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Why Israel's mistreatment of the press in Gaza is a big mistake

The IDF is blocking the press from accurate reporting like the Iron Dome blocks Hamas rockets.
Workers clear rubble from a building that was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike on Saturday that housed The Associated Press, broadcaster Al-Jazeera and other media outlets, in Gaza City on May 16, 2021.
Workers clear rubble from a building in Gaza City that was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike Saturday. The building housed The Associated Press, Al Jazeera and other media outlets.Adel Hana / AP

Israel knows how narratives can shatter under the scrutiny of media willing to investigate its claims. The Israel Defense Forces have one of the most active and responsive press offices among the world's armed services. From off-the-record briefings to posting memes on Twitter, the Israelis know the power of messaging. Which is why the last several days of Israel's alienating the foreign media covering its latest offensive into Gaza feels both deliberate — and like a mistake on their part.

On Friday, not long after midnight local time, the IDF tweeted that "IDF air and ground troops are currently attacking in the Gaza Strip." It was followed up with on-the-record confirmations from a spokesperson to reporters that "there are ground troops in Gaza." It was only after journalists from The Wall Street Journal and other major outlets reported that the assault had begun that the IDF reversed course — there actually were no ground forces in the Gaza Strip. Instead, the army was still outside the strip, launching artillery into the territory, it said two hours after its first tweet.

The spokesperson who'd provided the confirmation said it was a mistake. Local Israeli media, on the other hand, reported it differently, according to The New York Times:

But in the Hebrew-language press, the military was simultaneously being praised for luring Hamas fighters into a network of tunnels in northern Gaza that was pounded by some 160 Israeli jets in a fury of airstrikes beginning around midnight.

“This is how the tunnels became death traps for terrorists in Gaza,” Israel’s Channel 12 news station headlined a report by its military reporter, which called the spread of misinformation to foreign journalists a “planned ploy.”

The Israeli press cited the military as saying the plan had worked.

Nobody likes to be a patsy. The media in particular look poorly upon being used as a pawn — whether lies come from a foreign government or our own. If the IDF used a false report to draw out targets, it transformed reporters from observers into participants in the war, pieces to be moved around to better gain a military advantage.

The Associated Press was one of the organizations that didn't run with the IDF's report — its office in Gaza saw no confirmation of any ground forces in the area. That won't be the case moving forward. Its office in Gaza is gone, demolished in an Israeli airstrike. The occupants of the building that it shared with Al Jazeera and families that lived on the upper floors were given minutes to get out before the drones and fighter jets struck.

The building's owner pleaded with the military before the strike, trying to at least give the media time to gather their reporting equipment. His request was denied.

Fares Akram, a Palestinian journalist with the AP whose family farm had been destroyed in an Israeli airstrike the day before, wrote about what the destruction of the office meant to him and the rest of his colleagues:

Standing with my colleagues about 400 meters (yards) away, I watched for a while and tried to process it all as the rubble started to settle. White smoke was overtaken by thick clouds of black smoke as the structure crumbled. Dust and pieces of cement and shards of glass scattered everywhere. What we knew so well was gone.

I thought of all of my hundreds of mementos that were now in splinters — including the 20-year-old cassette recorder I used when I first became a journalist. If I had had an hour, I would have grabbed everything.

"I wondered how long I should stay and watch," Akram wrote. "It was then that my years of instinct kicked in — the instinct of covering so much violence and sadness in the place that is my home."

It's that instinct to document what has happened that makes journalists so crucial at all times, but especially when missiles are flying. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government have tried to defend the strike as necessary, claiming that Hamas used an "office" inside the building.

"We share all the intelligence with our American friends," he said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "The intelligence we had is about an intelligence office for [Hamas] housed in that building that plots and organizes terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians. It is a perfectly legit target."

The journalists who were trying to cover Israel's bombings and Hamas' attacks are now less able to do either, as the Israeli military is still barring the international media from entering Gaza.

While Netanyahu may have shared intelligence with the U.S., the AP has yet to be provided evidence that Hamas was active in the building, it said in a statement. And yet American media figures are still trying to justify Israel's actions. "What were the Israelis supposed to do?" CNN's Brian Stelter asked Sunday. "If they are sure, if they had intelligence that can be vetted that Hamas was using these new bureaus as a shield, as a hiding place, what were the Israelis supposed to do?"

Israel has often leaned on Hamas' use of "human shields" to justify strikes on targets where civilians live and work. Purposefully using civilians as cover is, in fact, a war crime. And it's true that Hamas' rocket attacks into Israel have been deadly, having killed 10 people, including two children.

What arguments like this do, though, is ignore that even if Hamas did have an office in that building, the people who lived there did not choose it as neighbors, trapped as they probably are in Gaza. The journalists who were trying to cover Israel's bombings and Hamas' attacks — and verify the death tolls the Gaza health ministry is issuing — are now less able to do either, as the Israeli military is still barring the international media from entering Gaza. And the idea that this one Hamas office warranted destroying an entire building where journalists worked and families that are now homeless lived doesn't add up.

We're in the middle of a generational shift in how Israel is viewed outside its borders. Older Americans still see a tiny country oppressed and surrounded on all sides by enemies, as it was for the majority of its existence. But in the last two decades peace talks have stagnated, and Palestinians are more oppressed than ever before as Netanyahu has encouraged extremists and welcomed them into his government. And for as little as the Trump administration did to head off the crisis, the agreements between Israel and Muslim countries in the region show how divorced the Palestinians' situation has become from Israel's standing in those countries' eyes.

As part of this shift, the debate in the U.S. is changing. Before recently, it was taboo in the Democratic Party to ask why Israel is allowed to act with impunity against Palestinians and with the backing of U.S. defense aid. Relatedly, Israel's government had gotten too comfortable with the idea that it can mislead the foreign media without a corresponding change in the overwhelmingly credulous way it has traditionally been covered. I think the coming days will show why that was a mistake on the Israelis' part — at exactly the wrong time for their standing with their greatest ally.