This is how the rumor mill works: At noon on Thursday, I was waiting for a meeting in a small office in Tel Aviv. My host was delayed, and his secretary asked me if I had heard of "the kidnapping of the two officers."
"No," I replied. "I listened to the news on the way and they didn't say anything. Where did it happen?"
"I don't know," she said. "A friend who is a bank investment consultant called to tell me that all the screens in the stock market are red. Those people know things like that."
The hours passed, the rumor spread and with it came the questions. Is this a recurrence of the abduction of soldier Nachshon Wachsman in 1994? How will Sharon handle the crisis? Has the Palestinian front awakened, a day after a soldier was killed in the north and the disengagement objectors rioted on the roads and abused a Palestinian in Gaza?
Israel's citizens remained with the questions, but with no authorized report on the goings-on. The defense establishment deemed them incapable of dealing with such a crisis, and chose the easy way out - to slap a sweeping gag order on the affair. Only in the evening news did the authorities release a report saying that Palestinian rumors had alleged that two soldiers had been abducted in Nablus, but they were later found to be groundless. All our soldiers are safe and well.
The military censor's job is to prevent the enemy's intelligence from obtaining information. However, in this case, the "enemy" was au fait with the events. Reuters in Gaza reported the story about the soldiers' kidnapping at about 3 P.M., and the Arab television networks followed suit. Every Palestinian or Syrian saw live reports from Nablus; only in Tel Aviv and Haifa did people have to settle for unsubstantiated rumors, or know someone who works in a bank. Apparently the defense establishment sees the Israeli public as the enemy from whom it must hide information.
The establishment's explanations sound like schoolboy cloak-and-dagger excuses. "You can't compare releasing a report in Israel to the foreign media." "There were operative considerations." What were they? The Israel Defense Forces wanted media silence to prepare a possible rescue operation, to count the soldiers without pressure from worried families and politicians, and to wait until the families had been notified, like in cases of casualties. But from whom exactly were they hiding it? After all, every Palestinian in Nablus knew that forces were amassing around the city. If he hadn't seen them for himself, he could have switched the channel to Al Jazeera.
It's hard to complain about the military censor. When such frightening arguments are presented, it is hard to resist banning the report, even if it has been broadcast all over the world. What is troubling is the judgment of the ranks that are superior to the censor. No one in the defense leadership - from Shaul Mofaz and Dan Halutz to the head of operations, Yisrael Ziv, and IDF spokeswoman Miri Regev - dared to take responsibility and issue an authorized statement to the public. Something like: "There's a Palestinian report that has not been verified about kidnapping soldiers. The matter is being looked into." So simple, reliable and reassuring. But why hurt the morale? Or take responsibility for a possible botch? It's easier to have the censor black out the screen.
Three years ago, on the day of the battle in Jenin in Operation Defensive Shield, the information was concealed for numerous hours, during which Israel was agitated with rumors of the death of the chief of staff's deputy and defense minister in a helicopter crash. Since then, the defense establishment has held dozens of seminars, in which it admitted its media failure in this incident. Yet now, when the dilemma reawakens, the top brass in the Kirya do exactly the same as they did then. Once again, they decide the Israeli public is not ready to handle such disasters, or they prefer to direct the media to the photo-ops available at a tour by the chief of staff, censuring the less pleasant news.
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