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Both Sides in Battle for Hearts and Minds

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Times Staff Writer

Viewers of Hezbollah’s Al Manar television may have been surprised this week to see the image of a dead guerrilla flash on their screens. “This is the corpse of one of the members of Hezbollah’s special forces,” the accompanying text said.

“Hassan Nasrallah lies,” it continued, referring to Hezbollah’s leader. “We’re not the ones who are hiding the real numbers of our dead.”

With that, Israel returned Al Manar viewers to their regular programming.

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Not to be outdone by Israeli propagandists, Al Manar newscasters Wednesday night broadcast lists of Israeli “lies” about how many Lebanese fighters had been killed, how many Hezbollah rockets had been seized and which Lebanese villages had been captured. They also aired an image of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert bearing a Hitler-like mustache.

In a war whose casualties, terrain and objectives are increasingly unclear, the conflict in Lebanon has moved inevitably into a battle of nerves, with Israel and Hezbollah each seeking psychological advantage with every weapon available, including surreptitious television broadcasts, text messages and voice recordings.

The telephone calls start as early as 5:30 a.m., waking their Lebanese targets from a sound sleep. “We don’t want to harm you,” a recorded voice says. “We’re bombing the infrastructure so Hezbollah will have no means of firing its rockets.”

“We know you wanted to hit Israel,” said another anonymous message that Beirut resident Tilda abu Rizk got the other day. “But you have confronted a house made of steel. This is the Israel Defense Forces.”

During three recent TV broadcasts, Israel has hacked into Hezbollah’s Al Manar channel. Israel has also broadcast radio messages over Lebanese airwaves, with one warning that “Hassan sent men to fight the Israeli army, an army of steel, without preparing them. Stop listening to patriotic chants for a moment, think about it and come back to Earth.”

Hezbollah has struck back, keeping Al Manar on the air from hidden locations despite repeated Israeli airstrikes. It broadcasts Israeli news reports of public uncertainty in Israel about the war.

“They do not want their people and our own people to see the magnitude of the human, material and moral losses they suffered in this war,” Nasrallah, the Shiite Muslim cleric who heads Hezbollah, said in a broadcast Saturday. “This is part of the psychological warfare employed by the enemy. These are facts that the enemy cannot hide from its people or from us or from the entire world for a long time.”

Psychological operations are a key part of any war, but they are crucial in this conflict, where success hinges on whether Hezbollah is seen by the Lebanese public as a savior or a liability.

Israel’s punishing air campaign has been aimed not only at eroding Hezbollah’s military capability, many analysts say, but also at convincing the Lebanese public that support for the militia’s attacks against Israel is misdirected and far too costly.

Hezbollah aims to show the world that it has the resilience and public backing needed to survive in a battle with one of the best-equipped armed forces in the world.

In one of his boldest moves, Nasrallah appeared on Al Manar after a massive Israeli airstrike on his living quarters and offices. “The surprises I promised you will start now,” he said in a live broadcast. “The Israeli war vessels that inflicted damage on our infrastructure ... will burn and sink in front of you.”

Within minutes, an Israeli warship off the Lebanese coast was struck by a missile.

“Psychological warfare has been going on since day one,” said Charles Harb, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at the American University of Beirut. “All of the pressure for the U.N. to leave the country, the rush that was happening in terms of evacuation from south Lebanon, this is all a part of psychological warfare.

“Israelis have been calling, leaving messages. ‘This is the state of Israel. Hezbollah is your enemy. If you stay away from Hezbollah people, you will be safe.’ ”

The friendly sounding phone calls and text messages, Harb said, are a classic psychological ploy.

The aim is to make it look as if Hezbollah, and Shiite Muslim refugees in general, is an “out group,” he said, while making recipients of the phone calls feel that they are part of the “in group” allied with the government against them.

The hitch, he said, is that the rising number of civilian casualties, and especially the attack in Qana, Lebanon, that left dozens dead, many of them children, had the opposite effect, leaving a large number of Lebanese feeling like the “out group.”

Israeli psychologist Irwin Mansdorf, writing this week in the Jerusalem Post, said Hezbollah had engaged in psychological warfare of its own by firing small rockets into Israel whose aim is in large part to undermine public support for the conflict.

But the calculation has been off the mark, he said.

“Israelis, having endured some very intense years of home-front violence, seem no longer to be the same people that shook and cowed in fear at Saddam’s Scuds in 1991,” Mansdorf wrote. “Israelis appear to have been inoculated against the fear of terror, and have developed psychological antibodies to repel the emotional impact of Hezbollah’s missiles.”

Ibrahim Farhat, public relations director at Al Manar, said the Israelis had succeeded in creating static and other signal interruptions “at least 10 times” on TV broadcasts since the start of the war and had managed to broadcast their own images for a few minutes on three occasions.

The Israeli newspaper Maariv reported that the Israel Defense Forces had confirmed that the hacking was the work of the army’s intelligence corps. It said the surprise images were aired only in Lebanon and not on Al Manar’s satellite broadcasts.

Al Manar weighed in Wednesday with shots of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and images of President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as well as Olmert with the offensive mustache.

“Oh, coward,” intones a deep, slow and thunderous voice, “you will never protect the settlements.”

Times special correspondent Maha al-Azar in Beirut contributed to this report.


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