The IDF spokesman’s war on freedom of the press

Following an 1992 IDF military training debacle known as the Zeelim B scandal, an Israeli general named Uri Sagi, then serving as chief of AMAN (military intelligence), was interviewed for the domestic media. During the interview, the journalist noted that the IDF Spokesman gave a version of events that directly contradicted Sagi’s. The general, always noted for his bluntness, fired back immediately: “The IDF Spokesman lies, as usual.”

We had another demonstration of the Spokesman’s economical use of the truth on Tuesday. Our brave gunmen took over the Irene, a ship carrying nine peace activists to Gaza, in yet another attempt to break the Israeli blockade. The activists on board included Yonathan Shapira, a former IDF helicopter pilot who is now a prominent anti-war activist. The IDF Spokesman – officially, Brigadier-General Avi Benayahu – claimed the ship was captured without any violence.

Except we now have three witnesses who say that during the boarding action, while Shapira posed no risk to anyone one and was surrounded by soldiers, the commanding officer of the operation used a taser on Shapira, who was at the time hugging another activist and refusing to budge. The officer pressed the taser to Shapira’s heart – which could have killed him. We have Shapira’s testimony; we have the testimony of the British captain of the Irene, Glyn Secker; and we have the testimony of Eli Osherov, a freelance journalist for Israel’s Channel 10, who was on board (Hebrew).

According to Osherov, the gunmen were highly agitated by the presence of Shapira – whom they in all likelihood consider to be a traitor. Osherov said that prior to using the taser, the team’s commander, a captain, told Shapira “I’m going to hurt you very badly, let go of him” [i.e., the activist Shapiro was hugging]. Secker noted that the taser was used twice more after Shapira was down. This seems to indicate the taser was used as a torture instrument, which may be considered a war crime. It should be further noted that later on, when the Irene was towed to Ashdod, the IDF commandos tried to frame Shapira, and asked the prisoners if they witnessed Shapira’s violence against them. (Should anyone happen to know IDF officer in question, I’ll be glad to publish it. These people should no longer enjoy immunity).

But that was just one disturbing event during the boarding of the Irene. Another is the fact that the gunmen confiscated the camera equipment of Osehrov and of a British photographer who was also on board, and held a painstaking search for “media” (i.e., media devices). This confiscation can in no way be justified on grounds of “national security”; none of Israel’s secrets was exposed by documenting the action – only its brutality. Channel 10 said it would wait a couple of days for the return of the equipment, before turning to the courts. One hopes that this time the IDF made sure its pirates would not have the chance to loot the equipment and sell it, as they did after the Turkish flotilla, in May.

Channel 10 had to respond to the confiscation; after all, it was its own freelancer who was harmed. The rest of the Israeli press kept quiet. The freedom of the press stops at the IDF Spokesman. All the newspapers and  TV stations know that they would gain nothing by going head-to-head with the spokesman’s office. For starters, the spokesman’s office would harass them – most likely by denying them access to information that is essential to their reporting, while providing it to other media outlets.

Second, the media knows it’s much weaker than the spoksman. A media organization going head-to-head with the IDF will rapidly find itself branded and treated as an enemy of the people. Channel 10, to its credit, has been branded as such on several occasions, notably during the Second Lebanon War, when it was relatively skeptical even during the first two weeks of euphoria (all the news outlets were skeptical after that).

Haaretz felt the same burn during the Anat Kamm fiasco. Every seasoned journalist knows that if he attacks the IDF, he will have to face not just Benayahu’s henchmen, but also his own colleagues – particularly if he scoops them. A decade ago, the Military Correspondent Press Corps could condemn the IDF publicly and say the IDF exploited it (Hebrew) “for propaganda purposes and to mislead the public”; it’s very hard to conceive of something like this happening today.

There are many things the Spokesman wants to silence, and he often succeeds. For instance, even now, some four months after the Turkish flotilla, it has yet to publish all of the pictures and movies confiscated from the ship. Nor has he provided the public with its own footage of the event, except for a few choice bits. When the IDF recently returned the cameras and computers seized during that raid – minus, of course, those looted by its gunmen – it deleted the information that was recorded on them, and did not return the memory cards.

Therefore, since the Spokesman insists on hiding the truth, it leaves us with no option but to accept the report of the UN Human Rights Council, which finds that Israel murdered six of the flotilla activists, one of them an American citizen. It also finds that the Israeli gunmen tortured some of the activists. The Human Rights Watch Council is a justly notorious organization, which spends an unhealthy amount of its time on Israel, while some of its members are bona fide dictatorships. Even so, the logical assumption , when faced by such a massive attempt at coverup by the Spokesman, ought to be that he’s probably trying to conceal something much worse than he’s willing to admit. Here, as in many other cases, the efforts of hasbara amount to psychological warfare against Israeli citizens. By keeping quiet, the Israeli media collaborates with this war effort.

After the Yom Kippur war of 1973, many in the media confessed they shared some of the blame: they accepted whatever information the IDF Spokesman fed them, asked few if any questions, participated in the personality cult of the generals, and if they had any doubts, they kept them to themselves, so as not to “lower morale.” The anguish was real; many of them were genuinely ashamed of betraying their craft.

A pity this seems to require a military debacle.