First fratricide, then fracture

The attack on an IDF patrol by settler thugs that Haaretz is reporting today would merely be the latest in a long string of such deplorable acts, including several recent but relatively harmless acts of “price tag” vandalism.

The story inspires several thoughts. Here are four:

1) These kids are nothing but thugs — and morons, if they think that this kind of thing will bring them anything positive.

2) There are people here who excuse violence against the state and its agents by Arab citizens, on the grounds that they feel targeted and discriminated against. Those people would never apply that same argument to settlers or haredim — and for that, I call them out as hypocrites. All three of those sectors have very similar feelings toward the state, and very similar reasons for having them. Excusing only one group’s thuggery while excoriating the other two exposes a failure of intellectual rigor, or of moral fiber, or both.

3) Related to the second point: None of those sectors is justified in its actions toward the state in response to those feelings; none, in fact, deserves anyone’s defense of their violence. The estrangement that each group feels from the state is much more a result of their own twisted policies of rejection of the state than any (fictitious) policy the state has of rejecting them.

4) Related to the third point: Feelings of shock and disgust at the settlers’ attack on soldiers are meaningless without the recognition that the only way to prevent such acts in the future is for the government to stop allowing and encouraging the situation in which every special interest group in this country exploits the state and undermines it in order to establish its own private authority, answerable to no one.

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A headache for Hamas

The Associated Press story yesterday on Salafi groups in Gaza directing their burning hatreds at the “blasphemous” government of Hamas was both chilling and delightful.

Chilling, obviously, because of the venom and extremism fueling these groups, and because of the thoughts of what damage they could cause to Israeli civilians by continuing to fire rockets at the towns just outside the Gaza Strip.

Delightful, though, because of the prophetic words of one Anna Geifman.

Geifman, a Russian-born history professor at Boston University, specializes in understanding the use of violence in the Russian Revolution. She draws parallels between Bolshevik and anarchistic terrorism and the policies and actions of Hamas — which, as she told me in 2008, actually made her optimistic regarding the eventual demise of the Gazan terrorist group. She said:

“One of the basic characteristics of violence in culture is that it is like a living organism, in that it is mobile, and it must remain in motion in order to survive,” Geifman explains. “So long as the violence is directed externally, it can maintain its momentum – but once it is prevented from that goal, if you wall it off, it can’t stop. Like any organism, it must keep moving. So the violence turns on [its originators]. Consider the Nazis: When they could no longer kill others, they killed themselves.”

If history is a guide, she says, Hamas ought to pay attention.

“[Terrorist] leaders think that they control death, but in reality they are merely agents of death,” she says. “That is why every revolution ultimately swallows itself.”

In other words, an ideology of violence is a Frankenstein’s monster that is destined to turn on its master. This was the case with Hamas in its rivalry with Fatah, and it may now be the case with the Salafi groups in their rivalry with Hamas.

Viva la revolucion!

Subs in the Suez

dolphin6Is Israel’s decision to send a Dolphin submarine through the Suez Canal — overtly — a message to Iran, as this Jerusalem Post report suggests?

Well, duh.

Let’s review why. As I wrote back in 2006:

Israel’s long-range Dolphin-class submarines are reportedly able to launch nuclear-tipped Popeye Turbo cruise missiles…

Since the distance from Israel to Iran is far greater by sea than it is by air, Israel would need submarine bases at the end of the Red Sea and in the Indian Ocean in order for the Dolphins to pull within range of their targets.

As luck would have it, Israel has just such bases – according to foreign reports – in the Dahlak Archipelago, off the coast of Eritrea; and off the coast of either India, with which Israel has a flowering military alliance, or Sri Lanka, whose ties with Israel have grown quietly over the past several years. It was off the coast of Sri Lanka that Israel successfully tested – again, according to foreign reports – a submarine-launched cruise missile in 2000.

Remember, also, how the Israel Navy famously intercepted the Karine A arms smuggling ship deep in the Red Sea back in 2002.

For the past several years, Israel has placed significant emphasis on its naval warfare capabilities in general, and on control of the Red Sea in particular. The Dolphin is, actually, a formidable predator, and parading it through the Suez Canal is a not-so-subtle warning.

Explaining war

“Let the general in,” she says with a smile.

The Armored Corps brigade commander is tall and broad-shouldered, radiating experience and machismo with a trim grey beard covering a strong jaw. He’s the third general to come to this office this week seeking guidance.

The woman sitting behind the desk is several years his junior and a few ranks below him, too – yet when the brigade commander sits down, it is Avital Leibovich who is giving the orders. Fox News wants an interview with a senior officer who can explain what happened in the alleyways of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, and it is Leibovich’s job to make sure the journalists hear what the IDF Spokesman wants them to hear.

“Every question they ask you, answer with an example from the field. Describe what you have seen with your own eyes, what you and your soldiers have experienced. Be as descriptive as possible,” she says.

“It bothers me that they’re talking about soldiers abusing Palestinians (during the operation), wrecking homes and whatnot,” the general says. “For every ugly story like that, I can give two stories that are the total opposite. I’m talking about reservists sending letters of apology to the families whose homes they commandeered, sending them money and leaving them food, that sort of thing.”

Leibovich looks the commander in the eye. “That’s exactly what they need to hear,” she says.

And now he’s ready to go.

This is today’s IDF: coordinated, rehearsed, media savvy. Perhaps even more significantly, it is an army in which its spokesmen play a larger role than ever before – for better and for worse.

THE MEDIUM is the message, as communications theorist Marshall McLuhan famously said. Just in case, though, the IDF Spokesman’s Office now controls both. The foreign press liaison unit, as the face and voice of Israel’s army to the entire world, is the gateway through which information flows (or, often, does not flow), and it has transformed from something of an afterthought into a major part of the military’s arsenal. As wars are increasingly fought on the virtual battlegrounds of television and the Internet, the soldiers of the IDF Spokesman’s foreign media liaison unit are a new breed of pressed-uniform commandos.

Leibovich’s highly motivated crew includes recent immigrants like Lee Hiromoto, a 26-year-old Yale graduate from Hawaii, Harvard graduate Arie Hasit, 25, and Aliza Landes, 26, a McGill grad.

“The North American desk must be one of the best educated units in the IDF,” Landes says only half-jokingly.

It was Landes and Hiromoto who came up with the idea, a day into the fighting of Operation Cast Lead at the end of December, to launch a youtube channel with material from the IDF Spokesman’s Office. It quickly became the most viewed channel in the world.

Here, initiative is the name of the game. Another recent immigrant on Leibovich’s staff of 20, Devora, called up one of the top military journalists in her native Belgium and offered to introduce him to Belgian Jews serving in combat units. He’s due in Israel soon to produce a lengthy feature for television that will be distributed across Europe.

“We’re proactive. We no longer wait for someone to come to us with a request, we are now the initiators. We suggest stories to journalists, instead of the other way around,” says Leibovich, who was just promoted to lieutenant-colonel. “Since each area has its own unique characteristics, and its specific areas of interest, we provide each ‘audience’ with what it needs,” she adds. “We tailor information and stories for North America, for Europe, for Russian-language media, for Arabic media, and for Latin America and the Far East.”

Whereas interaction with the Spokesman’s Office once meant long delays and garbled armyspeak, there is now a greater focus on productivity and efficiency, of providing what journalists need.

“I send out SMS messages to 400 reporters each day,” Leibovich says. “If someone wants to know how many Kassams fell in 2008, they can call me and get an answer within five minutes.”

And if the phone is busy, journalists can simply pop in. After several years based in Tel Aviv, the foreign press liaison unit returned to Jerusalem a few months ago – setting up shop in the Jerusalem Capital Studios building that houses the offices of some of the most important foreign media companies.

“The fact that we’re here at JCS is significant,” Leibovich says. “As soon as something happens, we can respond and brief them immediately. So they don’t have to start running around, calling up people in Gaza, asking, ‘What’s going on? What are you hearing? What can you report?’ We tell them, ‘We’re attacking here and here, because Hamas did this and this.’ They get all the information they need from us. So there’s much less spin.”

“The IDF is very adept at ensuring that its message gets out there, and gets out there quickly – and I don’t say that as a smart-ass remark,” says ABC Australia correspondent Ben Knight.

“During the war, it didn’t take much effort to get people into the office at short notice and hear their side of things. We never wanted for comment from the IDF, and we never had to wait too long. So they are obviously very well aware of the importance of doing it and very well practiced at getting their point of view out there. The Australian army does things quite differently, I can tell you that.”

WHERE THE unit once was distant, today it seeks out contact with foreign correspondents.

“I have learned that if you don’t take a journalist out to see things with his own eyes, you just won’t get through to him,” Leibovich says. “But once you do…!”

One example of the positive effects of taking journalists into the field has been in coverage of the West Bank security barrier. In its early days, inefficiency at the roadblocks and transfer points meant lengthy waits, exposed to the weather, for Palestinians. More recently, improvements in procedures and infrastructure have significantly eased the situation, and showing that to the world helps reduce pressure on Israel.

“Back in 2003, all you saw were stories about the unbearable wait at roadblocks and all that. But things are so much better now, so much more efficient,” she says. “I take journalists out there all the time to inspect roadblocks. I tell them, ‘However long you want to wait here, I’ll wait with you.’ So they stay there for two and three hours, and they can’t believe what they see – that it only takes a few seconds to check a car and let it through. One Scandinavian group waited hours in the sun, turning red, expecting to see trouble that never came.”

(Some journalists respond, however, that while the army is eager to show them these improvements, it is loath to let journalists review the multitude of roadblocks and barriers throughout the West Bank that restrict the movement of Palestinians.)

Whereas visiting journalists may have once been treated with some disdain, the IDF now sees them as vehicles for getting its message abroad.

“We’re dealing, in many cases, with foreign correspondents who are flying in from Washington, or from Zimbabwe, or from Finland. They’ve had so little time to digest what’s happening here – they’ve heard a little, they’ve read a little – so that any chance we have to show them what is really going on, and help them put it in context, we have to take it.”

Leibovich has plenty of stories to offer: articles on technological advances in the army, which portray the IDF as a professional organization; on krav maga; on the ongoing development of the Merkava IV tank; on the increase in women serving in combat roles; on new immigrants in uniform, etc. – any chance to present the IDF as something other than just a fighting machine.

“We believe that the IDF has nothing to hide,” Leibovich says. “I’m not taking journalists on secret missions or anything like that, but I have no reason to hide a squadron of fighter jets. So, just the other day I brought the staff of 30 media outlets to an air force base to see the technology used in our F-15Is, our attack helicopters, and more.”

The army has invested in improving the quality of photos it sends out, and it sends out many more of them now than before. During the Gaza war, it made colorful, readable maps available to its reservists who escorted foreign journalists, so they could appreciate the seriousness of the rocket threat to the western Negev. And every morning, Leibovich sends out a report on the amount of humanitarian aid the army allows into Gaza. In the information war, then, the IDF is holding its own.

“We showed Palestinians setting up rocket launchers next to schools, or using civilian buildings as weapons storage facilities,” Leibovich says. “What did the other side show, except for people with their faces covered, making statements?”

The unit doesn’t take its work for granted, though, monitoring the foreign press to measure the tone of coverage on the IDF and to see whether the army’s perspective is reflected in that coverage. Soldiers even scan blogs, twitter, and all manner of new media to gauge the effectiveness of their work.

“I want to know whether our message got through,” Leibovich says. “If we’re trying to get across that we’re not targeting innocent civilians, for example, I want to see that that message comes through in the media.”

During the war, Leibovich enlisted the help of those outside the Spokesman’s Office who could make Israel’s case credibly.

“It’s very important for us to have commanders tell the stories of what they experienced personally,” she says. “Also, we had briefings almost every day, with an artillery expert, or an expert on weapons and international law. It wasn’t me speaking, it was outside experts. After that, when you read the wires, you read the quotes of those experts.”

Despite the experts, and the photos, and the SMS messages and the maps, however, there were still plenty of media outlets that chose not to present those materials.

“You know,” Leibovich says with a sigh, “sometimes there are correspondents here who ‘get it’ and file fair stories, but their editors back home change the stories. I can only send out the information, I can’t make them use it,” she says. “But I’m not going to just throw up my hands and give up. We’re not defeatists.”

NO, THERE are no defeatists in Leibovich’s office. But, for all the improvements in the functioning of the IDF Spokesman’s Office, there remain certain elements that are self-defeating. Take IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Avi Benayahu, for example. At a toast with foreign journalists shortly before Pessah, celebrating the liaison unit’s move to the JCS building, Benayahu gave a speech that was more a lecture on the evils of Hamas than a welcome speech to professional journalists. He talked at the journalists, not to them, and his tone suggested he sees himself not as the “national explainer” that the popular former IDF spokesman Nachman Shai was, but as the army’s chief propagandist.

The journalists largely ignored Benayahu anyway, instead sharing with each other their frustrations about his unit’s apologetics, denials, and stonewalling on sensitive issues. It was just one sign of how, despite doing many other things right, the army still doesn’t completely “get it,” either.

While the world saw images of deprivation in Gaza, Benayahu and others insisted that there was no humanitarian crisis there.

“Of course there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza!” Leibovich says, incredulously. “Look, there’s a difference between having only pita to eat but at least having something to eat, and having nothing at all. Now, lots of trucks are going into Gaza every day – every day – with humanitarian aid…”

For European viewers sympathetic to the Palestinians, though, answering the cry, “It’s terrible there!” with the angry retort, “No, it’s not terrible, it’s only very bad” does not help Israel’s case.

What would help is more photos of terrorists operating in civilian areas – photos that the IDF had in spades both before and during Operation Cast Lead, but failed to release in time.

“I can tell you that our response time this time around, in comparison to the Second Lebanon War, was vastly improved,” Leibovich counters. “During the Gaza war, we distributed video four times a day.”

As the death toll in Gaza climbed, and Palestinians claimed most of the dead had been innocent civilians, the IDF countered that the vast majority had indeed been involved in the fighting or members of armed groups. Yet, even when it later produced a report claiming the final death toll was lower than the Palestinian figure by several hundred people, it refused to release the names on its list so journalists could investigate the differences between Israel’s claims and the Palestinians’.

The army’s response was essentially that identifying bodies was not its job. Its insistence on refuting Palestinian claims, but not substantiating its own, turned the death toll issue into a he said-she said argument that, ultimately, Israel lost.

Leibovich’s response – “The asymmetrical warfare that Hamas wages is not limited to the streets of Gaza. It extends to the press as well. In the end, the Palestinian narrative comes from unreliable sources” – typifies a “they’re wrong, and that’s the end of it” approach that makes many correspondents bristle.

Leibovich adds: “Our list of names went through a very lengthy verification process that included extensive intelligence gathering. We won’t release the names because we do not wish to harm our intelligence sources.”

Be that as it may, without the names, no journalist could take the IDF’s numbers at face value – although that’s exactly what the army expected of them. Of course, foreign journalists could have investigated on their own, had they been allowed into Gaza. But they weren’t. Despite the painful lessons from the spurious reports of a “massacre” in Jenin in 2002, Israel did not allow foreign journalists into the Gaza Strip during the fighting.

The ban was part of a general restriction on information, that came in response to the army’s much more open approach during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and it damaged Israel in two ways: it deeply frustrated many foreign correspondents who might have been made to see the war from Israel’s perspective, and it left the reporting to Palestinian and Arab media stationed in Gaza. This, in turn, allowed those reporters to allege various Israeli war crimes that no Western media could later disprove.

As one correspondent, speaking to The Jerusalem Post on condition of anonymity, notes, “When the IDF keeps quiet, it gives the other side an advantage.”

CLEARLY, NOT all foreign journalists share the enthusiasm of ABC’s Knight. The IDF Spokesman’s Office, says the anonymous correspondent, “is terrible about getting us information.”

“Oh, sure,” he says, “they’ll call us up and offer us the chance to talk with the first female officer in the canine unit, or something like that. But when it comes to the army’s use of white phosphorous or war crimes [allegations] – nothing.”

Investigating claims, and sharing the results of those investigations openly and quickly, is another sore spot.

“I don’t say that the IDF is all pure and white, that we never do things that aren’t right. But when something happens, we admit it. We learn from it, and we make sure things get better,” Leibovich says. “Well,” answers a correspondent, “it’s a problem that they’re the ones investigating themselves. It seems like they never find themselves guilty of anything.”

That perception is inaccurate – but since perception is reality, the IDF needs to combat it better.

The controversy over war crimes allegations leveled at the IDF from within its own ranks illustrates the point. A few weeks after the fighting, two veterans of the conflict told others gathered at the Rabin Pre-Military Academy that their comrades had shot and killed unarmed women inside Gaza. It took the army several days to investigate the claims – and while they were ultimately exposed as false, they did tremendous damage in that time to the IDF’s mantra that it is the most moral army in the world.

Another complaint, says a journalist, is that access to senior officers is often highly restricted, “and when we can meet with them, they either don’t say anything of substance because the lawyer sitting next to them tells them not to, or they tell us things that become worthless as soon as they forbid us from revealing their identity.”

Another correspondent complains that the IDF is “very amateurish about important things,” such as providing findings of official investigations but forbidding all reference to them as such. “They just don’t seem to know about, or care about, our rules of attribution.”

Additionally, both note with frustration, stories about which they have inquired without receiving a response often turn up in the Hebrew press – and then, when they call for a comment on the Israeli reports, the IDF refuses to even acknowledge that the story has already been published.

“We understand that the army has to limit information based on security concerns,” says the first correspondent. “But so much of this has nothing to do with security. Too often, they’re hostile to us, or they act like they just don’t care about us.”

“Ultimately,” Leibovich answers, “the IDF is my client, not the media.”

That, of course, is absolutely true. The IDF Spokesman’s Office is tasked with furthering the interests of the army, and those interests are bound to conflict with the interests of journalists sometimes.

“We have to explain why we’re right, why we’re fighting,” Leibovich says with genuine conviction. “And we have to contend with the image of the Palestinian underdog versus us as the larger, stronger force. It isn’t easy, but we’re doing our best. And I promise, we’ll continue to get better.”

A lesson in Sri Lanka

For a few months already, government troops have been on the verge of ridding Sri Lanka of the island nation’s terrorist scourge, the Tamil Tigers. Now, it seems, they have done so.

Most of the world has ignored this 25-year-long conflict, and Israel is no exception. But now that this struggling island state has defeated one of the most accomplished terrorist and guerilla forces in modern history, it is imperative that every Western nation — and especially Israel — take great pains to study this development well.

The Tigers’ extinction is a resounding reality check for all those who have said that such a movement could not be defeated. Indeed, it was only after the rebels broke a truce that the Sri Lankan government decided to abandon its plan of managing the conflict and go for total victory that success became possible.

There is a profound lesson in this for Israel and its ill-fated strategy vis-a-vis Hamas: Pursue victory, and you shall get it. Pursue calm, and you shall never have it.

Like the notion of bringing Hamas to surrender is ridiculed as impossible, so too was the idea of defeating the Tigers of Tameel Elam once considered impossible. But no more. Today it is not folly to declare, “terrorism can be defeated!” It is folly to ignore such a declaration.

Durban II? Yawn…

For the record, I don’t care one whit about Durban II. What I do care about is Bushehr, Natanz and Isfahan. Everything else is just a sideshow, and a waste of time.

The pen is mightier…

oliphant-cartoonUh-oh. The ADL is hysterical about this political cartoon by Pat Oliphant that depicts Israeli soldiers as headless Zio-Nazis, rolling over innocent women and children in Gaza. Prepare for the usual “You can’t criticize Israel without being labelled an anti-Semite” nonsense.

The ADL is right, obviously. This cartoon is terrible. But I’ve seen this kind of thing in American newspapers, European newspapers and, of course, Arab newspapers too many times before to be shocked. In fact, I have to say, this particular cartoon is poorly drawn and rather uncreative. This has been done so many times before, and so much “better,” so to speak.

Regarding the content, it stems from this report in Haaretz, according to which veterans of Operation Cast Lead purposely shot at non-combatants. This story has caught on quickly and been embraced with the zeal you might expect from people who are all to eager to envision Israel’s army as being full of jack-booted, blood-thirsty automatons happy to carry out genocide against the poor, helpless, peace-loving innocents who struggle in their spiritual quest for Palestinian self-determination. (Am I laying it on too thick?)

The only problem is that the story is bogus. The soldiers who relayed these harrowing tales of cold-blooded war crimes didn’t actually witness them, it turns out, but were only reporting events they heard had taken place. Once confronted, they even admitted as much. And the head of the academy where these stories were first told is an extreme left-winger whose own writings show a distorted and biased belief that his own army is immoral; it has been suggested, in so many words, that the soldiers in attendance were goaded into telling these tales by this man, or offered them because they thought such reports would please him.

Nonetheless, the bottom line is that these atrocities never happened… but now that they have been immortalized by Oliphant, what does that matter? Those who wanted to believe that the IDF was evil before the cartoon will continue to believe it even after it has been shown to be a lie — probably because they will never bother to read the refutations, or to accept them if they do read them. Nor will they bother to read the accounts of soldiers sending letters of apology and money to Gazans whose homes they commandeered during the raid, or any number of other accounts that reveal an IDF much, much different than the one portrayed in Oliphant’s cartoon.

If Oliphant had any integrity, in fact, he would make some minor adjustments to his cartoon: This time, a headless cartoonist hoisting a pen rather than a sword would push, not a Star of David but whatever symbol represents the pro-Palestinian liberal agenda, steamrolling an Israeli soldier while he consults the strict code of conduct by which he must abide to determine his response to the incoming threat.

I’m not holding my breath.