Israeli Army Sets Up 'Consciousness Ops' Unit to Influence Enemy Armies, Foreign Media and Public Opinion

With eye on hearts and minds, Israeli army sets up a new 'soft power' psychological warfare unit

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A woman sits near a sign at Mount Bental, an observation post in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights that overlooks the Syrian side of the Quneitra crossing, Israel February 10, 2018. REUTERS/ Ammar Awad     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A woman sits near a sign at Mount Bental, an observation post in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights that overlooks the Syrian side of the Quneitra crossing, Israel February 10, 2018. REUTERS/ Ammar AwCredit: \ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

As the new year began, the operations branch at Israel Defense Forces Central Command cut the ribbon on a new department, called the Center for Consciousness Operations. It is a reincarnation of another division that had engaged mainly in international legitimization and legal aspects of Israeli military activity, and had been subordinate to the Planning Branch.

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The structural reform was the recommendation of Brig .Col. K, until recently a senior intelligence officer, who was appointed to study the issue. The idea was to concentrate planning all “soft” activity – with foreign armies, diplomats, the foreign press and public opinion – under one military roof. This was done as part of Israel’s effort to influence the enemy and Western opinion over Israel’s military moves on the northern front and in the territories.

At the height of the second intifada, the chief of staff at the time, Moshe Yaalon, was asked how we’d know that Israel had vanquished Palestinian suicide bombings. Yaalon answered that victory would be achieved through “cognitive etching” – Palestinian acknowledgement that the terror attacks wouldn’t drive Israel to capitulation.

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Yaalon was roundly mocked in the press but in retrospect, he was right. The terror attacks subsided mainly because both halves of the Palestinian leadership, in the Palestinian Authority and finally in Hamas, too, reached the conclusion that the price Israel was exacting from Palestinian public in response to terrorism was too high.

The incumbent chief of staff, Gadi Eizenkot, also has keen interest in the battle over consciousness. It’s even mentioned in the latest IDF strategy paper. His close friend, Col. Gabi Siboni, recently published an article about the cognitive shaping drive, through INSS. Siboni and another researcher, Gal Perl Finkel, wrote that the “IDF has intensified its cognitive-related activity recently, significantly building up process in this area and developing technological tools. Technological development enables a wide range of focused means of influence vis-à-vis various target audiences, and in effect creates another combat arena beyond the classic kinetic combat arenas,” they wrote.

“Armies and states have to contend with the enemy’s attempts to gain influence using technology and social media” rather than traditional war. Armies and states must work defensively, countering enemy efforts proactively and on the offensive plane, “in order to achieve objectives by influencing enemy target audiences, including decision makers, commanders, combatants, and domestic and world public opinion.”

The army could stand to learn from civilian PR campaigns for selling things from products to politicians, they suggest.

Of course, it’s a slippery slope, one the army already went down, and not well, under the days of Miri Regev as IDF spokeswoman. But their conclusion, that technological changes and social media require the army to contend there too, is hard to contest. The broad coverage of the recent moves in the Arab press – from IDF spokesman Ronen Manelis’ article warning Hezbollah and Iran on Arab websites, to intelligence widely disseminated in Western media – indicate that this is just the beginning.