Meet the Biggest PR Firm in the Middle East: IDF Spokesman's Unit

Critics charge that the IDF Spokesperson's unit should stop playing favorites. Its behavior during last summer's Gaza war also raises questions about misleading the press.

Dudu Bachar

During Operation Brother’s Keeper last June, Channel 10’s correspondent in the territories, Roy Sharon, broadcast recordings of a series of conversations between the father of Gilad Shaar – one of the three Israeli teens abducted in the West Bank – and regional councils’ security hotlines on the night they went missing, which highlighted a delayed start in the search for them.

“For three weeks I tried to get hold of the recordings, and when I obtained them, there were 70 files and I had only four hours to transcribe and edit the material before the news broadcast,” recalls Sharon. “In all the pandemonium, I forgot to ask for a response from the Israel Defense Forces spokesperson. In the middle of the report in the studio, I start to get angry phone calls from the spokesman. I apologized, saying, ‘The story will be aired three more times this evening. Give me a response.’ In response they really tore into Channel 10, and I told them, ‘Give me a rational response.’

“That same night, and in the days following the report, I tried to complete the story, to get the other side’s response to the story,” Sharon continues. “But I didn’t get anything. But that same night, as revenge, they called and canceled an interview Or Heller had scheduled for the next day with the commander of the Paratroops Brigade. I would expect behavior like that from a private PR person, not from the IDF Spokesman.”

At the IDF Spokesperson’s unit, they confirm that the interview with the brigade commander was canceled in the wake of the broadcast of the report, but say Sharon violated basic ethics by not having asked for the response in time and not presenting the whole story. “We give information to everyone, in a uniform way and all the time,” according to IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz. “Activity we ourselves initiate (like an interview with a brigade commander) is naturally conducted vis-à-vis those who act fairly and within the framework of the rules of ethics.”

Channel 10 refutes Almoz’s logic. “The IDF Spokesman is a little confused,” they say. “He doesn’t own the IDF and the Paratroops Brigade commander is not his property. The incident in question is more proof that, in some of his decisions, the IDF Spokesman becomes a private PR agency that engages in petty tit-for-tat and accounting. Channel 10 has decided not to cooperate with this mode of behavior.”

This story is a small and typical example of the war raged daily between the IDF Spokesperson’s unit and the media organizations with which it works. No matter which side you are on, there is no question that the IDF Spokesperson’s office has changed its purpose and methods in recent years.

Thanks to a workforce of some 70 officers and 2,000 soldiers, the IDF Spokesperson’s unit is the largest spokesman and PR office in the country, and one of the largest in the world. However, it is unique not only in its size but also in that it is the mouthpiece for one of the most powerful, most significant and, still, most supported institutions among the Israeli public. The army’s secretive nature, and the steps taken there in recent years to prevent leaks, have led to the IDF spokesperson having an almost total monopoly on information concerning the military. What is the spokesman’s role and does he use his great power for good or ill? The many emotions inherent in this question could provide ample material for a weighty tome.

Wild West days

Two traumas in the past few years have shaped the way the IDF Spokesperson’s unit conducts itself today. The first is the conduct toward the media during Miri Regev’s time as spokesperson; the second is the completely different but equally problematic conduct during Avi Benayahu’s time.

“During the course of the [Second Lebanon] War, Miri Regev gave a permit to every reporter who wanted to enter the war zone,” relates veteran military commentator Ron Ben-Yishai, now at Ynet. “We, the reporters and the commentators, had fast-lane conversations with IDF generals – all we had to do was to pick up the phone. We knew everything in real time, and there were some who bad-mouthed others. That was a terrible media fiasco for the IDF.”

In that 2006 war, early information about special forces operations leaked while the fighting was going on, and the commander of the 7th Armored Brigade, Col. Amnon Eshel, voiced criticism of the division commander in a report by filmmaker Nurit Kedar. There were also many more leaks.

The lesson learned from the Second Lebanon War was that it was necessary for the IDF spokesperson to have a firmer grip of the information that flows to the media. The Military Police investigated, summoned officers for polygraph tests and cross-linked output from military mobile phones with the telephone numbers of military correspondents in order to find out the source of leaks.

“Until Lebanon it was the Wild West – officers and brigade commanders talked freely with reporters,” explains one military correspondent, speaking anonymously. “After that, Benayahu succeeded in resetting the whole army. Today, officers are really afraid to talk, and it’s rare that an officer will talk at all without authorization from the IDF spokesperson. It’s not that it’s now impossible to reach officers without the spokesperson, but this has become considerably more difficult and requires a long-standing relationship and a lot of trust. The army is trying very hard to prevent any connection between reporters and officers, in order increase the dependence on the spokesperson. The message is that those who are liked will be allowed in, and those who are critical will have a hard time doing their job: There won’t be briefings, initiated reports or admittance to bases.”

Another veteran reporter tells about an “Adopt a Fighter” event he attended at the Kirya [IDF HQ in Tel Aviv]. “Every military correspondent had a female NCO from the spokesperson’s unit assigned to him. It’s embarrassing – you’re walking around, eating falafel, talking with officers who are 40 or 50 years old, and every step you take you have an 18-year-old girl soldier at your side.”

An IDF clip from Operation Protective Edge.

Controlling the media

And this works. During the course of research for his communications degree, Tal Elovits – an MA student at Tel Aviv University – analyzed 119 reports; some were from the Second Lebanon War period in 2006, others from Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09. He found a 64 percent increase in the number of reports the IDF Spokesperson’s unit initiated, or in which it had been involved.

“The control of the media during Operation Cast Lead helped create an image of achievements,” says Yoav “Poli” Mordechai, who was the IDF spokesperson during that three-week war in Gaza. However, keeping a lid on things also proved to be a disadvantage. “In Operation Cast Lead they closed the Gaza Strip to foreign journalists, and this enabled Hamas to say whatever it wanted,” recalls one military correspondent. “In Operation Protective Edge [last summer], they opened Gaza and suddenly you saw reports on Indian television about the firing of rockets from within residential neighborhoods. All of a sudden, it wasn’t the whole world that was anti-Semitic.”

During Operation Cast Lead, there were a total of four occasions when reporters entered the Gaza Strip – six journalists a time. (During that period, it was still customary to work in the “pool” system – i.e., each group featured a select group of reporters, including a radio reporter, television reporter, and a Web or print reporter, who shared the material with the rest of the media organizations.) By Protective Edge, the competition had grown so fierce that each media organization insisted on sending in its own reporter – a total of 44 reporters.

Throughout Protective Edge, reporters were given briefings every morning on a “smart line” (conference calls with a military source), as well as briefings throughout the day with top commanders. Altogether, according to the IDF Spokesperson’s unit, during the course of the operation there were 1,000 coordinated media activities. However, according to Ben-Yishai, the journalists’ forays into Gaza during Protective Edge were shorter, and the connection between the media’s desire for information and the spokesperson’s preference to force-feed the public information of its own choosing came together in a dangerous symbiosis.

Ben-Yishai: “The media did not cover the action on the ground in Protective Edge in a sufficiently unmediated way – in part because of the need for live broadcasts all the time. Alon Ben David [Channel 10] or Ronnie Daniel [Channel 2] can’t go on the air in the middle of a Golani assault on a house, because they are liable to expose the force and bring about losses. The IDF spokesperson did a good job of providing materials, but everything was under their control and the control of the Information Security Department, so real reporting is impossible.”

The soldiers’ channel

One of the IDF Spokesperson’s unit’s most sophisticated weapons is located in a basement at the Kirya, where about eight soldiers – men and women – sit around a table and watch blurry, grainy, black and white security footage running on four screens on the wall facing them. This is the visual operations room, the control center to which all the materials filmed during wars and operations flow. The images arrive from almost every IDF camera in the field: one screen has a feed from cameras at the separation fence; a second shows footage from observation balloons; a third focuses on the Egyptian border.

The NCOs in the operations room are able to connect to any lookout’s camera in the relevant sector, and film what is happening in the field. So, it is possible to see video footage of soldiers firing from behind a tree at an unseen enemy, or entry into a booby-trapped house in Gaza. Altogether, about 90 percent of the visual material filmed by the IDF comes into the operations room. During an incident, when the rumors start to fly on WhatsApp and reporters and editors are jamming the phone lines with urgent demands for information, the NCOs in the operations room review the materials they have received, do an initial edit on them – mainly adding subtitles and selecting various angles – and send them to all the editorial desks with the flick of a finger. During the 50 days of Operation Protective Edge, 570 videos were sent from there.

The operations room was born as a result of a failure at the spokesperson’s unit – the incident on the Gaza-bound flotilla ship Mavi Marmara in May 2010. “In that operation, the IDF Spokesman had a helicopter that was supposed to fly over to us a memory [USB] stick with pictures from the field, and we were to edit it and send it out,” says IDF Head of Media Lt. Col. Oded Hershkowitz. “When the incident began, I was in the operations room and I’m saying: Where is the helicopter? I need the pictures. They tell me: No, we need the helicopter to evacuate the wounded. And so it happened that at 4:30 A.M., when the incident was still underway, Al Jazeera is broadcasting the clash on the ship, while we put out our first video only at 3 P.M. the following day.”

The visual operations room was not revealed to the media until now. Its doors were only opened to Haaretz by the IDF Spokesperson’s unit after it realized this report might also include criticism, and preferred to direct attention to other places.

A reservist who served in the visual operations room during Protective Edge talks about the need to relay materials nonstop. “During the operation, the computer nearly crashed from a materials overload – it was crazy. But since the satellite broadcasting system – through which the documenters transmit materials – is very slow, and the media are constantly demanding materials, there were cases when IDF spokespeople saw to circumventing the procedures, getting materials directly from the documenters without them having gone through the visual operations room first.”

This story is completely denied by the spokesperson’s unit, which says it is technically impossible. In addition to materials that come out of the operations room, the IDF spokesperson also has a filming unit. News desks and the Web see videos from the spokesman as raw materials worth their weight in gold. These often come from areas to which access is blocked or limited, and they also avoid the usual headaches entailed in producing them.

To what extent are reporters and television editors able to check the materials that come from the IDF spokesperson? “I don’t have an intelligence agency and I don’t have an air force that can verify those videos. If the IDF issues a video of an air force attack and says it is the attack, it isn’t reasonable to think that they would lie, but there is no way of confirming it,” says a highly placed source at a news desk.

We recently saw what happens when the media are limited to the IDF’s point of view. On July 8 last year, a group of terrorists from Gaza penetrated Israeli territory at Zikkim Beach, near Ashkelon. A few hours after the incident, the IDF spokesperson released a video from a boat that documented the incident. However, six months later, there was a leak of another video from the investigation of the incident, which indicated that, contrary to the initial report, as it was happening two of the armed men succeeded in attaching an explosive charge to a tank that was at the site, which blew up but did not cause damage. Military correspondents define the incident as “a grave breach of trust.”

“This is a classic example of the IDF’s information monopoly, and what happens when it wants to broadcast a certain narrative of success and victory,” says one correspondent. “We were all engaged then with the operational aspect and the leak of the video, but the main thing is the lie – they did not report to us accurately about the incident.

“A month after Operation Protective Edge, at an event to honor outstanding soldiers, the chief of staff said, in passing, ‘You should know that Hamas are not uncourageous. It takes courage to run to a tank and attach an explosive device to it.’ No one understood what he was talking about. For 50 days we had covered Protective Edge and they didn’t tell us there had been any such thing. That’s how it is when you also put considerations of self-promotion into the spokesman’s work.”

Tragedy for sale

At his office on a Sunday night, Almoz calls in one of the NCOs, who brings him his schedule. There is a chart of military correspondents, Web correspondents, editors in chief, commentators and economic correspondents – everyone who works on a regular basis with the IDF spokesperson. A date of a scheduled future meeting with Almoz is detailed next to each name. Almoz says he makes a point of meeting at defined intervals with each of the relevant reporters and editors, “so it won’t look as though we keep lists of those who have connections and those who don’t.”

It is with good reason that Almoz displays his egalitarian meetings schedule: Claims of media discrimination are the source of squabbles between editors and the IDF spokesperson, and they aren’t going anywhere. “They favor Channel 2 and Yedioth, large media organizations,” says a source at one of the newspapers. “With Miri Regev it was relatively reasonable, but since then it has gone downhill.”

“The IDF Spokesperson’s unit is an official body, and it should be treating journalists equally, not deciding who works more and who works less,” says a senior editor. “When they grant an exclusive interview, in all likelihood the questions are softer. Things have reached a point where, at the end of a war, the IDF spokesperson decides that the commander of the Golani Brigade will speak only in Yedioth and on Channel 2. This is not acceptable.”

Media bias?

“When there is an incident in Gaza,” says another reporter, “the information is equal all around. So too when a rocket is fired or a terrorist is killed. But when it develops into an operation like Protective Edge and there is a female soldier who has foiled a terror attack, to whom will the item go? To Channel 2. The famous 1st Lt. Lieutenant Eitan [who went in search of 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin in a Hamas tunnel]? To Channel 2.”

So what’s wrong with the IDF spokesperson maximizing an asset in his possession? “Because it’s doing PR for the IDF as a commercial product with commercial considerations, which has nothing to do with spokesmanship that is fair and equal,” says a senior editor. “A situation has developed in which the IDF spokesperson uses official assets like military units and soldiers who have experienced tragedies as commodities.”

In September 2013, Channel 2 News was given exclusive access to a field hospital the IDF had set up near the border with Syria, after Channel 10 had also requested a visit. They were furious at Channel 10. This story constituted the basis for a query sent to the attorney general by attorney Elad Man from the nonprofit organization Hatzlaha – the Consumers’ Movement for the Promotion of a Fair Society and Economy. He wanted to know whether the IDF spokesperson has “exclusivity agreements” with media organizations, through which information or an interview is given exclusively to a favored media organization. The IDF Spokesperson’s unit replied that exclusivity is given in certain cases.

In response to the question of why the field hospital story was given Yedioth Ahronoth and Channel 2, and whether it is chance that such a desirable story was covered by two media organizations that have high ratings, the IDF Spokesperson’s unit responded, “The hospital [story] was directed to Channel 2 the way other desirable stories are directed to Channel 10 or Israel Hayom. There is a division that is decided on the basis of many considerations, and this is what happened in that case. Five months earlier, at the height of the storm over conscripting the ultra-Orthodox, the commander of the [designated ultra-Orthodox] Nahal Brigade was interviewed on Channel 10.”

IDF spokesperson’s response

In response to this article, the IDF Spokesperson’s unit said: “The spokesperson system has operated throughout all the years of the existence of the Israel Defense Forces, to reflect and strengthen the public’s trust in the IDF by means of transmitting rapid and accurate information, insofar as possible, to the citizens of Israel. The transmission of the information is done in line with the details transmitted by the sources authorized to do so, and in accordance with the situation as it is known to the IDF at a given time. In the nature of things, in isolated cases that picture changes, and the media are updated accordingly. If erroneous details have been transmitted, they are corrected in the quickest way and in accordance with the restrictions that apply to the information.

“As an integral part of the IDF, the spokesperson’s system operates within the constant tension of the need to provide the information in a trustworthy and rapid manner, and the obligation to enable the existence of safe and secure operational activity in a way that does not endanger [army] activity or the forces. The system works at all times to study and research the lessons of every spokesperson incident, from the largest to the smallest – with the aim of learning the relevant lessons and always improving.”