At the IDF Spokesman's Office, Trial by Fire, Lessons in Openness

Brigadier General Miri Regev had less than three months to settle into her new job as Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman before overseeing the delicate operation of coordinating domestic and foreign media coverage of the disengagement.

In an interview conducted a few days after the end of the civilian evacuations, she discussed the army's new openness to the media.

"The first lesson from the disengagement is that not everything is a secret, not everything is a problem to cover, and those things that aren't problematic can be brought before the media immediately," Regev says.

Regev is already receiving invitations from local academics, international organizations and foreign armies to lecture on the work of the IDF Spokesman's Office in recent weeks and on the unexpected transparency the IDF adopted toward the media.

Regev points to the flexibility exercised by her staff. "That was a lesson for us for the future - not everything needs the OK of the IDF Spokeswoman herself, it's better to page the journalists immediately and issue a correction afterward if needed," she says. "From now on we'll work more quickly, to give a rapid response to the electronic media."

The spokesman's office has been floating on air with the success of the disengagement. "The IDF hasn't had press like that since 1967," Regev says. Even the BBC, whose relations with the Israeli government have been very tense at times, expressed its gratitude for the cooperative attitude, as did many representatives of the foreign media.

"I requested an interview with an army psychologist, and I got it within four hours," relates Charles Enderlin of France 2 TV, who is also the vice president of the Foreign Press Association (FPA). "The idea of the press shuttle buses worked out much better than expected and the IDF Spokesman's organization operated better than I've ever seen. If someone planned it in order to change the IDF's image in the international media, it was a success," Enderlin says.

Steve Erlanger, the Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times, however, says the army's openness was hard-won, coming only after many arguments and a litigation threat from the FPA.

According to the agreement reached on the eve of the evacuations, a single bus with 50 journalists was to cover each settlement on the day of its evacuation, with a "limited presence of cameras," but that plan dissolved soon after the disengagement began.

Ten more buses were added each day, and about 2,000 journalists and technicians and 15 broadcast vehicles circulated in the 21 Gaza Strip settlements. About 400 to 600 people covered the northern West Bank evacuations.