JERUSALEM – Early Friday, just after midnight, the Israeli military made a threatening statement to the media: “IDF air and ground forces are currently attacking in the Gaza Strip.”
The vaguely worded statement sparked fierce speculation that Israel had launched a ground invasion of Gaza – a much-feared scenario that would spell a bloody escalation of this week’s operation against Hamas militants. Some reporters even learned immediately that the incursion had begun.
Hours later, the military issued a “clarification”. There were no troops in Gaza. By then, however, several major news outlets had falsely reported that the ground offensive was underway. (NBC News did not report that a ground invasion occurred.)
While the army tried to downplay the incident as a misunderstanding, well-placed Israeli military commentators said the media had been used as part of an elaborate ruse to lure Hamas fighters into a deadly trap that could have killed dozens of fighters.
“You weren’t lying,” said Or Heller, a seasoned military correspondent on Israeli television station Channel 13. “It was a manipulation. It was smart and successful. “
This is how it developed:
Late Thursday, after days of air strikes, Israel announced it would be drafting thousands of reservists and troops along the border ahead of a possible ground invasion. In another sign of escalation, Israel began firing artillery shells across the border at targets in the Gaza Strip, according to residents.
In previous rounds of fighting, ground strikes have resulted in widespread destruction in the Gaza Strip and heavy casualties on both sides.
That was the cornerstone of the nocturnal deception. According to Heller, Israel began crawling forces along the border in what appeared to be the final preparations for an invasion. Then came the announcement to the media, which was published simultaneously on Twitter in Hebrew and Arabic. Warnings followed in major outlets, including the New York Times, that the invasion was ongoing.
According to Heller and other Israeli reports, the Israeli movements have placed Hamas fighters in defensive positions in an underground network of tunnels known as the “Metro”.
Israel called 160 fighter planes and bombed the tunnels for 40 minutes, the military said. Heller said it was his understanding that dozens of militants had been killed, although he said it was impossible to tell.
“What we saw tonight was a very nifty operation that had a medial aspect,” said Heller.
Hamas did not comment on the incident and it was impossible to confirm the Israeli reports.
Heller said veteran Israeli correspondents who are closely associated with the military and, in many cases, have served themselves, knew that Israel had no way of sending troops across enemy lines at the time. Heller and other military correspondents even made statements on Twitter reassuring the nervous public that there was no ground operation.
The Associated Press, based on its analysis of the Army’s statement, phone calls to military officials, and ground coverage in Gaza, concluded that there was no land breach and did not report that there was one.
However, others said the military misled or even lied to them when asked to clarify the original statement and the ambiguous use of the word “in”. Some said the foreign media had become a kind of accessory.
Wall Street Journal correspondent Felicia Schwartz said she had alerted news of a ground offensive after receiving explicit endorsement from Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman.
In a statement posted on Twitter, she said Conricus told me directly, “There are ground troops in Gaza.” This was the basis for a first story that said this. He withdrew that statement two hours later and I changed the story to reflect this and that is noted in the text and is being corrected. “
Conricus spoke to reporters on Friday morning and accused “internal miscommunication”.
“These things can sometimes happen in the middle of a complex operation with many moving parts and with an unclear picture of what happened,” he said. “As soon as I realized I had the wrong information, I updated the relevant people with a clarification.”
However, some correspondents still had questions.
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“If they used us, that’s unacceptable. And if not, then what is the story – and why does the Israeli media widely report that we have been betrayed? “Said Daniel Estrin, NPR’s correspondent in Jerusalem, who was also told by the military that an invasion had begun.
Military officials around the world have long used deception and deception against their enemies. Two years ago, the Israeli military allegedly faked the injuries suffered by soldiers on the scene of a Hezbollah rocket attack in order to evacuate them in bandages in a helicopter to a hospital.
The army reportedly orchestrated the injuries to mislead Hezbollah into making victims and therefore agreed to a ceasefire.
Friday’s misleading statement further strained the often rocky relationship between the IDF and the foreign media.
Peter Lerner, a former military spokesman for the foreign media, said the Israeli public has long felt that the international media is too focused on the Palestinian side of history while minimizing Israel’s worries and sufferings – and the army is similarly inclined .
Lerner said it was unlikely that the military deliberately lied, but the damage was done anyway.
“Your currency is credibility,” he said. “I think this is a crisis of that credibility in the way it is portrayed.”