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.