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Hamas’s strategy is to create a false perception of reality

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“Facts are meaningless if people don’t believe them,” says clinical psychologist Irwin J. Mansdorf.

Bennett Ruda


Irwin J. Mansdorf is a clinical psychologist and a member of the emergency division of the IDF Homefront Command. He is a senior fellow and researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He specializes in political psychology. His most recent article is “The Psychology of Palestinian Distortions and Deceptions.

Q: You specialize in political psychology. What is political psychology, and how can it help us understand and deal with the current war with Hamas and re-establishing Gaza after the war?

A: Political psychology is the application of psychological, behavioral, or cognitive theory and techniques to help us understand political phenomena better. Hamas, as the weaker military force than Israel, has been using a variety of psychological techniques to compensate for its military disadvantage. Much of their strategy is to create perceptions through distorting facts—leading to deception and a false perception of reality.

Understanding the strategy that Hamas and other Palestinian terror organizations use is important for properly evaluating their political goals in their offensive against Israel. Hopefully, it will enable neutral actors to see through the deceptive strategy of Hamas.

Q: Before discussing Israel’s image and perception today, I’d like to go back to 2008. There was a Nefesh B’Nefesh bloggers conference, and its theme was about rebranding Israel. A representative from the Foreign Ministry described Israel’s image as cold, unfriendly and militaristic. An article at the time suggested rebranding Israel’s image by emphasizing Israeli accomplishments such as water desalination, high-tech and international aid. To what degree do you think the rebranding was successful?

A: While the Foreign Ministry representative may have been right about Israel’s image, he was wrong in assuming that “rebranding” Israel through showing its accomplishments would help.

The “rebranding” effort, as is true with so many efforts by advocacy organizations, is based more on well-meaning people sitting around a table and deciding what makes sense to them rather than expending effort on conducting real, focused research to find out what really works. Informing people that Israel has nice cherry tomatoes and cool people on the beach does little to counter the Palestinian strategy of embellishing victimhood, suffering and inequity.

Showing an accomplished Israel contrasted with a suffering and downtrodden Palestinian population evokes sympathy for the Palestinians and works against Israel’s interests. In the current war, we see the Palestinian strategy in full force: images and claims of many civilian deaths, especially women and children, claims and images of food shortages, homelessness, etc. This strategy is intentional and has been used before successfully by the Palestinians, and is being used again today successfully.

Q: What could the rebranding effort have focused on instead?

A: I think the entire “rebranding” concept was oversold and was never really viable. Israel’s “cold” image is one associated with human rights violations, and touting technical achievements does not counter that.

The major focus should have been directed at dispelling the notion of oppressor and violator of human rights, although the reality and nature of Palestinian “resistance” requires an Israeli response that will inevitably be interpreted as involving human rights violations. Relevant, reality-based context is constantly missing from Palestinian narratives, so their “negative advertising” approach bears fruit.

That is something that could have been countered by presenting the reality of Palestinian culture glorifying violence towards Jews, educating to terror, paying terrorists and denying and distorting Jewish history in the land. Rolling out rebranding as a purely “look at us, we are really good” was doomed when the negative images presented by the Palestinians were so embedded in their messaging.

Q: In your article, you refer to the “cognitive war” Israel is fighting. Can you give a brief background on the roots of cognitive warfare?

A: In lay or popular terms, “cognitive war” is playing mind games with people. Once you succeed in changing how people think, you then change how people act.

So, if the Palestinians can get people—and governments—to believe that they are victims, that genocide is being conducted against them, that they have been deprived of rights and that Israel is “illegally” occupying “their” land, then public opinion and eventually government policy will move to be consistent with those claims.

Q: The initial reaction around the world to the Hamas massacre was generally supportive of Israel. That clearly has changed. How was that change accomplished?

A: As long as the atrocities of Oct. 7 were fresh in the minds of people, that was the focus. For pro-Israel people or people with strong connections to Israel, this mindset has continued unabated since that day.

But for people who are not that connected with Israel, that memory fades and is not “refreshed” because media sources stopped focusing on it. Instead, we have “fresh” images of Gaza being bombed, people being displaced, hospitals being evacuated, over and over. The reality of Oct. 7 is no longer covered as much.

Instead, it has been replaced by a daily “reality” of Gaza being destroyed, creating sympathy for what are perceived as victims.

Q: If the problem is disinformation, why is Israel losing this battle when it has the facts on its side?

A: Facts are meaningless if people don’t believe them. Pro-Israel people don’t believe the “facts” of the number of Palestinian deaths reported but pro-Palestinian (or even neutral) people do—especially if these are repeated over and over again and quoted by figures considered to be reliable.

Even U.S. President Joe Biden quoted the figures supplied by the Gaza (Hamas) Ministry of Health in his State of the Union address. That validation, by a U.S. president, is like giving a stamp of approval to the Hamas claim.

Q: You write that Palestinians distort reality “by using civilians as psychological human shields in a cognitive war.” We are familiar with the physical use of human shields by Hamas. What are psychological human shields and why do they work? 

A: A human shield hinders the opposing army’s military offensive. A psychological human shield acts the same way, by hindering the opposing side’s psychological offensive and foiling attempts at countering the false claims and contrived accusations that are lodged against them.

Q: Can you give an example?

A: For example, Israel is now facilitating humanitarian assistance in Gaza. Since that is an image that works to dispel some of the Palestinian claims of civilian suffering and famine, they create distribution scenes where people are crushed and then blame Israel for any deaths by accusing the Israel Defense Forces of opening fire intentionally and indiscriminately. The potential perception gain by Israel is then muted by another image of Palestinian suffering.

The key to countering this tactic is for Israel to take the initiative in providing and controlling as many humanitarian outlets as possible, publicizing this widely and not allowing the Palestinians opportunities to turn these into scenes of tragedy.

Q: Is it possible for Israel to fight this new perception of Israel, if not reverse it? What would the basic outline of a pro-Israel counter-narrative look like?

A: Unfortunately, this is not a “new” perception of Israel. It has been intentionally and strategically built up over the years and only went into a temporary sleep state for a short time after Oct. 7. Now that the news cycle and social media are focusing on the Gazan suffering, and doing it consistently, with new stories posted regularly, the counter-narrative is difficult to present and more difficult to accept by a public sensitized to the Palestinian plight.

Had Israel initiated humanitarian assistance on its own and provided images and plans of how that was working (like what we saw provided by Israel after disasters in places like Haiti and Turkey), the reality may have been different.

Keep in mind that there is a difference between the public support of the Palestinian narrative (which is still less in the United States than public support for Israel) and the policy that the Biden administration or government acts on. Nevertheless, for certain demographics, e.g., younger people, the Palestinian narrative is having increasing success.

Q: You write about the “primacy effect” in attitude formation. Can we take heart that it is possible to reverse it, because before 1967, Israel had the advantage and controlled the narrative? 

A: Before 1967, Israel was the underdog, the David against the Goliath of the entire Arab world. Also, the narrative in the wake of the Shoah created sympathy for the Jewish people.

With the emergence of Israel as a strong, confident and winning force, the underdog status has disappeared and the “conqueror” and “occupier” status that the Palestinians have attached to Israel has taken hold. First impressions are important and first impressions do last, but since 1967 there has been a new generation of consumers of information and for them, pre-1967 is ancient history.

That may be why we see older people generally far more supportive of Israel than younger people. For older people, the “first impression” of Israel they have been carrying for years still has an effect, but for the younger crowd, it is nonexistent.

Image: Israeli troops observe humanitarian aid deliveries from the air as part of a multinational operation, southern Gaza, Feb. 27, 2024. Credit: IDF.

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