Operation Pillar of Defense is targeted not only at Hamas' military infrastructure, but also at changing perceptions in Israel, Gaza, and the international media. The military and media offensives blend and blur into each other, while weapons and defense systems are used for PR purposes and the battle is carried on not just in the air and on the ground but in cyberspace.

The drone as a propaganda weapon

The Israel Air Force (IAF) began developing its unmanned aircraft from the mid-1970s to counter the threat of SAM (anti-aircraft) missiles that shot down dozens of IAF jets in the Yom Kippur War. The original intention was to use them to locate the batteries and missile-launchers without risking valuable planes and air-crew.

But the changes in the threats facing the IDF and the incredible advances in the drones capabilities to carry various payloads and broadcast real-time footage, staying aloft for 24-hour cycles over ranges of hundreds of kilometers have dramatically broadened the range of missions.

The unmanned squadrons are taking part in every operational scenario, including fire-spotting on Mount Carmel and chasing after settlers trying to infiltrate into Joseph's Tomb in Nablus. (According to foreign sources in targeted assassinations in Gaza the drones not only locate the target but also launch the missile.)

The drones' capability to loiter over a hostile zone and send back clear footage has made them also a central weapon in Israel's PR arsenal. Four hours after Ahmed Jabari was killed, IDF Spokesman had already posted to YouTube the surveillance video of the Kia car passing through the streets of Gaza and taking a direct hit. The publication served a clear purpose, making it clear to the leaders of the Palestinian organizations that they are constantly being followed. Later on IDF Spokesman published footage showing Hamas men hiding Fajr missiles in civilian areas.

Broadcasting surveillance footage to justify IDF strikes is not a new tactic of course but what has changed is the speed in which the material is passed from the field, to the intelligence-gathering corps, on to the spokesman and to the Israeli and international media. In the past it took long days, now it's out in two or three hours. To speed things up, the spokesman unit set up last year a "visual war-room" responsible for collating material from the various units and rapidly preparing for media consumption. "Today it is clear to nearly all the system that the drones are a real-time PR tool" says a security source involved in the process. "You can't compare the time it used to take to authorize publication to today's speed."

Iron Dome 2.0

A year-and-a-half after entering service, it seems as if residents of southern Israel and television viewers have got used to the revolutionary capability of the Iron Dome active defense system to detect a missile launch from Gaza, track its trajectory, compute its point of impact and if needed launch an interceptor rocket in sixty seconds. It's still a system in development by Rafael and the Defense Ministry's R&D directorate which continue to upgrade while producing more batteries (no. 5 is on the way).

"Iron Dome that went into service in April 2011 is nothing like the Iron Dome of November 2012" says a defense source. The exact details are classified but the successful interceptions of the last couple of days indicate the rate of improvement. Eighteen months ago one battery was supposed to provide cover for at most a medium-sized town such as Netivot but now a battery covers the much wider urban area of Be'er Sheva. When it just came into service the system seemed incapable of tracking a salvo of more than four simultaneous incoming missiles while now it is handling salvoes of a dozen and more.

The Iron Dome batteries have been spread around Gaza since the beginning of the current escalation last weekend but the entire air-defense corps entered Operation Pillar of Defense straight from the largest-ever joint Israel-U.S. exercise, Austere Challenge which was wrapped only a few hours before Jabari's assassination. The exercise was another stage in the development of IAF's multi-layer defense setup. It focused mainly on the long-range missile threat but for the air-force this was the best possible operational preparation for a large operation, with all the detection and control systems on highest alert following a three-and-a-half week exercise. In the months before the exercise rumors appeared that the presence of American air-defense batteries would be a preparation for a possible strike in Iran – in the end the conflict was much closer to home.

Iron Dome is not only limiting damage to Israel's home front, it is also a useful propaganda tool. Inwards, it reassures the civilians down south and outwards it creates the impression for the Palestinians that most of their missile launches are a waste of time. Not bad for a weapons system that the IDF and especially the Air-Force were initially not interested in and had to be forced on the military by the Defense Ministry.

The Skyhawk's swansong

In addition to the most advanced systems, the IAF is using a bit more antiquated weapons above Gaza. One of the news agencies cameras captured an IAF fighter plane "releasing a bomb" over Gaza City. It was an A-4 Skyhawk, a combat plane that entered Israeli service 45 years ago but the "bomb" contained no explosives. These are the last days of the Skyhawk's service, it was the first American combat jet purchased for the IAF, after the French government embargoed the delivery of Mirage 5 fighters and had its baptism of fire in the War of Attrition against Egypt in 1968. Nowadays the Skyhawk is used mainly for advanced training of new fighter pilots and is no longer sent on bombing missions.

Beyond training flights, the 102nd Flying Tiger Squadron, the last to operate the Skyhawk also carries out a number of specialist missions including electronic warfare, illumination with flares and dropping leaflets over civilian areas, warning the population not to go near target areas. On these missions the planes drop hollow "bombs" that open in mid-air releasing some 17,000 leaflets each. During Operation Cast Lead four years ago, the IAF dropped some two million leaflets over Gaza.

After the longest service period of any IAF combat plane, the Skyhawk is to be retired from 2014 when the Italian M-346 advanced combat trainers arrive.

The first Twitter war

The exchange of threats between the English Twitter accounts of IDF Spokesman and Hamas' Al Qassam Brigades immediately became a world hit on the net. This isn't just the first military conflict being simultaneously waged on social media. IDF Spokesman is constantly updating its 95,200 followers (as of this evening) on every detail of the IAF attacks, along with a wealth of facts, photos and video. The updates often go up before the Spokesman unit has informed the traditional media and the popular technology site Fast Company already described Operation Pillar of Defense "The First Time A Military Campaign Goes Public Via Tweet."

Someone seems to have reined in the young wild soldiers of the IDF New Media Department after they posted last night a picture of Jabari on red background with ELIMINATED stamped over him. Today the tweets were more sober though still coming fast and furious. Someone will have to consider whether the quick reaction speed is not too twitter-happy.