Half-truths and double-talk

The IDF spokesman’s credibility hit an all-time low after the house demolitions in Rafah. This time, the incredulity extended well beyond the usual circle of skeptics comprised of Palestinians, foreign journalists, human rights organizations and inveterate leftists. “I was there,” says Hanne Foighel, a reporter for the Danish newspaper Politiken. “I talked to a young man who tried to get his grandmother’s medicines out of one of the houses. And then I’m supposed to believe the IDF spokesman when he says the houses were empty?” Shulamit Aloni seconds the thought: “Lately, I’ve been having a hard time believing the IDF spokesman. He’s not credible. When he says that all the houses in Rafah were empty, and on television I see women searching through the rubble for their clothes, how am I supposed to believe him and military reporters like Roni Daniel? I believe the pictures and the foreign reporters.”

On Thursday night, January 10, the IDF destroyed houses in Rafah, and the IDF spokesman’s statement was designed to hide more than it revealed. “Tonight, an IDF force carried out an engineering operation on the Israel-Egypt border near Rafah, during which a number of buildings that served as shelter for people shooting at the IDF forces operating in the area were discovered. There was also suspicion that these buildings served as a cover for tunnels used to smuggle arms from Egypt to the Palestinian Authority.”

On Saturday, Major General Doron Almog, chief of Southern Command, started the Rashomon-like ball rolling when, during an interview on the television program “Meet the Press,” he said that the houses that were demolished had been abandoned for the last three months. The next day, the prime minister qualified this, saying that “Most of the houses were abandoned.” That same Sunday, IDF officers told Ha’aretz military correspondent Amos Harel that some of the houses were inhabited, but Brigadier General Yisrael Ziv, the IDF commander in the Gaza Strip, still maintained that they were all abandoned. Soldiers who took part in the demolitions told Ma’ariv: “There was no one there.” On Wednesday morning, military officials were saying that some of the buildings had been inhabited. According to the report of the IDF’s Southern Brigade, which was released that afternoon, the houses were empty. Throughout the week, reports of testimony from Palestinians who lived in the demolished houses were publicized in Israel and abroad.

There were also conflicting reports concerning the number of houses that had been demolished. The IDF spokesman’s statement mentioned “a number of houses.” On Friday, military officials said that 14 houses had been destroyed. Major General Almog spoke about 21 houses. A United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) report put the number of demolished houses at 58, and said that most of them had been inhabited. The Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group claimed that 59 houses had been destroyed. The B’Tselem organization found 60 demolished houses and 112 families made homeless.

“As a rule, we do not believe the IDF spokesman,” says Foighel, the Danish journalist. “He gives us the truth that someone wants us to accept. In September, there was an incident in Gaza. The UNRWA commissioner, Peter Hanson, was stopped at an IDF checkpoint. A tank pointed its gun at him and the soldiers threatened to shoot him. In his statement, the IDF spokesman made no mention of the tank. He said that an UNRWA convoy approached the checkpoint without reporting as necessary. They don’t know how to do their job and then they call us liars.”

“I was in Rafah,” says Swiss journalist Pierre Heumann of Die Weltwoche. “I talked to people who lived in the houses. Either they’re superb actors or they were telling the truth, but why would you find a container of cheese and a child’s toy among the rubble if no one was living there? Even if I hadn’t been there, I would have realized that the Israeli side wanted to hide something, because of the multiple Israeli versions of the story.”

Many journalists had a similar feeling on November 22, 2001, after five children were killed in Khan Yunis when an explosive device placed there by IDF forces went off. The IDF spokesman’s initial response was that “an investigation conducted by the IDF in the wake of Palestinian claims about casualties in Khan Yunis as a result of IDF fire found that no arms of any kind were fired at the time of the incident.” When asked by military reporters if the children had been killed by a bomb or mine that the IDF placed there, the IDF spokesman replied: “The IDF is not addressing the matter.”

On November 25, the IDF spokesman expressed condolences for the children’s deaths in a statement that seemed to place some responsibility for the explosion on the victims: “The possibility arises that the children were killed as a result of tampering with an explosive charge that an IDF force placed at the sandbag post that was used for terrorist activity against Israeli forces.”

Only on December 19, nearly a month after the explosion, when public interest in the deaths of the five children had faded, did the IDF spokesman admit that there had been a “mishap” that was caused “by a combination of professional errors, errors of judgment and inattention. The explosive device was not well concealed, which made it possible for the children to discover it. The officers involved did not recognize the risk ahead of time, from the moment the children arrived at the hill.”

“I just read the last report on the incident in Khan Yunis today,” says MK Ran Cohen (Meretz), a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, “and it appears that, from the moment the explosion occurred, the IDF knew that it was from a device planted by the army. Yet it still provided incorrect information. This is what causes the IDF spokesman’s credibility to plummet. Here’s a more recent example. The pictures from the scene of the attack in which four soldiers were killed near Kerem Shalom show a pathetic little dirt mound and some tarpaulin tents that are called an outpost, and weapons stuck in puddles of water and mud. Anyone who sees this understands that there was irresponsibility and neglect here on the part of the army. But you don’t hear a word about that from the IDF spokesman.”

Middle Eastern norms

On May 20, 2001, an IDF force fired three tank shells at the Al-Bireh home of Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian Preventive Security chief in the West Bank. Five guards were wounded, the guard post was destroyed and the house was damaged. The army claimed that only light weapons had been fired; only after the pictures proved the opposite did former military officials confirm that tanks had shelled the house. The IDF spokesman said that the army had no intention of harming Rajoub. Military sources said that the force that fired on the house did not know that it belonged to Rajoub. Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer was adamant: “I cannot imagine that any IDF commander would think of firing at Jibril Rajoub and his home.”

In an interview on Army Radio the next day, Lieutenant Colonel Erez Weiner, the commander of the force that had done the shelling, revealed that he knew exactly what he was shooting at. “Our forces came under fire from a number of locations, and one of them was Jibril Rajoub’s house,” he said. “Of course we knew (whose house it was). This wasn’t a new position for us.” The next day, military sources told Ha’aretz that Lieutenant Colonel Weiner’s statement was “an error.”

It wasn’t the first time that IDF Spokesman Ron Kitrey had issued false statements, covered up for army blunders, given the media conflicting versions of events or denied the occurrence of violent incidents. After various incidents, including the kidnapping of the three Israeli soldiers, the deaths of the five children in Khan Yunis and the death of the Palestinian boy Mohammed al-Dura at the start of this intifada, the army had several different versions of events that were relayed in different ways - in the IDF spokesman’s statements, by anonymous military sources and by officers dispatched to the media by the IDF spokesman.

Various organizations, such as Journalists Without Borders, Physicians for Human Rights and B’Tselem documented dozens of incidents, all denied by the army, in which people were wounded. Six months ago, an IDF officer appeared before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and misled its members by giving inaccurate information.

“The IDF spokesman has zero credibility. His credibility is lower than it’s ever been, and it wasn’t that high before,” says Uzi Mahnaimi of Britain’s Sunday Times. “I can never tell if what they’re giving me is true or false,” he adds. “In the past, the tradition in the IDF was to give truthful reports,” says Charles Anderlin of France 2, the television channel that caught Mohammed al-Dura’s death on film. “There’s a different feeling today.”

Even the NRP-affiliated Hatzofeh newspaper doesn’t believe the IDF spokesman anymore. On August 16, 2001, the paper published a clarification in which it said that the IDF spokesman had adopted Middle Eastern norms when it came to lies. “It should be noted that the statements of the Palestinian organizations are sometimes more accurate,” the notice said.

“On more than one occasion, I’ve received false information from the IDF spokesman,” attests Israel Radio military reporter Carmela Menashe. “Only after I insist do they check again and come back with a more credible response. It happens all the time and has been going on for years. A few years ago, there were reports from the behavioral science division showing a decline in motivation among candidates for the Shin Bet. I had the story down, it was all checked out, but the IDF spokesman still tried to deny it … They just lied without batting an eye.”

So what is a responsible journalist to do? “In most cases, I can’t check it out myself because I’m not allowed to go onto the bases and talk to the soldiers,” says Menashe. “I have to rely on the IDF spokesman or on anonymous sources who call me and tell me what’s really happening.” Menashe thinks the blame should be placed on whoever is transmitting the information to the IDF spokesman. “I’ve suggested that, when he makes his announcements, he disclose who gave him the information, so that he won’t be blamed for a lack of credibility. Though anyone who’s familiar with the process knows that it’s not the spokesman who puts together the material. He asks the brigade commander or the battalion commander and gets back to me with their answers, which are not always accurate. The spokesman swallows whatever he’s fed from the field. As a result, the public believes me more than it believes the army. The army’s standing has already been [eroded] and it is eroded even further by lies.”

The mediation gap

Israel Radio and Channel One military analyst Ron Ben Yishai says, “The IDF spokesman has limited credibility. Not because the spokesman is a liar, but because his statements are based on non-credible reports from the field. I’d call it the mediation gap, or to be more precise, mediation embellishments. I’ve seen it happen myself, once when the IDF spokesman announced that an IDF force overtook an ambush and killed two terrorists. I was in the field and I knew that the terrorists tried to hit a military vehicle and were killed in a work accident.”

We’re also to blame, says a military reporter. “We press the spokesman to give us a quick answer. If we could wait a little bit, the spokesman’s responses would be more credible. On more than one occasion, I’ve heard the IDF spokesman say that the Palestinians who were killed were armed and then the next day, the army admits that they were unarmed. It’s not a lie. The guy in the tank who fired at them saw people approaching and thought, `They look suspicious.’ Then it turns out they only had a knife. The IDF spokesman didn’t lie, because that was the information he had at that moment. Had we been willing to wait a few hours, he would have reported on the knife.”

Nahman Shai, who was IDF spokesman from 1989-91, says: “The IDF spokesman is just a mediator. The key question is how to ensure that he is not used by [the officers in] the field.”

How can that be done?

“I wasted a lot of energy on that. We’re not naive. The person reporting from the field is a soldier. The IDF spokesman has to cast a critical journalistic eye on the information he is given. It’s not easy. There are dozens of incidents every day and the army cannot control the information. The Rafah episode is a good example. It was different a few years ago; if a commander in the field said there were no people there, everyone would accept it. The army was the only source of information. Now there are many more sources. There are no secrets. Everything’s out in the open.”

Channel Two military correspondent Roni Daniel still has faith in the IDF spokesman. “He’s not going to knowingly lie to me, because he knows the truth will come out. When the statements are inaccurate, it’s because he also doesn’t know the truth - like what happened in Rafah, when the army didn’t know what exactly happened there.” Their statements are believable for the most part, says Yaakov Erez, the military analyst for Ma’ariv. “I can trust them. I don’t recall any instances when they weren’t credible.”

Foreign reporters remember things differently. They’re also much less tolerant of misleading announcements. But they don’t place the blame on the officers and soldiers in the field. They’re convinced the problem derives from government policy. “I’ve covered a lot of wars. I was in Chechnya, Kosovo, Baghdad during the Gulf War and Guatemala,” says Lee Hockstader of the Washington Post. “In a war, both sides lie. There’s a cliche that says that the truth is the first casualty of war. I’ve adopted a skeptical attitude to both sides and it’s obvious to me that I have to investigate for myself and not trust either side.”

“They don’t always provide accurate information,” says Conny Mus, of Belgian and Dutch television. “A few weeks ago, we were in Ramallah when rockets were fired at the city. The IDF spokesman said nothing had happened. I held up the phone so they could hear and said, `Listen, they’re shooting here.’ It was only six hours later that we were given a credible response. I don’t believe the information from the Palestinians and I also don’t believe the IDF spokesman’s statements 100 percent. I check out each incident through the United Nations, through the diplomats who are in the field and from what we see ourselves. From all of this taken together, we get the correct information.”

Ulrich Sahm of Neue TV, the German news channel, says he’s still waiting for the IDF spokesman to confirm the outbreak of the Lebanon War. “In general, contact with them doesn’t lead anywhere. When they don’t answer questions and are evasive, it proves that they’re trying to hide something. That’s what happened to me with the Karine A story. I asked the IDF spokesman what flag the ship was sailing under. They promised me five times that they would check and in the end they said that they’d mention that at a press conference. When they didn’t, I asked the question again and they replied that it was classified a military secret. The next day, it was reported that the ship sailed under the flag of Tonga. It wasn’t a secret at all. There are no secrets in this country. When the IDF spokesman is revealed to have lied, he does himself and the country much greater damage.”

Ran Cohen: “This kind of thing hurts the army. The army’s strength derives from its credibility and its adherence to the truth. I grew up with an army for which truth was a basic part of its make-up. The power of truth is what inspires young people to be prepared to give their lives. When the citizens start to feel that the army is whitewashing the truth, the army loses its power. The army is not operating in a vacuum. When it loses its credibility, all the other positive values are affected. It takes a lot of courage to admit mistakes. It’s easier to run from them and try to fudge things, but that’s a disaster for the army.”

Conflicting reports

It happened at a June 2001 hearing of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee concerning the deaths of three women in Khan Yunis who were killed by a tank shell. An officer who appeared before the committee said that the shell was of a certain type, when it was really of another, more lethal variety. IDF Spokesman Ron Kitrey immediately came to the officer’s defense, saying that the IDF and its officers do not lie and that the report from the field had been incomplete and not reviewed sufficiently.

“I want very much to believe the IDF spokesman,” says Yossi Sarid, a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee who clashed with the IDF spokesman over the misinformation. “But unfortunately, over the last year, his credibility has plummeted, and now, when I hear him make a statement, I ask myself whether it’s correct or not. When there’s other information or when the statement doesn’t seem to make sense, I don’t believe it. We used to mock the official Egyptian reports. Now our reports are like those and it’s a big mistake. The truth comes to light very quickly, so then what have we accomplished? The truth comes out and damage is done as well.”

This is what happened regarding the kidnapping of the three soldiers on the Lebanon border on October 7, 2000. The IDF spokesman’s initial statement was brief: “This afternoon, three IDF soldiers were abducted by Hezbollah while they were engaged in operational activity by the border fence in the Har Dov area on the northern border.”

Three days later, the first report of the head of Northern Command, Gabi Ashkenazi, was publicized. It raised the question of why the soldiers were near the fence in the Har Dov sector, when that was against orders.

The next day, Brigadier General Zvi Gendelman, commander of the Ga’ash Division, which included the three abductees’ engineering battalion, held a press conference. He adhered to the army’s official line, blaming the soldiers themselves. “We have no answer to the question of why they went down to the fence in contradiction of explicit orders,” he said. The same day, Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz reinforced this perspective, when he said that the three soldiers were supposed to stop at an observation point about a kilometer from the place where they were abducted, and wait there to be joined by another force. Had these instructions been followed, the result would have been different.

These statements spawned a wave of rumors insinuating that the soldiers had gone to the fence to do a drug deal. Ron Kitrey did not deny these rumors until October 16, nine days after the kidnapping. Haim Avraham, the father of one of the three kidnapped soldiers, says bitterly: “There was an attempt by several officers to clear themselves and the IDF spokesman did not respond in real time. A whole week passed before he denied the rumors about a drug deal. Who else but the IDF spokesman could have defended our sons’ honor? And he preferred to stick his head in the sand.”

A week before the kidnapping, 12-year-old Mohammed al-Dura was killed at the Netzarim Junction, when he and his father became trapped in the crossfire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians. The child and his father tried to take cover, but they were hit. The boy was killed and his father was wounded. A camera crew from France 2 with journalist Talal Abu Rahma caught the event on film and concluded that the boy had died from Israeli fire. Charles Anderlin, the French channel’s bureau chief in Israel, requested a reaction. The IDF spokesman’s response was perfunctory and evasive: “From the morning, disturbances began that turned to shooting. Some of the events began when civilians and Palestinian police dressed in civilian clothing shot at IDF soldiers. The day’s events in the south included, among other things, shooting at the Netzarim Junction. The IDF has no interest in seeing the conflict spread. Our objective is to prevent an escalation of events, to stop the fire and to prevent bloodshed and violence.”

“I have complete faith in Talal, who has been working with us for many years,” says Anderlin. “I have no doubt that the gunfire came from the Israeli post. The IDF spokesman issued a general statement, without checking into it. I would understand if they said they were investigating the matter, but they didn’t even do that. Each side is trying to protect its own and I’m here searching for the truth, which, in the end, contributes to the side that adhered to it. Truth is the foundation of every democracy.”

The images filmed by the France 2 crew caused an uproar when they were broadcast all over the world. On October 1, the IDF spokesman issued another vague statement. “The Palestinians are making cynical use of women and children by bringing them to sites of violence in the territories. The incident began with live fire aimed at IDF forces and the throwing of explosive and incendiary devices by Palestinians at IDF forces and with hundreds of rioters charging toward IDF posts. Heavy exchanges of gunfire developed and the picture focused solely on the child and his father who were caught in the crossfire.” At the end of the statement, the IDF spokesman asserted that “the source of the gunfire could not be identified.”

On October 3, Deputy Chief of Staff Major General Moshe Ya’alon said that it appeared that the boy had been killed by Israeli fire, “though it was done by mistake.” Ya’alon’s version was backed up the following day by Major General Giora Eiland, Head of the Plans and Policy Directorate. “To the best of our understanding, the boy was hit by our fire,” he said. The IDF spokesman affirmed that what Eiland said was the army’s version of the incident, but then on November 10, he told the army magazine Bamahaneh that it was impossible to determine who had shot the boy. “Just as there are those who claim he was killed by our forces, there are those who are ready to swear that he was shot by stray Palestinian crossfire.”

Peculiar denials

The organization Physicians for Human Rights also notes a string of instances in which the IDF spokesman denied incidents that had taken place. “We bring them well-verified cases and they usually say that the claims are unfamiliar, that the soldiers say that nothing happened,” complains Tomer Feffer, the organization’s director. “Obviously, that’s what the soldiers would say, but it’s hard to understand why the IDF spokesman believes them and doesn’t launch an investigation.”

Feffer cites several examples. Three months ago, on the night of November 7, 2001, an infant named Abdullah Abu Zaida was brought by his mother to the Ramot checkpoint, on the way to Makassed Hospital. The chronically ill child was under the care of an Israeli doctor. The soldiers at the checkpoint wouldn’t let the mother and son through. She tried again in the morning and when she finally reached the hospital, the baby was in critical condition. “The IDF spokesman said that the claims were unfamiliar, even though they were very easy to check,” says Feffer.

Another instance occurred on the night of October 23, when ambulances from the Red Crescent tried to enter the village of Beit Rima after an IDF action there. “The IDF spokesman said that the ambulances were entering the village even though he knew that the village was closed and the ambulances weren’t allowed to enter,” says Feffer.

“On October 22, the IDF entered Bethlehem. We received a report from two hospitals - Holy Family and Al-Hussein in Beit Jala - that the army was firing on them. The guard at Al-Hussein was killed. With my own eyes, I saw the bloodstains, the places where the building had been hit and the bullet holes in the ambulance. At Holy Family, the neonatal ward had to be moved because of the shooting. The IDF spokesman claimed that nothing of the kind had happened and that the IDF is a humanitarian army that tries not to harm civilians.”

The B’Tselem organization has collected similar data. On July 7, 2001, a boy from Rafah named Khalil Mughrabi was killed by a tank shell while he was playing soccer. The IDF spokesman said that an unruly demonstration was taking place there and that the soldiers responded with tear gas and by firing rubber bullets. Brigadier General Baruch Mani, the southern district prosecutor, determined that the army’s statement to the press claiming that no heavy weaponry was used was incorrect.

On September 12, two wanted suspects were shot to death in the village of Arabeh. Another man and a 14-year-old girl were also killed in the operation. The IDF spokesman said that an IDF force had come under fire and that several terrorists had been killed in the ensuing exchange of gunfire. B’Tselem claims that this is a false report. “We were there. We collected testimony and verified it. A 14-year-old girl is not a terrorist,” says B’Tselem spokesman Lior Yavneh.

When he assumed the post of IDF spokesman, Ron Kitrey declared the start of an era of openness and transparency, and announced that he would distribute cameras to soldiers. But in September 2000, the IDF spokesman put out a booklet entitled “Rules for Media Appearances,” a copy of which found its way to Kol Ha’ir reporter Uri Blau. Under the heading, “Interview Dos and Don’ts,” the IDF spokesman instructs the soldier asked for an interview: “You are not obligated to say all that you know.”