Alongside the brigades of Merkava tanks and battalions of armoured personnel carriers sent to the Gaza Strip over the past two weeks, the IDF also sent a detachment of military police cars.
Their targets were not rowdy soldiers attempting to abscond without a pass. Rather, they were journalists — both Israeli and foreign — trying to photograph the massed forces and to interview the soldiers preparing to enter the combat zone.
Despite their frustration, the foreign journalists obeyed orders, keeping — for the most part — to a couple of authorized hilltops where they huddled, filming each other in front of the unchanging background.
The Israelis, however, were more fractious, hunting for back-routes and hiking through copses and water-filled trenches just to get a few snatched words from the units about to go in or coming out for a few hours of rest.
Police cars chased camera crews down dirt tracks and away from the road sides. One reporter had a spiked barrier thrown at his car, escaping detention with a screech of burning tyres while a photographer was arrested, handcuffed and had his cameras confiscated at a police station.
Long before the operation, the decision to attempt a blanket restriction on journalists talking to troops without the presence of “minders” from the IDF Spokesman’s Unit had been taken by IDF Chief Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi and his close advisor, Brigadier General Avi Benayahu, the IDF spokesman.
Their objective was to achieve total control over the media messages broadcast to the Israeli public over Operation Cast Lead. This was one of the lessons learnt from the Second Lebanon War, two and a half years ago, when the media was allowed unfettered access to the units entering battle, right up to the border fence.
This time around, nothing has been left to chance and soldiers — both regular and reservists — have been sternly warned not to talk with reporters. Some have even had their mobile phones taken away.
The official reason for the draconian restrictions is “field security”, as Hamas also constantly monitor the TV channels and websites and are adept at listening in to non-secure mobile phone calls.
But there is another reason. In 2006, it was Israeli media reports that first alerted the public that the operation was bogged down and losing direction, with disastrous results; the public mood that had broadly supported the military offensive turned ugly.
Today’s IDF sees the media, if not as an enemy on the scale of Hamas or Hizbollah, at least as an adversary. To signal his displeasure, Lt Gen Ashkenazi has yet to give an interview after two years in the job. The Spokesman’s Unit has allowed only a handful of reporters inside Gaza on closely controlled tours of a few hours each and it prefers to dole out information, good or bad, twice-daily in terse announcements.
Is the new policy working? Three weeks into the operation, the Israeli public still fully supports it, with 80 percent approval ratings, but that is also due to the fact that casualties have been relatively low. If things begin to go awry, Ashkenazi might need something more than police cars to defend him from the media’s wrath.