JERUSALEM (AP) – Just after midnight on Friday, the IDF issued a disturbing statement to the media: “IDF air and ground troops are attacking in the Gaza Strip.
The terse 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.
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 ahead of a possible ground invasion. In another sign of escalation, Israeli tanks stationed along the border opened fire on targets inside Gaza.
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 at major outlets indicating that the invasion was underway.
The Israeli movements sent Hamas fighters rushing into defensive positions in an underground network of tunnels known as the metro, 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 have self-employed, knew that it was impossible for Israel to send troops across enemy lines 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 them or even lied when asked to clarify, making foreign media a sort of prop.
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.”
The military around the world have long used deception and cunning against their enemies. Two years ago, the Israeli army would have simulated the injuries of soldiers at the scene of a Hezbollah missile strike, going so far as to evacuate them to a hospital by helicopter.
According to reports at the time, the military had organized the wounds to make Hezbollah believe it had inflicted casualties and would therefore agree to 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.”