Covering Gaza from Israel

What Israelis wanted to know about the war

During the first week of Israel’s winter military operation in Gaza, a broadcaster for ChanNel 2, which has the highest rating of Israel’s three television stations, sparked a small firestorm by expressing what was perceived as excessive sympathy for the enemy. Summarizing a report during the evening news, anchorwoman Yonit Levy said, “It’s hard to convince the world that the war is justified when we have one person dead and the Palestinian nation has 350 dead.” Channel 2 was soon inundated with letters of complaint and came under fire online, where somebody set up an Internet petition to have Levy fired. Several of Levy’s colleagues, horrified by what one called a “lynch,” came publicly to her support.

In the end the controversy was short-lived: Levy continues to anchor the Channel 2 news broadcast, which maintains its high ratings, and she remains Israel’s most popular news anchor. But the reaction to her statement is interesting as a demonstration of the solid public support—polled at more than 90 percent—for the twenty-two-day military operation, which finished with around 1,200 to 1,400 Palestinians killed and 11 Israelis, including 3 civilians. It also suggests what kind of wartime coverage the Israeli public wanted from its media.

Operation Cast Lead, the army’s computer-generated name for the military incursion, was widely perceived as a necessary war. The goal was to deter Hamas, which controls Gaza, from continuing an eight-year campaign of launching Qassam rockets at Sderot and the communities of southern Israel. Ari Shavit, a respected columnist for the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, wrote that it was a “just campaign,” and that Israelis who opposed it were “anti-Israel Israelis.”

The catalyst for the operation came in mid-December, when a shaky six-month truce collapsed and a massive barrage of rockets launched from Gaza landed in the Sderot area, which had been relatively quiet for nearly half a year. Israel launched its military response mid-morning on Saturday, December 27, with an aerial bombardment of Gaza that continued for one week, followed by a two-week ground incursion.

The day after the initial bombardment, the front pages of Israel’s three main newspapers featured banner headlines about a well-planned military operation that surprised the enemy. Haaretz, a daily broadsheet, announced, “IDF Launches Surprise Attack Against Hamas: About 100 Targets Destroyed in Largest Air Strike Since 1967.” The Six-Day War of 1967 was Israel’s greatest military success; and it, too, was launched with a surprise attack that gave Israel the winning advantage. Yedioth Aharonoth, a popular liberal tabloid that is often called Israel’s “national newspaper,” announced “Tunnels Destroyed”—referring to the underground routes used to smuggle weapons into Gaza from Egypt. The headline on the front page of Maariv, a center-right tabloid second to Yedioth in popularity, read simply, “Fighting Back.”

Ofer Shelah, a prominent Israeli journalist and political commentator who writes for Maariv, explained why Israelis felt they needed to fight back. “Israelis see themselves as being under constant existential threat from the Arab and Muslim world,” he said. “It was very easy to sell the idea that Hamas represented the southern version of the Islamist threat, rather than defining it as an isolated case of the Palestinian movement—which, while it does not recognize Israel and does believe in using terror, cannot and will not ever threaten Israel’s existence.” He continued, “I suppose it sounds strange that a country with a nuclear arsenal and a defense budget of $12 billion a year sees a small militia that only manufactures primitive rockets as an existential threat, but that’s the way it is,” he said. “And then you add the fact that the rockets have been coming in for eight years, without us being able to stop them, and you have a volatile combination.”

Few Israelis remembered that the IDF had fought back all along. More than 1,200 Gazans were killed in aerial bombardments and limited ground incursions carried out by the IDF over the three years preceding Cast Lead, while the borders were kept sealed and a siege was imposed. The media reported all the incursions and fatalities, but there was, as Shelah put it, a huge gap between what the public heard and what the public absorbed. There was also a pervasive belief that there must be a way to stop the rockets by force.

Israel’s three television channels switched to saturation coverage of Cast Lead from the first day of the operation, but there was little to report. Israeli civilians living in rocket range stayed at home, close to their reinforced rooms. The rockets launched from Gaza, while frightening and loud, caused little damage and few fatalities. Television reporters in the field struggled to find new material for their frequent live updates, with some amusing results. Once, for example, a Channel 10 reporter near Sderot found and interviewed a handsome young correspondent for MSNBC Korea who expressed unequivocally pro-Israel views in fluent, nearly unaccented Hebrew. This fascinating combination made him a temporary celebrity on the morning talk show circuit.

The real action was in Gaza, but Israeli reporters were not permitted to enter the territory until the final days of the operation, when a handful of military correspondents were chosen for a limited embed. Even the border area inside Israel was a closed military zone.

The ministry of defense also kept Gaza closed to the international media, defying a Supreme Court order to let a pool of reporters in. Prevented from covering the war first-hand, the disgruntled foreign television crews set up their cameras on a hill overlooking Gaza. Several international correspondents assigned to cover the war told me that their wartime interactions with the Government Press Office and the IDF’s senior officers led them to question Israel’s commitment to freedom of the press. Fredrik Græsvik, a correspondent for Norway’s TV2, bitterly described Israel as “a country that used to be a democracy.” New York Times bureau chief Ethan Bronner, who was also incensed at the army’s brazen defiance of the judiciary, said he was “pretty horrified” that there had not been a single editorial in the Israeli press about the moral dimension of the decision to keep the press out of Gaza.

But Israeli reporters seemed unperturbed by the limitations. They were used to covering Gaza from a distance, having been forbidden by law from entering the territory since 2006. And they understood, as the Yonit Levy incident illustrated, that the public was not interested in critical reporting about the war or in human interest stories about Palestinians in Gaza. Israelis wanted stories about the home front—about the civilians within rocket range, the soldiers called up for the ground incursion, and the worried or grieving families left behind.

Since Israel has a conscript army, there is a uniquely intimate relationship between civilians and soldiers, who are seen as the children of the collective, sent out to protect the homeland. Their deaths are treated as a national tragedy; often, the death of a soldier is given greater coverage than that of a civilian. This explains, partly, why the public was so anxious to be assured that the army was not taking excessive risks with soldiers’ lives.

Press military analysts were completely dependent on reports from the army spokesman, Brigadier-General Avi Benayahu. Alon Ben-David, chief military analyst for Channel 10 and a Middle East correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly, did not oppose the army’s decision to keep the press out of Gaza; but he acknowledged, in an interview published by the Tel Aviv weekly The City, that the army spokesman’s monopoly on information meant that, while the nature of television requires a wartime military correspondent to be seen reporting from the field, he could have covered the war from his desk in Tel Aviv. Information released by the spokesman’s office was usually reported as straight news, with little skepticism and less independent verification.

Yet the accuracy of the spokesman’s reports was challenged in several incidents involving Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

For example, during the first week, the media gave prominent coverage to an IDF report about a successful strike on a truck in Jabalya Refugee Camp that was filled with long-range Grad rockets, which are manufactured in Iran. The spokesman’s office released grainy black-and-white footage taken by a drone that showed human figures loading tube-like objects onto a truck, followed by an explosion indicating the target had been hit. But according to field workers for B’tselem, an Israeli human rights group, the truck belonged to a welder named Ahmed Samour. The “rockets” were in fact oxygen tanks; and the “Hamas terrorists” were his relatives and neighbors. Samour was subsequently interviewed by Channel 2 and his story dutifully reported, but with less prominence than the original IDF report. The military correspondents I spoke with did not recall the incident.

Another case involved a mortar landing on the street in front of United Nations Relief and Works Agency school, killing forty-two civilians who had taken shelter there and were standing just outside the gate. The Israeli media reported that Hamas gunmen had been firing from inside the school. An UNRWA spokesman’s denial was reported, but with far less prominence. Later, the IDF’s story changed: the shooting had been “near” the school. An AP report appeared to confirm that Hamas militiamen had been shooting near the school, but none of the eyewitnesses was willing to speak on the record, lest there be reprisals (Hamas militiamen frequently dispatch suspected traitors with a bullet to the head). In the absence of additional, non-Gazan, reporters on the ground, most Israelis chose to believe the IDF’s first explanation, while UNRWA’s denial made a greater impression amongst European reporters I spoke with—even though they had no way of carrying out independent verification until it was far too late.

Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin said that Israeli intelligence suspected Hamas’s leadership was hiding in a bunker located under Gaza’s Shifa Hospital. This claim was widely reported in the Israeli media, although it was impossible to verify. Both Yedioth and Maariv reported Diskin’s theory as a fact that explained why the IDF was forced to hit civilian targets in Gaza—including some small hospitals near Jabalya Camp—because that was where the militants hid. Haaretz indicated its skepticism with a cartoon that shows a female receptionist at Shifa Hospital who, in response to the presence of two IDF soldiers dressed in combat gear, opens a concealed door in the floor and calls out the name of a well-known Hamas leader.

The most extraordinary incident involved Dr. Izz el-Deen Aboul Aish of Jebalyah Refugee Camp. The Hebrew-speaking gynecologist and peace activist was one of the few Gazans allowed regularly into Israel, where he performed research at a hospital. A widowed father of six daughters, he was frequently interviewed for Israeli television, offering eyewitness reports from embattled Gaza in his fluent Hebrew. During the final days of the campaign, just a few minutes before he was scheduled to be interviewed on Channel 10, his house was hit by a tank mortar. Dr. Aboul Aish’s niece and three of his six daughters were killed instantly; two additional daughters were severely wounded. Shrieking with raw grief, he called Channel 10 reporter Shlomi Eldar to beg for help.

Eldar, who was on air at the time, bowed his head and activated the speaker function on his mobile phone. For the first time, Israelis were able to put a familiar human face and voice to the suffering of Gazan civilians. Prior to the Aboul Aish incident, domestic television had broadcast only brief, sterile clips from Gaza, usually showing damaged infrastructure that was identified as Hamas hideouts or weapons caches. On at least one occasion, footage of wounded women and children being treated in a hospital emergency room was narrated by the Channel 2 afternoon broadcaster as a tragedy that would surely be used as anti-Israel propaganda.

But even the compelling case of Dr. Aboul Aish failed to make a strong or lasting impact on many Israelis. One middle-aged woman, typically middle class in her speech and appearance, attacked him during a press conference at Tel Hashomer Hospital, where his wounded daughters were being treated. Screaming in front of the cameras and refusing to be silenced, she said that it was a disgrace to give the Palestinian doctor publicity in an Israeli hospital. He must have had weapons in his house, she insisted, because her sons were in the army and they would never shoot a civilian house. While many Israelis expressed abhorrence for her insensitivity to the doctor’s grief, there was wide agreement—lent credence by the army’s initial explanation, later retracted—that the army would not have shot at the physician’s house without a reason. Perhaps he had been unaware of Hamas gunmen shooting from his house? Dr. Aboul Aish rejected this explanation vehemently: speaking to Israeli television reporters from the hospital bedside of one of his wounded daughters, he insisted there had been no shooting either from his house or near his house.

Why were Israelis—both journalists and news consumers—so willing to accept the IDF’s version of events in Gaza? Why did Israeli reporters, normally cynical and irreverent to a fault, fail to ask critical questions during the military operation? Every journalist I spoke with gave the same explanation: the attitude toward covering the Gaza war was a direct reaction to the Second Lebanon War and the way it was reported.

The media had nearly unfettered access to the front lines during the July-August 2006 Lebanon War. Reporters walked right up to soldiers sitting around on the Lebanese border, interviewed them, and broadcast complaints about officers who gave contradictory orders, or about being called up for reserve duty and then kept waiting for days without instructions. A Channel 10 camera crew caught two high-ranking IDF officers as they discussed, in what they thought was a private conversation, their commanding officer’s apparent inability to function as a wartime leader. There were several reports about reserve soldiers who were sent into battle with inadequate equipment.

In response to post-war calls for an investigation into its military and political decision-making, the government appointed an independent commission, chaired by retired judge Eliyahu Winograd. The Winograd Commission’s report shocked the nation with its detailed findings of serious failures in the army’s tactics, communication, and preparedness. The IDF was perceived to have lost its power of deterrence. Israelis felt vulnerable. Somehow, the public absorbed the message that the media had been critical of the war while it was going on, thus exposing IDF maneuvers to Hezbollah, which monitors the Israeli media. And the media—which in fact had supported the war as a cause, only criticizing its tactics when victory proved elusive—felt chastened. Several of my colleagues worried aloud that their reports about failures in the IDF’s functioning had an adverse effect on home front morale. Others expressed guilt at having possibly risked the lives of soldiers by reporting too many details about IDF military moves.

In fact, these claims had already been thoroughly investigated and disproved. One month after the war, the Israel Press Council set up a commission, headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner, to investigate the media’s coverage of the war. The commission interviewed high-ranking military personnel, including the military censor, and concluded in its report that the media had not violated any censorship rules during the war. In fact, her staff concluded in its report, “If similar coverage had been given to a war crowned with success and victory…[it] would have been applauded by the public.” The media, concluded the report’s authors, was only guilty of bringing bad news to a frustrated, angry public. None of the many reporters I spoke with remembered Justice Dorner’s report or the interview she gave to IDF radio, in which she described the Israeli media’s coverage of the Second Lebanon War as “patriotic.” But they all remembered that they had been accused of endangering Israeli lives—both on the home front and on the battlefield—with their reporting.

The Gaza military operation gave the army an opportunity to “prove” that it had internalized the lessons of the Winograd Report. And it gave Israeli reporters an opportunity to prove their patriotism to a still-angry public.

Alon Ben-David was one of the few Israeli reporters to ask critical questions about the army’s leadership and performance during the Second Lebanon War. But he did not dispute the IDF’s ban on media coverage of the Gaza war. “There was just way too much access during the Lebanon war,” he said. “The army was too exposed, in real time. And I think we journalists also had a reaction to the over-exposure that we caused. I don’t think the army is obligated to allow reporters into a battlefield situation.” Like every Israeli reporter I spoke with, Ben-David was focused completely on covering the war while it was going on; he had not had time to notice anything that was not directly connected to his job. So he was only vaguely aware that the ministry of defense had defied a Supreme Court order in refusing to allow the foreign media into Gaza; and, like his colleagues, he was not troubled by the issue because the ruling did not apply to the Israeli media, which was and is still forbidden by law from entering Gaza.

Many Israelis believe the IDF’s claim that it failed to secure a decisive victory in Lebanon because it refrained, for humanitarian reasons, from using sufficient force. Given that Hamas had already been “sold” as a genuine existential threat, there was a popular sense of satisfaction when the IDF used massive force in Gaza—as if people were finally ridding themselves of an excessively delicate sensibility that was unsuited to the brutal realities of the Middle East.

Ethan Bronner described a telling wartime conversation with an Israeli colleague and friend. “He said he really didn’t care about the foreign press being prevented from entering Gaza,” recounted Bronner. “So I said ‘but what if the army is doing bad stuff in Gaza?’” Raising his eyebrows to indicate astonishment, Bronner continued, “And my colleague just answered, ‘I trust them.’ But why would he trust them? The whole nature of our business is not to trust anyone!”

Two months after the ceasefire went into effect, Haaretz and Maariv newspapers published the first reports in Hebrew about possible misdeeds on the part of Israeli soldiers in Gaza. There were allegations about loose rules of engagement that resulted in a sniper shooting an old woman, and a child accompanied by his mother. There were also reports about unnecessary destruction of civilian property, and photographs of racist graffiti on the walls of homes that had been commandeered by soldiers.

Some people were disturbed, but the prevailing reactions were disbelief, and a tendency to discredit the sources—a leftist newspaper (Haaretz) and “leftist” IDF officer. Major Danny Zamir, the reserve officer who compiled the report, is a self-described Social-Democratic Zionist who opposes the occupation of the West Bank. As a soldier, he was once jailed for refusing an order to guard a West Bank settlement; this fact was widely reported in the uproar that ensued after his report was published. Few considered that a former career officer who defined himself as a Zionist might have been motivated by patriotism and a commitment to the IDF’s purity of arms.

But the army could not ignore Zamir, who is a respected officer—especially not after his report was taken up by Maariv and Israeli television news. And so they announced an investigation into the matter. Eleven days later, they released their conclusion: the reports were hearsay; the matter was closed. For the Israeli public, that was the end of the matter. The army said nothing had happened, and that meant nothing had happened. The media did not follow up on the story.

For many of my friends, the army’s conclusion merely confirmed what they already believed. Zamir’s report was all hearsay, they said -although they could not think why a committed, respected officer would undermine the army to which he had dedicated so many years of his life. One acquaintance said he knew the stories could not be true because he had served in the army, his son was serving in the army, and he knew that Israeli soldiers simply do not behave that way. Most Israelis believe the international media is biased against Israel, so they don’t believe foreign reports either. And Israeli reporters are still barred, by a law that has so far gone unchallenged in the courts, from entering Gaza. In the end, the only thing we definitely know about Gaza is that nothing can be confirmed.

In addition to this online report from Israel, the Columbia Journalism Review is offering two additional perspectives on the coverage of the fighting in Gaza. J.J. Goldberg, former editor of The Forward, compares the reporting on alleged brutalities against civilians in the U.S. press and the British press, and how this illuminates the different cultural pressures in the two countries when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians. From Gaza itself, Taghreed El-Khodary, a correspondent for The New York Times, writes a Reporter’s Notebook piece on the war. Both articles are in the May/June 2009 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. All three pieces in this special package were supported by a grant from the Open Society Institute, for which we are deeply grateful.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Lisa Goldman is a freelance writer based in Tel Aviv. Her articles have been published in Haaretz, the Guardian, Corriere Della Sera and the Forward; she blogs at