My Word: The theater of terror

The psychological war was evident during the staggered release of hostages a week ago.

 Maya Regev was released from Hamas captivity, while her brother remains a hostage. (photo credit: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE)
Maya Regev was released from Hamas captivity, while her brother remains a hostage.

Hamas terrorists in Gaza launched two wars on Israel on October 7: There was the physical attack whose immediate results were painfully evident in the high cost of casualties – some 1,200 people brutally murdered, thousands wounded, and more than 220 abducted. The ongoing rocket barrages on Israel and the attacks on IDF soldiers bravely fighting on the ground are part of that physical war. But there is another war – the psychological one. And here, too, Hamas is playing dirty.

The psychological war was evident during the staggered release of hostages a week ago. The event turned into a sort of perverse reality show. Hamas had the captives, and we became the audience. It was very hard to ignore. After all, we had been following the fate of the abducted since that terrible Saturday. We all feel that we know them. In many cases, their names, faces, and stories are more familiar than those of the people who were massacred on October 7.

And we can’t help but worry about them. The atrocities perpetrated by Hamas in the surprise attack were so awful – the rape, torture, beheadings, and burning to death of victims, from babies to the elderly – that we quickly realized that the ISIS-like terrorists were capable of unfathomable evil.

In many ways, the not knowing was part of the ongoing psychological torture. Hamas (and its partner in crime Islamic Jihad) played on the fact that Israelis would pay a high price to know that a hostage had been released from the ongoing horror in captivity. When US State Department Spokesman Matthew Miller this week raised the possibility that the remaining women haven’t been released because Hamas doesn’t want them to tell of the rape and abuse they have suffered, he was voicing a fear that many harbor.

The psychological element plays a fundamental role in Hamas’s terror war. The chosen date for the initial invasion – 50 years after the Yom Kippur War – is a reminder for Israelis of when they felt at their most vulnerable. Hamas aimed at destroying Israel’s sense of security, and sad to say, it scored a victory in that field.

 Mia Shem, 21, reunites with her family following her release after being held hostage by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, Israel (credit: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE)
Mia Shem, 21, reunites with her family following her release after being held hostage by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, Israel (credit: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE)

The way that the terrorists filmed themselves carrying out their acts of barbarity can also be seen as part of the psychological war. ISIS acted in a similar manner. The point of these movies is not only to record the terrorists’ “successes” – it is to instill fear and reduce resistance.

Every part of the Hamas attack has been carefully staged, from the murders and kidnappings on that first terrible day, to the publication of videos of the captives in Gaza, and in the way some 105 hostages were released. 

The videos were turned into an implement of torture. One minute there was evidence that 19-year-old Noa Marciano was alive, the next it was clear she had been murdered in captivity, the subject of a Hamas snuff movie. One day, the elderly Hanna Katzir is seen in a clip – alive, if not well; then it is announced that she had died in Islamic Jihad captivity; yet days later she was among the first hostages to be released.

Hamas thrives on cruelty

THE UNCERTAINTY is cruel and Hamas thrives on cruelty. That’s why as I write these lines, it is still not possible to ascertain what has happened to “The Gingies,” as Israelis fondly call the Bibas baby and toddler – Kfir, now 10 months old, and four-year-old Ariel, last seen sucking on a pacifier as his panicked mother Shiri clutched them both close as they are snatched from their home. 

The fear distorting Shiri’s face, and the remarkable red hair of her young children, have become an emblem of the hostages. Last week, Hamas terrorists reportedly filmed themselves telling the captive father and husband, Yarden Bibas, that his family was dead. Who would do such a thing? Hamas, that’s who.

The Israeli media took the unusual but responsible step of refusing to play along with Hamas’s intentions in publishing its videos. Although the main news companies broadcast screenshots and part of the contents, they refrained from giving Hamas its ultimate wish of sowing more fear (and dissent) through these clips.

But no news outlet could resist showing the theatrical release of hostages, even knowing that it was part of Hamas’s psychological arsenal. For a start, there was the daily guessing game of who would be let go. 

Although the agreement mediated with Qatari help called for women and children to be released, without breaking up families, even here Hamas tried to play more mind games: releasing first a daughter without her mother – claiming the mother was “lost” and had been located only later; a sister released one day and a brother on another.

This carried on until Hamas decided to break off the deal altogether and resumed rocket fire on Israel last Friday morning. I guess only Israel was expected to abide by the rules in the first place.

Hamas terrorists – sometimes together with Islamic Jihad – played a new card in the hostage release. Although it’s hard to present a humane face while wearing a full black mask and carrying a Kalashnikov, suddenly the terrorists wanted us – the public – to think of them as gracious hosts. A hand extended ostensibly in aid; a bottle of water given as a parting gift; a wave goodbye. It was a sinister charade.

My full admiration goes to Rimon Kirsht who refused to play by their rules, staring her former captor straight in the eyes of his masked face before walking away with tremendous dignity. If looks could kill, we wouldn’t need soldiers to knock out the terrorists; we could just summon our inner Rimon. 

Loved ones in captivity

MANY OF the released hostages still have a loved one in captivity. They might be home, but they’re not entirely free. None of us are. Every political, diplomatic, and military step presents terrible dilemmas: How to best protect the hostages, the soldiers, and the country as a whole? And at what cost, both immediate and in the future?

“Psychological warfare aims to knock the enemy off balance,” says Dr. Ron Schleifer, of Ariel University, who has literally written the book (or two) on psychological warfare. 

“Psychological warfare uses the enemy’s weak spot against him,” he declares. 

How do you combat it? “First of all, being aware of psychological warfare is an essential part of the battle. To understand that it’s aimed at eroding Israeli cohesion and legitimacy. With everything you see, read, or hear, you always need to seek the vested interest behind it,” he says.

The challenges are more numerous and greater in the age of social media, he notes.

The releases, with their attempt at presenting a more human touch, were aimed at neutralizing the bad impression given from the events of October 7, and the way the people were abducted in the first place, says Schleifer. “It is also aimed at reducing our desire to fight, by making the enemy seem not as bad as we thought.”

Hamas uses standard public relations tactics, says Schleifer, but the stakes here are much higher because it involves human lives.

“Israelis want information on the captives, to know whether they’re alive or dead. If they’re alive, then Israel wants to know what condition they’re in. After that, people want to know how to gain the captives’ release,” says Schleifer. 

“Together, these factors can harm the physical war as they introduce elements that can affect the support for the continued fight, the war’s end-goals, and the way it is conducted.”

The terrorist organizations are well aware of Israel’s weak spot – our sense of collectiveness, connectedness, and family. But this, too, is our strength: our belief that “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la’zeh,” “All the People of Israel are responsible one for another.”

I’m happy to be on the side that worries about people we’ve never met, rather than the dark side that films itself committing atrocities.

Remember, when it comes to global jihad, all the world’s a stage for its theater of terror. Beware of the mind games terrorists play.