Israeli Army Employs Popular Blogger for Psyops on Social Media

Yaniv Kubovich
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Heavy smoke and fire rise from Al-Sharouk tower as it collapses after being hit by an Israeli air strike, in Gaza City in May.
Heavy smoke and fire rise from Al-Sharouk tower as it collapses after being hit by an Israeli air strike, in Gaza City in May.Credit: AFP
Yaniv Kubovich

For at least two years, the Israeli army has been employing the  operator of a popular Telegram news channel as a consultant for psychological operations on social media. His name can’t be published, and the fact that G. is the person behind the 'Abu Ali Express' channel has been secret until now.

In recent years, Abu Ali Express has become one of Telegram’s most influential Hebrew-language channels on Arab affairs and security issues in general, and especially on Hamas and the Gaza Strip. It has 104,000 followers and gets millions of views a day.

The channel publishes exclusive stories, videos and pictures bearing the label “Abu Ali Express,” and many reporters get information from it and cite it. The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit sometimes refers journalists seeking information on events in Gaza to this channel, while insisting that the articles don’t come from any military source.

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The channel also frequently attacks prominent Israeli journalists who criticize the IDF’s policy toward Hamas, sometimes even trying to undermine their credibility and question their professionalism.

G. formerly served as a junior officer in the IDF’s Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. But when Hamas’ weekly March of Return protests and the ensuing clashes along the Gaza border began more than two years ago, he was hired as a psyops consultant by Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, who was head of Southern Command at the time and is now deputy chief of staff.

G. has continued this work under the current head of Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano. His job is to identify and analyze trends and turning points among the Palestinians, especially in Gaza.

The channel doesn’t state openly that it’s run by a paid consultant to the IDF whose job is to assist senior officers in Southern Command. The army has also never disclosed its cooperation with G.

Two years ago, for reasons that aren’t clear, the Abu Ali Express Facebook page was removed, either by Facebook or by G. It then moved to Telegram.

During the last Hamas-Israel war in May, the channel hit an all-time high of 6.7 million views per day. It posted many exclusive articles during the fighting, which were then cited by many media outlets.

G.’s deal with the IDF allows him to manage the channel as a private individual, which means he could reap large profits from it as its audience grows.

Abu Ali Express has been behind a number of noteworthy reports. It was the first to report that Qatari funds were entering Gaza in suitcases, as well as the fact that a Qatari envoy had visited the enclave.

Another exclusive article, which it said was based on sources in the Hamas Interior Ministry in Gaza, asserted that “Hamas is once again sending teenagers and children to the front lines of the conflict while making sure that senior officials stay back so they won’t be hurt.”

A year ago, it announced that it would reveal “the brain behind the fires that have been raging in recent months” in parts of Israel near the Gaza border. It then published pictures and videos of Abu Sahib Zakut launching an incendiary balloon at Israel and said he was the person who came up with the tactic.

Islamist Jihad militants set up explosive-laden balloons in Gaza, two months ago. Credit: MAHMUD HAMS / AFP

Abu Ali Express also publishes reports from other arenas in which the IDF operates. In July 2020, it reported that the official social media sites of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had been hacked. It sourced this report to “a group of pro-Israel hackers that gave me this exclusive item.”

Aside from the informative reports it publishes, the channel is also a platform for harsh and sometimes ad hominem criticism of journalists who don’t support the IDF’s policies. “Sometimes, perhaps without being aware of this, Israeli reporters turn into tools in the Palestinians’ hands, in the West Bank and also in Gaza,” it wrote on June 22, 2020.

One reporter Abu Ali Express has criticized harshly is Almog Boker of Channel 13 News. “Almog Boker is a much-loved reporter on the Gazan side of the divide. The Gazans really celebrate when they read his reports, and members of the ‘tire units’ derive great encouragement from his articles,” it wrote, referring to Gazans who burn tires along the border to hinder IDF operations by creating a smokescreen.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Credit: enei.ir / AP

In July 2019, after Boker published an article criticizing the army’s failure to deal with the incendiary balloons, the channel wrote, “Today, all records for media superlatives were broken. As an observer from the sidelines, it seems as if the media is deliberately repeating itself, and every reporter wants to outdo his predecessor in describing the fires. And today’s peak belongs, once again, to that man of drama, Almog Boker, the favorite reporter of Hamas’ psyops unit.”

It then added, “The article that gave the Palestinians most hope this week was the one by the Hamas psyops unit’s favorite Israeli reporter, Almog Boker.”

The channel also heaped scorn on Amir Bohbot, the Walla internet news site’s military correspondent, after he criticized what he viewed as the army’s weak response to rocket fire at southern Israel from Gaza. It published an entire post denouncing him, titled “Israeli reporters in the service of the enemy.”

“I’ve written before that Hamas adores the methods of Amir Bohbot, who has become their main propaganda organ,” it wrote. “And to show you how deep this runs and the extent to which Israeli reporters play into the other side’s hands, I’ve attached a Hamas propaganda video that was published on Gazan social networks today by media outlets identified with Hamas.

“Have you guessed who the presenter in this video is? That’s right. Amir Bohbot, Walla’s analyst! Who acts as a spokesman for them just the way they would have wanted.”

The channel had harsh criticism for journalist Nir Dvori of Channel 12 News as well, after he showed a video from Abu Ali Express during the channel’s main news magazine without crediting it.

Palestinians sit in a tent that has been set up on top of the ruins of a building destroyed in recent Israeli air strikes, in Gaza City, three months ago.Credit: MOHAMMED ABED - AFP

“How easy it is to engineer reports with juicy content, all in the name of the god of ratings,” it wrote. “Your readers expect more than this. You could move this report to the entertainment section on Mako [website]. It isn’t news.”

In May, Abu Ali Express rebuked Haaretz for publishing pictures of the children killed during the fighting in Gaza. “The Palestinians have expressed satisfaction with the fact that The New York Times also followed in Haaretz’s footsteps and published the pictures of the children killed in Gaza on its front page,” it wrote.

Nor is the channel’s criticism reserved for journalists. It has also assailed politicians, including former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. It slammed Lieberman for announcing his resignation after an incident in which an IDF special forces unit was discovered and attacked in the Gazan town of Khan Yunis.

“You really couldn’t have chosen a different moment to resign?” it asked. “Hamas presented its citizens with an impressive achievement. What was an embarrassing incident from our standpoint (Israeli special forces soldiers had been wandering around Gaza for a long time without being discovered) ultimately turned into an incident in which Hamas managed to topple a sitting defense minister.”

IDF Spokesman Ran Kochav declined to comment on the inherent problems of having G. serve as a consultant to the head of Southern Command while also running a social media channel that publishes defense content, and whose big audience may well earn him money above and beyond whatever the IDF is paying him.

What he did say was the following: “The IDF has employed G. as a consultant to Southern Command for around two years, in light of his unique expertise in various fields vital to the command’s activities in the Gaza sector, including his deep knowledge of Palestinian culture, the language and Gaza’s social media networks.

“Regarding the reporter’s question, the IDF doesn’t make use of his [G.’s] personal accounts on social media. Moreover, the Telegram page in question doesn’t receive information from the IDF to help with its articles, or at all.

“The employment contract between G. and the IDF was concluded in accordance with the regulations and legal oversight, as is accepted practice. G. was chosen for the job as a sole supplier and is employed as a consultant.”

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