Facing the Cruel Facts

Ilana Dayan and Ruth Yaron have quite a bit in common. Both are intelligent, articulate and industrious. Both are women of principle, professional, impressive. In the past few years both have tried to carry out impossible missions. Yaron, the IDF spokeswoman (whose office is crammed with photos from the peace process) is trying to do PR for an army that is mired up to its neck in a cursed war. Dayan, a well-known television personality, is trying to preserve a high journalistic standard in a commercial media arena that is becoming increasingly polluted. Both Yaron and Dayan are anomalies within the brutal establishments in which they operate. Both Yaron and Dayan are Israeli patriots who, under the contradictory pressures of the present Israeli situation, find themselves facing harsh ethical and professional tests week after week.

So the confrontation this week at the Herzliya Conference between Brigadier General Yaron and Dayan, host of the documentary television program "Fact," was important. It was a confrontation that went beyond the embarrassing scenes and the grating tones it produced. Because what underlies the confrontation is the question of where Israel finds itself at the end of four years of a cruel war against terrorism. What underlies the confrontation is the question of whether the need to fight in populated territories has corrupted the Israel Defense Forces beyond recognition.

The report that Dayan broadcast three weeks ago answered that question with a resounding yes. Dayan herself did not intend this, but the report, which she edited and presented about the events that took place in the Girit outpost in the Gaza Strip on the morning of October 5, 2004, effectively said that the IDF has become a heartless army of brutal cohorts. The verbal text Dayan used in the report was for the most part cautious, with very few mistakes. But the visual text she wrote was sweeping in character. It showed the soldiers of the outpost firing a machine gun with wild abandon shortly after a soundtrack was played of the same soldiers talking about the fact that the target they identified was a little girl. It showed the soldiers dancing and exultant immediately after showing the body of the girl, 13-year-old Iman al-Hamas, being taken on a stretcher from the outpost. It created a visual story (which Dayan never tried to turn into a binding factual argument) that created the impression that IDF soldiers identified a little girl, shot and killed her, and then celebrated her death.

That is a distorted impression. The firing of the machine gun was not aimed at the girl but took place shortly before the event. The image of the joyful soldiers was also not related to the killing in any way. Nor is it at all clear whether the soldiers who went out to charge the target were aware that it was a girl. The IDF says they were not. So that even though the verbal Dayan made every effort to get the facts right and even to describe the dangerous and threatening situation in which the soldiers found themselves, the visual Dayan created a false image for the viewers. The medium that abhors nuances, loathes depth and despises details got the better of her. It tempted her into pursuing powerful images that misled the viewers of the program and did an injustice to the soldiers in the outpost.

However, the mistake in the editing room, even if it was made, does not justify the assault on the program's team - and not only because this is one of the most important teams in the Israeli media. It's not only because even superb professionals can sometimes make a mistake. It's because the report about the Girit outpost was for the most part an important one, which illustrated the bestialization process that many units in the IDF are undergoing.

The General Staff represented by Ruth Yaron is aware of this process. As a decent and moral General Staff, it is upset by the process. It is trying to struggle against it. It is insisting that at the end of the war Israel should be in a position where it will be able to look itself in the eye. So that now, after a few weeks of intensive combat between the army and the media and between the media and the army, it is time to get back to dealing with the main thing. It is time to see to it that the Israel Defense Forces does not find itself killing 13-year-old girls who are carrying schoolbags on their back.