Following is the second in a series of blogposts analyzing the public relations strategies used by the terrorist group Hamas to further its ideological and political goals. The previous update, which provided an overview of the communication infrastructure of the group, can be found here.
Due to ongoing concerns that Hamas will perpetrate fresh attacks against Israel, shattering the current ceasefire, it is important to understand the motivations behind Hamas’s May rocket attacks against Israel and the propaganda strategy the group deployed to publicly justify violence that killed 10 people.
International media reported that the Sheikh Jarrah expulsions, as well as the recent clashes in Jerusalem, increased tensions and led to the outbreak of violence. Throughout the months preceding Hamas’s launching of 3,300 rockets against Israeli cities and towns, tensions in Jerusalem had indeed been high. Following clashes during the April start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Israeli security forces had erected barriers at the Damascus Gate at the entrance of the old city of Jerusalem to prevent further violence. Following clashes between Israeli authorities and Palestinians in and around Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the barriers were removed at the end of April. Despite Israel’s easing of restrictions, Palestinian and Hamas-controlled media outlets continued to stoke tensions over an impending Israeli court ruling that could have resulted in the eviction of Palestinian families from the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem. Finally, the Palestinian National Authority planned to hold the first legislative elections in the West Bank since 2006 this May. However, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas decided to postpone them indefinitely on April 29 over alleged Israeli restrictions on voting in East Jerusalem. Analysts, however, attributed Abbas’s decision to fears of Hamas victories at the voting booth.
Public relations play a vital role in today’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In particular, Hamas exploits several propaganda strategies in an effort to further its agenda, gain international support, and deflect responsibility for initiating violence. In many respects, Hamas’s statements prior to launching rocket attacks against Israel incorporated references to grievances the group hoped to exploit to its advantage.
For example, Abu Obeida, the spokesman for the al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, claimed that Hamas’s rocket attacks were “in retaliation” for the attacks against Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah and Al-Aqsa Mosque. Similarly, Ismail Haniyeh, the senior political leader of Hamas, threatened Israel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu several times on May 8 in official statements. These threats were reiterated by Mohammed Deif, the chief of staff of the Qassam Brigades on May 5 and by Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesperson, on May 10, the day Hamas first fired rockets. Likewise, Hamas-affiliated Shehab News warned of more tensions three separate times between May 7 and May 12. However, neither Haniyeh, other Hamas members, nor Shehab News mentioned tensions at Al-Aqsa prior to the days leading up to the rocket attacks. In fact, Shehab News last mentioned Al-Aqsa in January of 2019. In the same fashion, the eviction of Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah was frequently mentioned in the days leading up to the rocket attacks, as well as during the attacks, but not before, despite the fact that the court case has been ongoing for years. Deif released a series of statements and threats—five to be exact—on May 5 regarding Sheikh Jarrah. On Twitter, Haniyeh used “#SaveSheikhJarrah” 17 times during the 11-day period of the Hamas rocket attacks. He had never used the hashtag prior to that point, although “the 13 Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah have been fighting efforts by settlers to evict them since 2008 in Israeli courts.”
In the days prior to and during the 11-day violence, Hamas shifted its focus from topics such as the planned Palestinian elections to direct tensions with Israel in order to frame its attacks as necessary and justified. Throughout April, Hamas released many statements regarding the upcoming Palestinian election, but on April 30, Hamas claimed “it already knew that Fatah and the PA were planning to announce cancelling the Palestinian elections under other grounds that has nothing to do with Jerusalem.” Soon after, Hamas shifted its rhetorical focus towards Al-Aqsa and Sheikh Jarrah. Paralleling this strategic shift, Hamas propaganda began to highlight ongoing and past “offenses” by Israel. Shehab News reported rocket attacks by Israel on Syria on May 5. This shift is interesting since Israeli airstrikes had been ongoing and in the past had been afforded little attention in Hamas propaganda, despite the Syrian regime’s close connection to Hamas. Similarly, Shehab News also readdressed the previous capture of Palestinian soldiers by Israelis in Gaza, stating that “they have been screaming for years.” Again, this was the first time in years that this topic was raised in Hamas’s communications channels. Similarly, Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas, mentioned the alleged “Israeli siege imposed on Gaza” as a cause for the outbreak of violence, despite the fact that Israeli security measures in Gaza were decades old.
Shifts in the issues at the center of Hamas’s public communications demonstrate how the group skillfully exploited seemingly unconnected incidents to build a victimization narrative, allowing it to justify the subsequent use of violence against Israeli civilians to its supporters and sympathizers and to couch its actions within its wider anti-Israel agenda. Indeed, Haniyeh stated on May 21, shortly after the outbreak of violence, that “the resistance has a national cause, which is the liberation of Palestine.”
It is clear that Hamas wields public relations as strategically as it does physical weaponry. The analysis of Hamas’s most recent “public relations battle” shows the deeply manipulative nature of its propaganda communication. As Shehab News stated on April 30, after the tensions in Jerusalem and Sheik Jarrah, Hamas “achieved a strategic victory,” which gave it cover to justify its premeditated attack on Israel.