The recent international outcry over the botched up Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound Turkish aid flotilla represents the second time that non-state and state sponsored actors have gained a positive image in public opinion throughout the Middle East. The first time such groups -scored over Israel was in the 34-day war in 2006. Both these incidents and the one carried out by the LeT on 26/11 carry important lessons for India, especially anti-state elements, who have become masters in perception management of an increasingly stressed and confused public.
Both these Middle East events highlighted the critical need to mould favourable opinion, both within and outside the country, before undertaking a punitive/proactive operation against non-state and state sponsored actors. Moreover, it emphasised the effect of ‘collateral damage’ on international opinion and the critical need to avoid the same.
Both these incidents involving anti-state elements such as the Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas, recently, show a well thought out perception management campaign as a key ingredient of their overall operational and political plans.
Mind management by the Hezbollah
Besides fighting a good military action against the Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon in 2006, the Hezbollah executed a well crafted, synergised psychological/perception management campaign, aided and abetted by Iran and Syria. More than a thousand Lebanese civilians were believed to have been killed, while the casualties on the Hezbollah was estimated to be anything between 100-1000. 119 personnel of the Israel Defence forces and 43 Israeli civilians were also killed in the conflict.
As part of this campaign, Hezbollah losses were played down while disproportionate use of force by Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) unleashing civilian deaths and wanton destruction of Lebanese infrastructure was played up in the global and regional media. To rub salt into the wounds, Hezbollah successfully projected itself as the first Arab state or non-state actor in a very long time to have got the better of Israel.
There was a cataclysmic effect on Israeli domestic opinion as well because it had not been adequately primed for the moral and military objectives of the war. Thus, when Israel could not achieve the political and military aims it had set for itself i.e. to destroy the Hezbollah and eliminate its capability of launching rockets and missiles into Israel, there was scathing criticism of the Israeli political and military leaderships by domestic opinion, as well.
The Hezbollah psychological operations were aimed at projecting itself as representative of the larger Arab-Muslim community in its battle against Israeli-US domination, highlighting human rights violation by the IDF.
The methods used were specific and ingenious. Al Manar TV channel was used extensively to deliver Hezbollah messages; packets containing various Hezbollah propaganda slogans and questionnaires were distributed with the aim of carrying out subtle indoctrination of Lebanese people, especially children; it also contained a request for donation and an envelope to be used to send the contributions. Lebanese and Arab newspapers featured photographs of civilians sweeping up Israeli propaganda leaflets and citizens burning them in public. At war’s end, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah enlisted advertising agencies to help spread the Hezbollah message. Part of its strategy was a $100,000 advertising blitz called ‘Divine Victory’, featuring more than 600 billboards around Beirut and Southern Lebanon propagating Hezbollah’s exploits.
Hamas takes the cue
Four years later it was Hamas’s turn to smile at Israel’s ‘Flotilla’ embarrassment. Israeli navy attacked the international aid convoy flotilla that was headed to Gaza in international waters with live ammunition and gas bombs, killing nine activists and injuring dozen others in the action which evoked vast international official and popular condemnation.
Hamas employed ‘perception management’ tactics to the hilt generating speculation on whether or not it was a well crafted Hamas strategy to provoke a predictable Israeli response – If the flotilla went through it would have provided succour to the Palestenian inhabitants in Gaza. When it did not, it brought international opprobrium, besides creating a wedge in Israeli-Turkey friendship. Succumbing to international pressure, Israel has ordered an inquiry into the incident with two international members including a Nobel Peace laureate on board. Turkey has called for an exclusive international inquiry. Israel has now reportedly agreed to ease sanctions.
The LeT and lessons for India
Closer home, this is what LeT achieved internationally on the psychological plane on 26/11: conveying message about a weak state and police weaknesses in preventing and investigating terrorism, as also the state’s inability to manage its own security forces, effectively. The 60-hour siege attracted huge media attention and managed to bring Kashmir back into centre stage. Besides, India seriously contemplated a retaliatory strike against terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan. Should there be a repeat of such strikes in the future, India will need to study lessons from the Middle-East incidents.
Already, in the past year, the LeT has made significant inroads into Pakistani society by cultivating sections of media and state bureaucracy to echo sentiments close to Pakistani hearts viz the Indus water treaty, ‘nefarious’ US role in Af-Pak, and the US-India nexus in Baluchistan. Months after the Jamat-ud-dawa (JuD) publications were taken off stands, following UNSC ban on the outfit, the periodicals are back in circulation under new names, spewing anti-India hatred, striking a chord with mobilised opinion with its catch line ‘Tera Nagar, Mera Nagar, Srinagar.’ Clearly, the LeT is endeavouring to represent a larger domestic opinion to put pressure on the state apparatus in any future strikes on Indian soil. This intense perception management campaign including the one held to mark ‘Kashmir Solidarity Day’ on 4 February, this year, throughout Pakistan could well be a forerunner to another strike.
The art of perception management is the new threat in the war being waged by non-state and state- sponsored actors to achieve their endgame. Lessons for India in the present and future contexts are all but too obvious to be ignored. The popular perception that Hezbollah was the winner in 2006 has provided impetus to organisations such as LeT to follow the asymmetric path to undermine stronger powers like India. And as Pakistan reaches tipping point with the Pakistan Army seething at what the Pakistan Taliban has done to them, further attacks by non-state/state actors are only to be expected.
Rohit Singh is a Research Assistant at CLAWS
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views either of the Editorial Committee or the Centre for Land Warfare Studies).