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.