January 24, 2008

Israel and Hizbollah: The Propaganda War

Abu Muqawama has been thinking a lot recently about propaganda, information operations, and the new media. Cue Nick Blanford, who has an e-article up on NOW Lebanon on the mind games going on between Israel and Hizbollah at the moment. It includes this interesting vignette from the 1990s:

In September 1997, Hezbollah fighters ambushed a 16-strong unit of elite Israeli naval commandos near the coastal village of Ansarieh, midway between Sidon and Tyre. Eleven members of the squad were killed in the ambush and another died in the rescue attempt. The ambush is cited by Hezbollah as one of its top three most successful military operations between 1982 and 2000.

Shortly after the last Israeli helicopter clattered into the distance, Hezbollah fighters and local villagers were picking up the bloody remains of Israeli soldiers killed by Hezbollah’s roadside bombs. The remains included part of the head and other body parts of Sergeant Itamar Ilya, who was blown to pieces when a bomb he was carrying detonated in the fire fight.

Negotiations brokered by German and then French intelligence resulted in a swap 10 months later in which Ilya was exchanged for 60 Lebanese detainees and the corpses of 40 resistance fighters. The sergeant’s remains were handed to the International Committee for the Red Cross in a simple cold box.

But by the time the Israeli military transport plane touched down in Tel Aviv, Ilya’s remains had been transferred to a coffin draped in the Star of David flag. His coffin was carried solemnly off the plane by Israeli soldiers and was buried. The story could have ended there. But Hezbollah had another trick up its sleeve.

Using the internet, Hezbollah began posing questions on its website addressed to the Israeli public. The first queried the findings of the two Israeli inquiries into the Ansarieh debacle, which found that there had been no intelligence breach by Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s teasing questions on its website about how it could have known the Israeli commandos were coming led to public pressure on the Israeli government to convene a third commission of inquiry.

Then Hezbollah posed questions about the body parts it had returned to Israel. Hezbollah always said that the remains included body parts from two other soldiers apart from Ilya, adding it had DNA evidence. But the Israelis had kept it quiet, creating the impression to the Israeli public that the only missing soldier from Ansarieh was Ilya and that the other 11 soldiers had been buried intact.

Hezbollah posted photographs of the body parts which included five feet. “How can one man have five feet?” taunted the website. “Your army is concealing the facts. They not only disrespect your sons when they are alive by sending them to certain death, they also disrespect them after they are dead. The bodies of your sons are incomplete and mixed up with pieces of others,” the Hezbollah website said.

The propaganda ploy sparked an uproar in Israel, as a deeply embarrassed Israeli army was forced to admit that it had opened up the graves of two soldiers killed at Ansarieh to add the new body parts.

Suddenly, families of the dead soldiers were demanding autopsies and DNA tests to check that the remains in the graves were really their relatives and not a mish-mash of separate bodies.

The Ansarieh episode was a prime example of Hezbollah’s ability to blend battlefield prowess with skilful propaganda, and underlined to Israel more than any other incident that its days occupying south Lebanon were numbered.