Wooing Lebanese hearts, one leaflet at a time

Israel is using leaflets and even e-mails to try to turn Lebanese against Hizbullah, but experts doubt that it will work.

Many of the remaining residents of southern Lebanon's war-torn towns are accustomed to the hollow thump of an explosion in the sky followed by hundreds of leaflets fluttering to streets like confetti.

They typically tell residents to leave before the bombs fall – an Israeli effort to avoid civilian casualties such as Sunday's killing of at least 65 in Qana. Head north of the Litani River "because of the terrorist activities that have been carried out against the State of Israel," they warn.

But other fliers fluttering down over Lebanon aim to foster Lebanese anger at Hizbullah, a much more ambitious effort than evacuating the country's Shiite south. Those depict Hassan Nasrallah as a cobra or show the Hizbullah chief cowering behind a shield bearing a picture of a Lebanese family.

Known as a "propaganda bomb" or by its slightly more euphemistic term, "airborne propaganda distribution," the technique of trying to sway civilians or combatants by flooding them with fliers has been around since World War II.

But today, what military-types dub psy-ops – or psychological operations – is also encompassing the technological advance of communication. Many Lebanese say they've been getting e-mails, text messages, and phone calls from Israel. One phone message said that Nasrallah had been badly wounded in an Israeli strike. Another claimed that people paid by Hizbullah were worried that they would no longer receive their monthly salaries.

But given the deep mistrust of Israel in Lebanon, many here and abroad wonder whether Israel is making an impact – be it in persuading the vulnerable to move or in winning hearts and minds in the campaign to discredit Hizbullah.

'Hello, this is the Israeli Army'

Hassan Dbouk, who works with the Tyre, Lebanon, municipality, says he received a phone call and heard a voice say, "This is the Israeli Army. We are about to increase our military operations in south Lebanon, and you are advised to leave immediately to north of the Litani." But Mr. Dbouk stayed.

"I think it's not very helpful, because the idea that the public will somehow exercise pressure on Hizbullah is baseless," says Moshe Maoz, an expert on Lebanon and Syria at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "If we saw Israel just [striking at] the Hizbullah positions, fine," he says. But when civilians and civilian infrastructure are hit, "the public doesn't blame the Hizbullah for it – they simply hate Israel more."

Israeli officials say the leafleting does have an effect. First, argues Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mark Regev, it gets civilians to move away from the fighting. Second, he says, it sends a political message.

"Ultimately, our enemy is Hizbullah. Our enemy is not the Lebanese people," Mr. Regev says. "Hizbullah is not just holding two Israeli servicepeople hostage. Hizbullah is holding the Lebanese people hostage."

The Israeli Army has declined to comment on its propaganda drops and would not confirm that the picture of Nasrallah as a snake, dropped over Lebanon earlier in the three-week-old conflict, was its own. However, the Israeli Defense Forces provided the Monitor with several other examples of fliers that have been dropped over Lebanon and says such activities are continuing. One illustrates Lebanese names on tombstones, and throws doubt on Nasrallah comments about Hizbullah not suffering many losses. "He will continue to deceive you!" it reads.

Military analyst Nate Hughes says few Lebanese appear persuaded.

"I honestly don't think they can destroy Nasrallah's support that way," says Mr. Hughes, an expert at Stratfor, a strategic consulting firm in Austin, Texas.

"Most people are going to pick those up and keep them as souvenirs," he quips. "Dear Lebanon, Nasrallah is bad for you. Sincerely, Israel."

He leaves open the possibility, however, that some Lebanese, disenchanted with Hizbullah, could be inspired by the messages. "Maybe if you plant a seed of doubt, you can get someone to be recruited for the intelligence services," adds Hughes. "Israel would love to drive a wedge between the population and Hizbullah."

The wrong focus?

Jerrold Post, a professor of political psychology at George Washington University in Washington, surmises that Israel's focus in its psychological operations should not be on changing the already well-formed inclinations of Hizbullah's core supporters. Rather, it should focus on dissuading young men from joining.

"What's really necessary is a ... program to inhibit potential recruits from joining, to [delegitimize] the group and its leader," he says.

The very term "psy-ops" carries a somewhat sinister ring, or at the least, conjures up Cold War-era images of cloak-and-dagger behavior. Yet many military analysts say it has often been a very useful tool in decreasing numbers of both civilians and combat casualties.

For example, Dr. Post says, during the first Gulf War in 1991, the US military carpeted Iraqi soldiers with fliers urging them not to fight; the tactic was credited with helping the US to beat the Iraqi Army with unexpected alacrity.

Paul Beaver, a London-based defense analyst, says that dropping fliers is meant as a gesture as much as it is a persuasion tactic. At times, it might even be done to improve the image of the Israeli Army's operations in Lebanon. "They're basically saying, 'Here we are, we are good guys, we're doing everything you would want to avoid hurting anyone,' " he says.

Correspondent Nicholas Blanford contributed reporting from Tyre, Lebanon.

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