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IDF Public Relations Analysis

IDF Strikes Houses in Gaza Used for Military Purposes is an IDF (Israel Defense Forces) blog post. I support the IDF, but want to criticize their communication. The IDF does an amazing job militarily, in tough circumstances. I offer this criticism in friendship, hoping to help the IDF better deal with those who would do harm to Israel.
When houses are used for military purposes, they may become legitimate military targets under international law.
Talking about houses being used for military purposes is good. That's something more people should know about before condemning Israel. But this statement grants authority and legitimacy to "international law". International law is a vague concept often used to attack Israel. It's mentioned again towards the end:
The IDF will continue to conduct its operations in full accordance with international law, including by attacking only legitimate military targets, and will continue its efforts to minimize harm to Palestinian civilians.
This statement treats "international law" as a higher authority, above the IDF, which the IDF has to obey. That's a dangerous position because the international community of nations contains some irrational, unelected, unaccountable and even anti-semitic actors which the IDF should not obey. After all the ridiculous United Nations condemnation of Israel, the IDF should understand that it must not give any control over its military defense to (often hostile) international outsiders.

Many of Israel's detractors demand the IDF follow international law. What they want from the IDF is suicide. They are trying to use international law as an authority to pressure the IDF into sacrificing Israel's interests. The proper response is to deny the legitimacy of international law in general. It has no authority and the IDF should use its own moral judgment to protect Israel.

There are some international laws which are good ideas, which the IDF rightly follows. Name and explain those. But do not promote the authority of international law as a vague abstraction, and diminish the IDF's legitimacy to act independently.
On July 8, the IDF initiated Operation Protective Edge in order to restore security to Israel’s civilian population under constant rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. During the operation, the IDF has struck a number of houses throughout Gaza that were being used for military purposes.
Using the operation name reads a little like evasive corporate speak. Some people are going react like, "You mean you blew stuff up and don't want to call it that." That's bad. The IDF should be proud of what it's doing and say so more clearly! Any hesitation, evasiveness or defensiveness conveys shame over misdeeds, or suggests socially illegitimate actions that are hard to defend in public.

The phrase "restore security" is a noble goal. But it also reads as a possible euphemism referring to violence. The IDF has nothing to hide, so it should communicate accordingly: avoid euphemisms.

The second sentence is better, it's upfront about striking houses which were valid military targets. But it's still lacking pride. The IDF is making the world a better place! Say that!

The IDF is using amazing technology, and hard (and dangerous) work from brave people, to improve the world. Hamas is a blight on the world, a curse. These are not just military targets (meaning it's justified to shoot them), they are Hamas targets (meaning it's good to shoot them). The IDF is not just striking "valid" targets, it is destroying weapons caches intended to be used for hateful anti-human destruction.

Everyone should be thanking the IDF. But the IDF does not communicate as if it believes it should be thanked, and receives little thanks from non-Israelis. (But I, for one, am grateful to the IDF for the good work it does. Although I'm American and live far away, I still value IDF actions. Thank you.)

And, why start on July 8th? This fact is introduced, but not explained. July 8th wasn't chosen because of "constant rocket fire", that doesn't explain why not July 4th or 10th. And when did this constant rocket fire start? It doesn't say. How many rockets were fired before the IDF decided to take action, and why was that amount chosen? By explaining issues like these, the IDF could better persuade readers about its ability to make good decisions.

The start of the blog post also sets the tone. Leading with a date and operation name is a boring tone. Avoiding any direct references to people dying, when that's the topic, sets a tone of not speaking frankly. I know the IDF is speaking frankly, I just want them to communicate it to everyone else too.

An alternative way to introduce the issues would be to say that Israel is under violent attack by thugs who do not respect human life, people are dying, and here is what the IDF is doing about it. By presenting the issues as if the IDF is clearly in the right (which is true), and acting and speaking accordingly, the IDF will be more persuasive.
Furthermore, when an IDF commander determines that an attack is expected to cause collateral damage that would be excessive in relation to the military advantage anticipated, the attack will not be carried out.
What does this mean? How much military advantage justifies how much collateral damage? What's excessive?

The facts on the ground are the IDF bending over backwards to be humanitarian, to the point of fighting less effectively. And that lowered combat effectiveness implies more rockets fired at Israeli civilians. The context is the IDF fighting to stop Hamas from murdering Jews. Any lowering of combat effectiveness therefore, logically, puts Jews at greater risk.

(That is a truth that some people find uncomfortable. Hamas does not merely want to slaughter Israelis, it wants to kill Jews. Say this and deny the discomfort. It shouldn't be uncomfortable for the IDF, because the IDF has done nothing wrong. If even the IDF doesn't want to look at the issues this way, few other people will.)

Meanwhile, as the IDF does everything it can to promote human life, Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields, on purpose. They do this because they do not respect human life, they want to disrupt IDF military operations so that more people die, and they use it in (very cynical and disgusting) public relations.

Israel takes actions to protect Palestinians and Hamas takes actions to get them killed.

This is a good-and-evil conflict with clear facts. The IDF has done nothing wrong and should be proudly explaining how moral it is (and how evil Hamas is, but that's secondary to the IDF being good). The IDF should not be making any vague, defensive comments about avoiding "excessive" "collateral damage" (which is a euphemism for dead Palestinians who aren't the intended target the IDF wanted to kill).

The IDF should not minimize offense to people who don't like the IDF and cannot be pleased by any reasonable IDF actions or communications. Don't let opponents have any control over how the IDF presents issues. Instead, explain issues clearly and objectively (even though the IDF's enemies will complain). Do not leave out any moral facts just because opponents don't want to hear them.

If the IDF won't clearly state the moral facts and assert its own virtue, who can be expected to? If even the IDF doesn't consider itself 100% pure good – and have the confidence to look people in the eyes and say it with a straight face – then no wonder the IDF's detractors think they have legitimate complaints. Better, bolder communication can make a big difference.

In the short run, moral clarity is hard. It can get negative reactions from opponents who would have reacted somewhat more nicely if appeased. But in the long run, making the moral case for Israel is the only possible way to end the violent conflicts and fully protect Israelis (and innocent Palestinians). Until enough people are persuaded of the Israel's morality, violence will recur.

Overall, I think the IDF blog post uses too much of a factual tone, avoiding moral statements. That's bad because it's defensive and indirectly implies that the IDF doesn't want to have a moral discussion. That indirectly implies that moral discussion would go badly for the IDF, and the IDF is scared of moral discussion (because it does immoral things). That's false, so I think the IDF should adjust its communication strategy.

Hamas is immoral. Showing a video of a Hamas leader asking civilians to get on rooftops to serve as human shield is good. But if the IDF won't state the moral conclusion (that Hamas is evil), how can they expect others to understand a conclusion the IDF shies away from?

Israel is moral. Explaining how Israel protects Palestinian civilians (many of whom are not innocent bystanders) is good. But again, state the moral conclusion. Israel is virtuous and moral because it respects human life in ways Hamas does not. If the IDF won't say it, it will be difficult to persuade anyone else of it.

Trying to avoid (irrational) controversy makes things worse, not better. It partially concedes the moral high ground in the debate when people righteously condemn Israel, thinking themselves moral crusaders, and the IDF blog doesn't want to talk about what's right. If the IDF is so good, why don't they confront these issues head on? The IDF is good, and should communicate more assertively about moral issues.

The IDF blog post explains some important truths. That's great. But for IDF communications to persuade people about the key issues, it's important to directly discuss the right conclusions. (For example, that every other military in the world should wish they had the integrity of the IDF, and that Hamas is evil.) A blog post which doesn't say these things will not persuade people of them. By being defensive not proud, the IDF actually helps damaging, false narratives spread.

Elliot Temple on July 11, 2014

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