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Deny, Deny, Deny, Then Check: Israeli Army Losing the Battle for the Truth

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Last week, foreign correspondents in Israel were invited to participate in a rather strange event, a Zoom call with Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, chief of Central Command – conducted in Hebrew.

An interpreter was on hand to deliver the officer’s message in English, but the entire situation caused some consternation. The remarks themselves did little to clear things up.

The virtual news conference was called in an effort to get ahead of international coverage of the publication of the IDF’s investigation into the fatal shooting of Shireen Abu Akleh.

After Fuchs admitted there was a high possibility that the Palestinian American journalist was shot by an Israeli soldier who mistook her for an armed Palestinian, he also cited mitigating circumstances such as the massive gunfire in the area. A reporter for the BBC was compelled to interrupt the commander and challenge that claim.

It’s quite common for foreign correspondents not to believe the IDF, but it doesn’t end there.

A survey by the Israel Democracy Institute, conducted in October 2021 and published in January, found that while the military still commands the highest level of trust from Jewish Israelis among all state institutions, that level declined to 78 percent, the lowest since 2008, from 90 percent in 2018. Haaretz returned to a few of the incidents that may have contributed to the military’s loss of credibility in recent years.

The Shireen Abu Akleh case

The most recent example is the fatal shooting May 11 of the Al Jazeera journalist while she was covering an IDF arrest raid in the Jenin refugee camp. First, even before any investigation, the military’s spokesman was quick to venture that Abu Akleh might have been hit by Palestinian gunfire.

A few hours later, the story changed: The source of the gunfire could not be determined.

But later the same day, Brig. Gen. Ran Kochav, the IDF spokesman, told Kan Bet public radio: “We proposed to the Palestinians to carry out a rapid joint investigation, and if we killed her we will take responsibility.” The Palestinians, he added, refused the offer. “The fact that they are hiding it means they have a good reason,” he said.

Many political and military officials were surprised to learn about the offer.

After a brief examination, it turned out that there wasn’t one, at least not a formal proposal for a joint investigation, so the Palestinians could not have refused it.

Two days later, on May 13, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said Abu Akleh may have been shot by a soldier, but qualified this by adding, “It can’t be determined what was the source of the gunfire that killed her.”

Senior army reserve officers who were dispatched to news studios were asked in military briefings before these interviews to mention the possibility that the fatal shots were fired by Palestinians.

CNN’s bombshell

Then CNN dropped its own bombshell on May 24. The network aired a comprehensive investigative report suggesting that Abu Akleh had been deliberately targeted by the IDF. The shock waves from the claims were felt around the world, as well as within the IDF.

At an event attended by senior officers including Chief Of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, officials from the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit argued that the CNN investigators didn’t give them an opportunity to respond to the claims.

But an internal investigation showed that the investigators had approached the unit’s foreign media department, which arranged for them to speak with a senior military official who was not directly related to the case.

This officer gave them both the findings of the IDF’s interim investigation and the transcript of remarks by the military advocate general at the annual conference of the Israel Bar Association conference, who did not address the allegations that had been raised. What the foreign media division of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit did not do was warn the heads of their organization.

No responsibility

When the scope of the snafu became clear, and with international criticism mounting, military and political officials began to convey conflicting messages through local media outlets: that the CNN investigation was completely unfounded, that terror organizations were involved and that Abu Akleh was to blame for her own death. The one thing none of them did was take responsibility.

Even now, after the release of the complete findings of the IDF investigation, according to which there is a high probability that the journalist was accidentally hit by military fire, no responsibility has been taken.

It was mentioned that she was shot during a battle in which soldiers faced massive, indiscriminate and life-threatening gunfire. The veracity of this claim, too, has been challenged.

IDF Spokesperson’s Unit: Truth is a fundamental value

In a written response to a request by Haaretz to address not only the Abu Akleh case, but also several additional incidents, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said, in part: “Before information is given to the public and the media, it is checked and verified with the commanders and all the information and means at our disposal. Public trust in the IDF and the credibility of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit are examined through surveys and studies by independent research institutions. …

“Protecting the truth is a fundamental value that guides the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit and its soldiers in their actions. … In cases where inaccuracies in information are discovered, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit makes sure to apologize and correct its reporting. These cases are thoroughly investigated to prevent their recurrence. The IDF considers public trust to be a key element in its ability to fulfill its mission and tasks. Accordingly, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit works to strengthen public trust, while preserving the truth and the public’s right to know.”

The source of the rocket

Alongside the campaign on the ground during Operation Breaking Dawn in early August, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit waged a war of words against Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. Much of it was devoted to the civilian casualties within Gaza as a result of failed rocket launches by the organization.

Whenever possible, the military rushed to show videos of rockets that faltered after they were fired and exploded within the Palestinian territory instead of in Israel. One notable example of this took place on August 6, when eight Gazan civilians were killed in the Jabalya refugee camp.

A similar incident occurred the next day, supposedly at least: Five children, the youngest just 3, died as a result of an explosion near the Al-Faluja Cemetery, east of Jabalya.

There was no video from the military, which did not immediately comment officially on the incident. But in conversations and in media briefings, military officials did not refute suggestions that a misfiring Palestinian rocket was to blame. In fact, they were aware that the Israel Air Force was operating in the area at the time and was likely responsible. About a week later, the military formally admitted responsibility.

Who’s in the tower

On May 15, 2021, the fifth day of Operation Guardian of the Walls, a 15-story office building in Gaza City collapsed. It was the result of an airstrike on what the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said housed Hamas assets. The military added that Hamas used the civilian news organizations in the tower as human shields. Among the international media outlets in the Al-Jalaa Tower were the Associated Press and Al Jazeera.

The foreign responses were quick to come, and they were harsh. U.S. officials requested evidence of Hamas operations in the building that could have justified the attack. Secretary of State Antony Blinken dismissed the Israeli intelligence and President Joe Biden gave then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu a stern talking-to.

‘100 percent certain’

Then came the IDF investigations. They determined that before the air force carried out its “door knocking procedure – a small missile strike meant to warn the building’s occupants to evacuate before an imminent airstrike – Military Intelligence did not know that the Associated Press and Al Jazeera had offices in the building. A number of defense officials tried to halt or at least delay the airstrike, but the IDF kept to its original schedule.

“We checked ourselves and confirmed 100 percent certain that there were Hamas military assets in the media building in Gaza City,” then-IDF spokesman Hidai Zilberman said. “I’d like to see what the Americans would say were a single rocket to be fired at Washington.”

His remark didn’t win Israel any points. Israel later gave the Americans the intelligence dossier, which had been revised, in a bid to justify the airstrike after the fact. The IDF did not offer a retraction or an apology, but in October Maj. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Alon, who was responsible for an IDF study on the implications of the operation for Israel’s image, has called the strike on Al-Jalaa a “PR terror attack” and an “own goal.”

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Article source: Haaretz | Yaniv Kubovich | Sep 12, 2022

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000