JERUSALEM – Early Friday, just after midnight, the IDF made a disturbing statement to the media: “IDF air and ground troops are attacking in the Gaza Strip.
The loosely worded statement sparked frenzied speculation that Israel had launched a ground invasion of Gaza – a much feared scenario that would mark a bloody escalation of this week’s operation against Hamas militants. Some journalists were even outright informed that the incursion had started.
A few hours later, the military issued a “clarification”. There were no troops inside Gaza. But by then, several mainstream media had incorrectly reported that the ground offensive was underway. (NBC News did not report that a ground invasion had taken place.)
As the military tried to downplay the incident as a misunderstanding, prominent Israeli military commentators said the media had been used as part of an elaborate ruse to lure Hamas militants into a death trap that could have kill dozens of fighters.
“They didn’t lie,” said Or Heller, a veteran military correspondent for Channel 13 Israel. “It was manipulation. It was smart and it worked.
Here’s how it went:
Late Thursday, after days of airstrikes, Israel announced it was calling in thousands of reservists and assembling troops along the border before a possible ground invasion. In another sign of escalation, Israel has started firing artillery shells across the border at targets inside Gaza, residents said.
In previous rounds of fighting, ground incursions have resulted in widespread destruction in Gaza and heavy casualties on both sides.
This set the stage for the late night deception. According to Heller, Israel began to scramble forces along the border in what appeared to be the final preparations for an invasion. Then came the media announcement, which ran simultaneously in Hebrew and Arabic on Twitter. Alerts followed in mainstream media, including the New York Times, indicating that the invasion was underway.
The Israeli movements sent Hamas fighters to rush into defensive positions in an underground network of tunnels known as the “subway,” according to Heller and other Israeli reports.
Israel called up 160 fighter jets and bombed the tunnels for 40 minutes, the military said. Heller said he understood dozens of activists were killed, although he said it was impossible to tell.
“What we saw tonight was a very sophisticated operation that had a media aspect,” Heller said.
Hamas did not comment on the incident and it was impossible to confirm the Israeli reports.
Heller said veteran Israeli correspondents, who have close ties to the military and in many cases self-help, knew there was no way Israel would send troops across the lines. enemies at this point. Heller and other military correspondents even posted statements on Twitter assuring the nervous public that there was no ground operation.
The Associated Press, based on its analysis of the military statement, phone calls to military officials and reports on the ground in Gaza, concluded that there was no ground incursion and did not report that there had been one.
But others said the military misled or even lied to them when asked to clarify the initial statement and its ambiguous use of the word “in”. Some felt that the foreign media had been turned into a sort of accessory.
Wall Street Journal correspondent Felicia Schwartz said she alerted the news of a ground offensive after receiving explicit confirmation from Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesperson.
In a statement posted on Twitter, she said Conricus “told me directly, ‘There are troops on the ground in Gaza.’ It was the basis of a first story saying this. He retracted that statement two hours later and I changed the story to reflect that, and it is noted in the text and will be corrected.
Speaking to reporters on Friday morning, Conricus blamed “poor internal communication”.
“These things can sometimes happen in the middle of a complex operation with many moving parts and with a blurry picture of what was going on,” he said. “As soon as I understood that I had the wrong information, I updated those affected with a clarification.”
But some correspondents still had questions.
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“If they used us, that’s unacceptable. And if not, what’s the story – and why is the Israeli media widely reporting that we have been duped? Said Daniel Estrin, NPR Jerusalem correspondent, who was also informed by the military that an invasion had started.
The military around the world have long used deception and cunning against their enemies. Two years ago, the Israeli army reportedly simulated the injuries of soldiers at the scene of a Hezbollah missile strike, going so far as to evacuate them in bandages to a hospital by helicopter.
According to the information at the time, the army had organized the wounds to make Hezbollah believe that it had inflicted losses and therefore accepted a ceasefire.
Friday’s misleading statement further strained what has often been a difficult relationship between the IDF and foreign media.
Peter Lerner, a former military spokesperson for foreign media, said the general Israeli public has long felt that the international media is too focused on the Palestinian side of the story while downplaying the concern and suffering. Israeli – and the army is also inclined.
Lerner said he thought the military was unlikely to have intentionally lied, but damage was done regardless.
“Your motto is credibility,” he said. “I think it’s a crisis of that credibility in the way she’s portrayed.”