Foreign journalists stationed in Israel and senior editors in international media outlets are enraged over reports in the Israeli media stating that the Israel Defense Forces deliberately misled them as part of a wider scheme against Hamas. Several reporters who spoke with Haaretz said that the incident will lead media to mistrust IDF statements in the future.
The incident from Friday night is not the only reason for tensions between Israel and the international media: On Saturday afternoon, the IDF bombed a high-rise building in Gaza that housed the offices of several international media outlets, including the Associated Press.
The IDF said that the building was bombed because it was used by Hamas’ intelligence units. The army said Hamas was using the civilian media outlets as "human shields."
The two incidents are expected to hurt Israel’s official position in terms of international coverage of the current conflict, at a time when the country is trying to push back against criticism over its actions in Gaza.
The "deception operation", as some Israeli media outlets have referred to it, has placed foreign journalists reporting out of Israel in an embarrassing situation. Shortly after midnight on Friday, the IDF briefed the foreign media that ground troops had entered Gaza. The military spokesperson’s unit later repeated that message in conversations and text messages with leading correspondents, who wanted to confirm that their reports were correct.
Two hours after the original briefing, the IDF corrected itself and told foreign media representatives that no ground troops had entered Gaza. By then, leading news outlets all over the world had produced top headlines and breaking news alerts about an Israeli ground invasion. They all had to retract those reports, which were based on the official IDF statement and what officials confirmed.
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On Friday, the IDF’s chief international media spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, held a phone briefing with foreign journalists, during which he apologized for misleading them and described the incident as a mistake that happened due to the "fog of war."
In the hours after his apology, however, media outlets in Israel began to report that the misleading briefings about a ground invasion were, in fact, a deliberate ploy by the IDF. Its goal, report said, was to deceive the international media – and through it, Hamas fighters in Gaza.
According to reports on Israeli channels 12 and 13, the IDF wanted Hamas to see the breaking news in the international media, so that its fighters will enter their underground bunkers in northern Gaza and prepare for a ground attack. Once that happened, the Israeli media reports stated, the IDF bombed those underground Hamas bunkers from the air, killing dozens of Hamas fighters hiding inside of them.
The Israeli reports put a special emphasis on how the IDF “fooled” the foreign media in order to achieve this goal. This cause great anger among international journalists, who said they will no longer be able to trust statements coming from the military. “There is total mistrust towards their explanation of this incident,” an editor in one news outlet that reported the purported ground offensive on Friday, told Haaretz.
Articles about the IDF’s ‘ploy’ appeared on Saturday in outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the AP (the building housing AP's Gaza offices was also hit and the news agency's CEO said he was "shocked and horrified" Israel would target the tower hosting media outlets).
An American journalist who reported from Israel told Haaretz that the incident "will not help" Israel's relationship with international media. "It looks awfully transparent," the journalist said, "the idea that they misled people only in English, that Conricus personally said it was so, without any caveats or promises to check, and the timing right before a big attack on the tunnels."
"I don’t know how they regain the credibility this costs them," the journalist added. "On the other hand, they may figure that foreign press is so dependent on them, what does it matter?"
The White House has told Israel that the safety of journalists is "a paramount responsibility," after Israeli forces destroyed the high-rise housing media organizations.
"We have communicated directly to the Israelis that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki tweeted.