleh, Ahed Tamimi and her friends were arrested. This was done in the dead of night, with no foreign media present and apparently without cameras wielded by the family itself. The only source was the visual material filmed by the IDF.
The IDF meticulously documents its activities. This is another lesson learned from the past: Never leave the story in the hands of the enemy. An action without media and without coverage is called “low signature.” From our point of view, this is the preferred mode of operation, because it empowers the IDF to dictate the media agenda and set the time and place of publication, a capability it had lost. We must do our utmost to preserve this capability.
I hope that these young women will be brought to trial. This is the correct and worthy course of action – as long as they didn’t endanger the soldiers, of course. This action must create deterrence against similar incidents.
With regard to our soldiers, they should regularly train for the circumstances of the photographed war, to ensure they are wary of media traps and don’t fall into them. Is this war a lost cause? Not at all. We just need to closely read the scene and prepare the fighters accordingly, and then it is possible to win. True, the victory is on points or in rounds, and doesn’t bring the war to a conclusive denouement. There will be future battles, but that is precisely the nature of media wars.
The writer, an MK of the Zionist Union Party, serves on the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. His book Media Wars is about Israel’s battle for consciousness.