One week after the start of “Operation Brother’s Keeper,” the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit arranged an opportunity for the Israeli press just in time for the newspapers’ weekend editions: an opportunity to report from the front lines. Journalists were invited to join military units operating in the Palestinian Authority and to cover the operation to eliminate Hamas infrastructure and the search for the three kidnapped Israelis from up close.
This system, embedded journalism, was the in the past the subject of criticism when the American army made wide use of it during its invasion of Iraq in 2003. The American army continues to use it today in its war in Afghanistan. Coincidentally, criticism of embedded journalism resurfaced last week, just a short time after the three Israeli teens were kidnapped from a hitchhiking post in Gush Etzion, this time in an op-ed by Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning, who was responsible for leaking the WikiLeaks documents, and who was sentenced to 35 years in prison).
In the op-ed, which was published in the New York Times, Manning wrote about the negative consequences of embedded journalism. Firstly, she wrote, journalists who request to be embedded in a military unity are scrupulously vetted by military officials. Journalists who the army expects to provide “favorable” coverage are given preferential treatment. At the end of the process, those who are chosen must sign a document, according to which the army can cancel their embedding at will. “Reporters naturally fear having their access terminated, so they tend to avoid controversial reporting that could raise red flags,” Manning argues. According to her, the framework for embedding journalists often times results in flattery of senior decision makers. As a result, the American people’s access to the facts was seriously harmed.
Israeli daily Israel Hayom normally describes IDF soldiers as “our troops,” even when one of their reporters isn’t embedded with them. The separation between the newspaper and the state, between civil society and the army does not exist in its pages. Embedding “our reporters” with “our troops” is a no-brainer.
Indeed, Israel Hayom military correspondent Lilach Shoval, who spent the night between last Wednesday and Thursday with Binyamin Brigade Commander Col. Yossi Pinto, returned with an article that the IDF Spokesperson can be proud of. First she reports on the IDF’s raid at Birzeit University, near Ramallah. In a genuinely serious tone, she writes: “after a brief search, the troops find a great bounty: dozens of green Hamas flags, a Qassam rocket made of plastic, and pictures of martyrs and terrorists.”
Throughout her time with the IDF soldiers Shoval also surveyed the work of reporters who were not embedded with army units. “While [they were] loading up their bounty next to the gate at two in the morning, Palestinian reporters and photographers arrived and wanted to cover the IDF raid on the Hamas stronghold in the university,” she writes. “The troops become tense, and they prevent the journalists from entering the [area] and interfering with their operation. The others, standing to the side, object to the way the soldiers are acting, and a verbal confrontation takes place between the two sides.”
What happened to the reporters who wanted to cover a foreign army raiding and confiscating propaganda materials? How did the confrontation between the journalists and the soldiers end? Who knows, because, “at that point, Brigade Commander Pinto decided to leave the scene and take us in an “Ze’ev” armored jeep to another spot not too far from there: the village of Silwad, which was also being raided, by the Nahal Brigade’s 50th Battalion.”
A quasi-critical tone is presented at the end of the article, but even that ultimately serves the army’s public relations. Shoval witnessed soldiers raid the home of a “wanted” man while “in the next room sat a woman with a boy, two or three years old, with red eyes.” Later she writes, “it’s impossible not to be saddened when faced with such a human situation: a woman embittered and in tears, a father who is torn from his child in the middle of the night. Later the wanted man is brought outside the house on the way to a more comprehensive interrogation by the Shin Bet. His eyes are covered with a cloth, tears that cannot be stopped stream from his wife’s eyes. ‘Even though he’s wanted because of involvement in terror, it’s still difficult,’ one of the officers on the scene says, ‘and it’s good that’s what we feel. It means we’re human’.”
It’s not clear who this officer is, who is proud of the humaneness of the Israeli army. It’s probably not Lt.-Col. Yogev Barshishat, commander of the 50th battalion, who a few lines earlier promised Shoval: “the Palestinian public won’t be sleeping well until we bring [home] the kidnapped [Israelis].”
Ma’ariv published an article by Or Heller, the Channel 10 military correspondent, and Aviram Zino, who also joined Col. Pinto in the Ramallah area. They weren’t as impressed as Shoval by the confiscation of propaganda materials at Birzeit University, and a bit later, they tried to give voice not only to IDF officers, but also to the Palestinian population. The two of them got a Palestinian man to talk to them, the father of a Hamas activist serving time in Israeli prison, while IDF soldiers were conducting a search of his house.
What can you learn from someone who is interviewed by an Israeli reporter while Israeli soldiers are searching his house? What can journalism can be produced when a pistol is being aimed at the interviewee’s head? Nothing, of course. “I don’t think that the agreement between Fatah will last,” the man tells them, and the two add their commentary: “he chooses his words carefully. Choosing them, it seems, for the commanders who are watching from the side.”
Yossi Yehoshua, the military correspondent for Yedioth Ahoronoth, was embedded with the “Duvdevan” unit (“Cherry”), “the IDF’s number 1 unit in the territories,” at least according to the gloatingly proud sub-headline on his article. “We enter Hebron. We are greeted by the cold of night and by riots,” he writes. “Twenty youths are throwing stones at the troops. Border Police officers deal with it, clearing the way for Duvdevan. When the Shin Bet officers realize that the unit has reporters with it, they are horrified. Even the soldiers are compartmentalized from some of the details of the intelligence operation, which is so very sensitive.”
The Shin Bet can calm down, Yehoshua’s article doesn’t include any sensitive information. It actually doesn’t contain any information at all about the activities of troops in Hebron. Most of it is juicy propaganda meant to raise the reader’s morale, as was requested and expected of him.
Haaretz didn’t publish anything Friday morning by a reporter embedded in an army unit.