Last summer, members of Hezbollah developed the habit of tweeting greetings from their posts in Syria to loved ones back in Lebanon. One combatant, his face unseen in the photo, thought it funny to address Israeli army spokesman Maj. Avichay Adraee directly by holding up a cardboard sign: “We are practicing on the Nusra Front in preparation to occupy the Galilee.”
“I thought: ‘This is nice. Should I let it be, or try something we’ve never done before: Engage the enemy himself?’ ” recalled Adraee, Israel’s iconic spokesman to Arabic-language media.
Adraee retorted on Facebook, bashing Hezbollah for attacking a field hospital that treats Syrian refugees in the Arsal region, near the border with Lebanon.
“My response, I thought, left us even,” Adraee said. “But the following day another fighter from [Hezbollah’s] Radwan Force appeared, in full fatigue, with a similar sign reading ‘When we finish with the takfiris’ ”—a pejorative term for Islamist Sunni fighters—“ ‘we’ll come for you.’ ”
At this point, Adraee and his team decided to up the ante. IDF intelligence provided him with photos of undercover Hezbollah agents positioned along the border with Israel. Adraee promptly published the images among the Syrian population, adding a warning that “these are Hezbollah men endangering you.”
The virtual back and forth between the enemy fighters and the spokesman continued up until a major IDF drill in September, known as “the Light of the Grain,” simulating an all-out war with Hezbollah. Standing on the Israeli-Lebanese border, Adraee decided to write his own cardboard message in Arabic, reading: “If you dare, we’ll surprise you.” Not two hours had passed before Hezbollah’s official accounts responded with “If you dare, we will annihilate you.” Hezbollah supporters online photoshopped Adraee’s sign to include hateful messages. Debates erupted on Lebanese TV.
For Adraee, the entire episode was much more than a social-media squabble with the enemy across the border.
“When it was all over, Hezbollah newspaper al-Akhbar published two opinion articles, one supporting and the other opposing their response to me,” he said. “One article argued that they’d fallen into my trap. The other argued that while I got my way, in the next war Hezbollah cannot rely solely on al-Manar,” the official Hezbollah TV channel, “to wage the media war with the Israelis.
“I had my answer. Social media is the new battlefield; we have to be there and be creative.”
Adraee, 35, first discovered his love for the Arabic language as a child watching old Egyptian movies on Israeli TV with his grandparents. He aced his Haifa high school Arabic exams and went on to serve as a linguist in the intelligence. Just shy of his 23rd birthday, Adraee’s commander approached him with a job opening for IDF spokesman to the Arabic media.
“I thought there was no chance I’d get it; after all, my predecessor was an experienced major and I was just a 22-year-old staff sergeant.” But Miri Regev, then the IDF spokeswoman and now culture minister, had faith in the maverick Arabist. “I received the opportunity of a lifetime,” he recalled. “The job combines my love of the media, my love of the language, and my love for the state.”
Adraee entered his position just as dramatic changes were beginning to unfold in the media world. During 2006, he would mostly give interviews to Arab television channels or newspapers surrounding major events such as the kidnapping of Corp. Gilad Shalit by Hamas in June, or the Second Lebanon War in July and August. But under his command, the Arabic desk of the IDF spokesman also established a strong presence on social media.
“The idea was to use social media not only to disseminate press releases but also to generate discourse among specific target audiences,” he said. “We are looking to influence, not just do PR.”
Since its launch on Facebook four years ago, the official IDF Arabic spokesman’s page—boasting over 1.2 million followers—uses Avichay Adraee as its brand. The same is true for Twitter, with 177,000 followers. As a result, he has become a household name across the Arab Middle East, with spoofs and parodies displaying the uniformed, eloquent Israeli on a regular basis. Along with another Arabic- speaking officer, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, today Adraee is probably the best-known Israeli in the Arab world.
‘The job combines my love of the media, my love of the language, and my love for the State.’
“When we entered the world of social media, we asked ourselves whether an Arab citizen from Syria or Jordan would ‘like’ a page called the Israel Defense Forces. We figured that would be unlikely, as would be ‘liking’ a page called the Israeli Army. My image was already well-known to Arabs from television, so we said: ‘Let’s take advantage of that fact—with its pros and cons—and brand the platform using Avichay.’ People may want to curse at me or love me, but one way or another, my persona generates emotion.”
It is hard to gauge the effect of the army’s Arabic activity on social media, but Adraee said several positive indicators cannot be denied.
“Has this persona that we use become accepted in Arab living rooms? My answer is yes.” The proof, he said, is the number of satire programs about him on television and online, which he basks in. Another long-term yardstick for success is the growing use by Arab media of the term “Israeli Defense Forces” when referring to the Israeli army.
“That term used to be unacceptable. They used to call us only “the Israeli army,” “the occupation army,” or “the enemy army.” These terms are still widely used, but for my title, they increasingly refer to me as IDF spokesman. The change is slow and small, but extremely significant.”
On Lebanon’s Independence Day, Nov. 22, Adraee and his social-media team composed a Facebook post asking followers which Lebanon they preferred to see in the future: One symbolized by the red-and-white cedar flag, or one governed by the yellow Hezbollah banner? They asked readers to react with a heart emoji to the former option, or with an angry emoji to the latter. The post reached over a million viewers and was picked up by the popular TV channel al-Jadeed and numerous local news websites.
Moreover, the Shiite Amal faction launched a social-media campaign in response, asking loyalists to use the hashtag “Avichay the liar” and share thoughts on the kind of Lebanon they would like to see.
For Adraee, such a viral post, prompting interest from mainstream media and generating political debate, is the model of successful Israel advocacy.
“We can talk all day about Arab social media, but we mustn’t abandon [mainstream] Arab media,” he said. “The media world is indeed going digital and social everywhere, but nevertheless, Arab media still shapes the public agenda. As good as a [Facebook] post may be, if it didn’t generate media buzz, it’s like it never happened.”
That understanding led Adraee to invite representatives of mainstream Arab media, including al-Jazeera, to cover the air force’s Blue Flag exercise in November, the largest in Israel’s history. The successes of Adraee and his colleagues persuaded the normally media-shy IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot to grant Saudi news portal Elaph an exclusive interview in November, delving into issues like intelligence cooperation with Saudi Arabia. The rare exposé received huge interest in Israel and across the Arab world.
“The interview on Elaph opened al-Jazeera’s news bulletins for 24 hours,” Adraee boasted.
But mainstream Arab media doesn’t always take the bait. Recently, he unsuccessfully tried to push footage of a Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance unlawfully transporting stone-throwers away from a clash scene with the IDF in the West Bank. Palestinian media took interest in the story only after the Red Crescent published a statement accusing Adraee of lying about the facts of the incident.
“This story made us wonder whether we published accurate information on the event. I still think we were right to publish. But it also showed our limitations in conveying our message to the Palestinian public. By waging the war on social media, we can bypass hostile mainstream media and reach large audiences.”
As Adraee strives to personalize the IDF and make it more likable, he leavens videos of IDF strikes and warnings to Hezbollah with less aggressive and militaristic fare, like food recipes and pop culture. His Facebook posts are often seasoned with quotes from the Quran or classic Arabic poetry. On Dec. 1, he asked his followers to weigh in on the final draw of the soccer World Cup in Russia next year. Another time he explained the history of Hanukkah ahead of candle lighting.
“To receive the levels of exposure we enjoy, we can’t just present the IDF as a powerful army prepared for war tomorrow morning. We must use many soft messages as well. These soft messages can be an emphasis of our many commonalities,” he explained. “I too watch Arab Idol, so why not share my thoughts about the show? I too follow the Champions League, so why not discuss Barcelona versus Real Madrid?”
Adraee is unabashed while treading the fine line between hardcore army issues and politics. He sees himself as an Israeli “state tool” and believes he may be more successful than his civil-servant colleagues, thanks to the military uniform he wears on media interviews. “I hold that people in uniform are considered more trustworthy by the public,” he said. “I’m not sure this is true in Europe, but in the Arab world, my nonacademic impression is that uniform exudes prestige and credibility. When Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi inaugurated the new Suez Canal he came in uniform, even though it wasn’t a military ceremony.”
Adraee also cited a common slogan frequently heard in demonstrations across the Arab world: “The army and the people are one.”
The young officer always has one eye on regional neighbors and the other on domestic politics. Israelis, he claimed, are often condescending toward Arabs, an attitude he said is not conducive to successful advocacy.
“I see them as equals. I engage my audience directly and transparently. I think they’re no different than us. By humanizing Israelis—often viewed negatively and even anti-Semitically by some Arabs—we can bring about change,” he claimed.
“Not a week goes by without at least two articles in Arab media about the dangers of the IDF messaging. That means we’re doing something right.”
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Elhanan Miller (@ElhananMiller) is a Jerusalem-based reporter specializing in the Arab world.