JERUSALEM (AP) – Shortly after midnight on Friday, the Israeli armed forces issued a disturbing statement to the press: “Troops from the Israel Defense Forces land and air divisions are attacking the Gaza Strip right now. ”.
The short sentence sparked intense speculation that Israel had launched a ground invasion of Gaza, a highly feared scenario that would mark a bloody escalation of operations this week against Hamas fighters. Some reporters were even categorically told that the raid had begun.
Hours later, the armed forces made a “clarification.” That there were no soldiers inside Gaza. But by then several major news outlets had misreported an ongoing ground offensive.
Although the military tried to downplay the incident and portray it as misunderstanding, well-known Israeli military commentators said the press was used as part of an elaborate scheme to lure Hamas fighters into a death trap in which perhaps dozens of them were annihilated.
“They didn’t lie,” said Or Heller, a seasoned military correspondent for Israel’s Channel 13 TV. “It was a manipulation. It was a ruse and it was successful ”.
Here’s how it was done:
On Thursday night, after several days of shelling, Israel announced that it had called in thousands of reservists and massed troops along the border for a possible ground invasion. In another indication of an escalation, Israeli tanks deployed to the border opened fire on targets inside Gaza.
In previous rounds of fighting, ground incursions have brought widespread destruction in Gaza and heavy casualties on both sides.
That context served to set the stage for the nocturnal deception. According to Heller, Israel began amassing forces along the border to make it look like the last preparations for an invasion. Then came the press announcement broadcast simultaneously in Hebrew and Arabic on Twitter. Then followed the alerts from the mainstream media that the invasion was underway.
Because of this, Hamas fighters immediately headed to their defensive positions in an underground network of tunnels known as the Metro, according to Heller and other Israeli reports.
Israel shelled the tunnels for 40 minutes, according to the military. Heller noted that dozens of fighters were believed to have been killed, although he said it was impossible to tell.
“What we saw tonight was a very sophisticated operation that involved the press,” according to Heller.
Hamas has made no statements about the incident and it was impossible to confirm the Israeli claims.
Heller noted that experienced Israeli correspondents, who have close ties to and were in many cases part of the armed forces, knew that there was no way Israel was sending soldiers to penetrate enemy lines at this stage. Heller and other military correspondents even posted statements on Twitter telling the public that no ground operation had been launched.
After analyzing the army statement, calling in military officials and doing field reporting in Gaza, The Associated Press concluded that there was no ground incursion and did not report that it happened.
But other outlets said the armed forces misled them and even lied to them when they requested clarification, turning the foreign press into something of an accomplice.
Felicia Schwartz, a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, said she sent her news alert about a ground offensive after receiving direct confirmation from Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman.
In a statement on Twitter, Schwarts said that Conricus “told me directly ‘there are ground troops in Gaza.’ That was the basis for a first story about it. He retracted two hours later and I changed the story to reflect that situation, and that it is indicated in the text and that it will be corrected ”.
Speaking to the press on Friday morning, Conricus attributed what happened to an “internal communication problem.”
“These things can sometimes happen in the middle of a complex operation with many moving parts and an unclear picture of what is happening,” he said. “As soon as I knew that I had the wrong information, I updated it with a clarification to the relevant people.”
Armed forces around the world have long used deception and trickery against their enemies. Two years ago, the Israeli army pretended to have wounded soldiers at the site of Hezbollah missiles and even airlifted them to a hospital by helicopter.
According to news reports at the time, the army concocted the wounded to make Hezbollah believe that it had caused casualties and thereby accept a ceasefire.
Friday’s false statement further strained what has been a complicated relationship between the Israel Defense Forces and the foreign press.
Peter Lerner, a former military spokesman for the foreign press, said that the general Israeli public has long considered the international press to focus too much on the Palestinian side of the story while downplaying Israeli concerns and suffering, and the military takes its say. similarly.
Lerner said he believes the military is unlikely to have intentionally lied, but the damage was done anyway.
“Your asset is credibility,” he said. “I think this is a credibility crisis because of the way it is being presented.”