Half-truths and Double-talk Continued

Conflicting reports

It happened at a June 2001 hearing of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee concerning the deaths of three women in Khan Yunis who were killed by a tank shell. An officer who appeared before the committee said that the shell was of a certain type, when it was really of another, more lethal variety. IDF Spokesman Ron Kitrey immediately came to the officer's defense, saying that the IDF and its officers do not lie and that the report from the field had been incomplete and not reviewed sufficiently.

"I want very much to believe the IDF spokesman," says Yossi Sarid, a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee who clashed with the IDF spokesman over the misinformation. "But unfortunately, over the last year, his credibility has plummeted, and now, when I hear him make a statement, I ask myself whether it's correct or not. When there's other information or when the statement doesn't seem to make sense, I don't believe it. We used to mock the official Egyptian reports. Now our reports are like those and it's a big mistake. The truth comes to light very quickly, so then what have we accomplished? The truth comes out and damage is done as well."

This is what happened regarding the kidnapping of the three soldiers on the Lebanon border on October 7, 2000. The IDF spokesman's initial statement was brief: "This afternoon, three IDF soldiers were abducted by Hezbollah while they were engaged in operational activity by the border fence in the Har Dov area on the northern border."

Three days later, the first report of the head of Northern Command, Gabi Ashkenazi, was publicized. It raised the question of why the soldiers were near the fence in the Har Dov sector, when that was against orders.

The next day, Brigadier General Zvi Gendelman, commander of the Ga'ash Division, which included the three abductees' engineering battalion, held a press conference. He adhered to the army's official line, blaming the soldiers themselves. "We have no answer to the question of why they went down to the fence in contradiction of explicit orders," he said. The same day, Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz reinforced this perspective, when he said that the three soldiers were supposed to stop at an observation point about a kilometer from the place where they were abducted, and wait there to be joined by another force. Had these instructions been followed, the result would have been different.

These statements spawned a wave of rumors insinuating that the soldiers had gone to the fence to do a drug deal. Ron Kitrey did not deny these rumors until October 16, nine days after the kidnapping. Haim Avraham, the father of one of the three kidnapped soldiers, says bitterly: "There was an attempt by several officers to clear themselves and the IDF spokesman did not respond in real time. A whole week passed before he denied the rumors about a drug deal. Who else but the IDF spokesman could have defended our sons' honor? And he preferred to stick his head in the sand."

A week before the kidnapping, 12-year-old Mohammed al-Dura was killed at the Netzarim Junction, when he and his father became trapped in the crossfire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians. The child and his father tried to take cover, but they were hit. The boy was killed and his father was wounded. A camera crew from France 2 with journalist Talal Abu Rahma caught the event on film and concluded that the boy had died from Israeli fire. Charles Anderlin, the French channel's bureau chief in Israel, requested a reaction. The IDF spokesman's response was perfunctory and evasive: "From the morning, disturbances began that turned to shooting. Some of the events began when civilians and Palestinian police dressed in civilian clothing shot at IDF soldiers. The day's events in the south included, among other things, shooting at the Netzarim Junction. The IDF has no interest in seeing the conflict spread. Our objective is to prevent an escalation of events, to stop the fire and to prevent bloodshed and violence."

"I have complete faith in Talal, who has been working with us for many years," says Anderlin. "I have no doubt that the gunfire came from the Israeli post. The IDF spokesman issued a general statement, without checking into it. I would understand if they said they were investigating the matter, but they didn't even do that. Each side is trying to protect its own and I'm here searching for the truth, which, in the end, contributes to the side that adhered to it. Truth is the foundation of every democracy."

The images filmed by the France 2 crew caused an uproar when they were broadcast all over the world. On October 1, the IDF spokesman issued another vague statement. "The Palestinians are making cynical use of women and children by bringing them to sites of violence in the territories. The incident began with live fire aimed at IDF forces and the throwing of explosive and incendiary devices by Palestinians at IDF forces and with hundreds of rioters charging toward IDF posts. Heavy exchanges of gunfire developed and the picture focused solely on the child and his father who were caught in the crossfire." At the end of the statement, the IDF spokesman asserted that "the source of the gunfire could not be identified."

On October 3, Deputy Chief of Staff Major General Moshe Ya'alon said that it appeared that the boy had been killed by Israeli fire, "though it was done by mistake." Ya'alon's version was backed up the following day by Major General Giora Eiland, Head of the Plans and Policy Directorate. "To the best of our understanding, the boy was hit by our fire," he said. The IDF spokesman affirmed that what Eiland said was the army's version of the incident, but then on November 10, he told the army magazine Bamahaneh that it was impossible to determine who had shot the boy. "Just as there are those who claim he was killed by our forces, there are those who are ready to swear that he was shot by stray Palestinian crossfire."

Peculiar denials

The organization Physicians for Human Rights also notes a string of instances in which the IDF spokesman denied incidents that had taken place. "We bring them well-verified cases and they usually say that the claims are unfamiliar, that the soldiers say that nothing happened," complains Tomer Feffer, the organization's director. "Obviously, that's what the soldiers would say, but it's hard to understand why the IDF spokesman believes them and doesn't launch an investigation."

Feffer cites several examples. Three months ago, on the night of November 7, 2001, an infant named Abdullah Abu Zaida was brought by his mother to the Ramot checkpoint, on the way to Makassed Hospital. The chronically ill child was under the care of an Israeli doctor. The soldiers at the checkpoint wouldn't let the mother and son through. She tried again in the morning and when she finally reached the hospital, the baby was in critical condition. "The IDF spokesman said that the claims were unfamiliar, even though they were very easy to check," says Feffer.

Another instance occurred on the night of October 23, when ambulances from the Red Crescent tried to enter the village of Beit Rima after an IDF action there. "The IDF spokesman said that the ambulances were entering the village even though he knew that the village was closed and the ambulances weren't allowed to enter," says Feffer.

"On October 22, the IDF entered Bethlehem. We received a report from two hospitals - Holy Family and Al-Hussein in Beit Jala - that the army was firing on them. The guard at Al-Hussein was killed. With my own eyes, I saw the bloodstains, the places where the building had been hit and the bullet holes in the ambulance. At Holy Family, the neonatal ward had to be moved because of the shooting. The IDF spokesman claimed that nothing of the kind had happened and that the IDF is a humanitarian army that tries not to harm civilians."

The B'Tselem organization has collected similar data. On July 7, 2001, a boy from Rafah named Khalil Mughrabi was killed by a tank shell while he was playing soccer. The IDF spokesman said that an unruly demonstration was taking place there and that the soldiers responded with tear gas and by firing rubber bullets. Brigadier General Baruch Mani, the southern district prosecutor, determined that the army's statement to the press claiming that no heavy weaponry was used was incorrect.

On September 12, two wanted suspects were shot to death in the village of Arabeh. Another man and a 14-year-old girl were also killed in the operation. The IDF spokesman said that an IDF force had come under fire and that several terrorists had been killed in the ensuing exchange of gunfire. B'Tselem claims that this is a false report. "We were there. We collected testimony and verified it. A 14-year-old girl is not a terrorist," says B'Tselem spokesman Lior Yavneh.

When he assumed the post of IDF spokesman, Ron Kitrey declared the start of an era of openness and transparency, and announced that he would distribute cameras to soldiers. But in September 2000, the IDF spokesman put out a booklet entitled "Rules for Media Appearances," a copy of which found its way to Kol Ha'ir reporter Uri Blau. Under the heading, "Interview Dos and Don'ts," the IDF spokesman instructs the soldier asked for an interview: "You are not obligated to say all that you know."