Ten Years of Silence on Syria Strike. Why Now?

Journalists were warned, false stories were planted and court petitions were filed. While the world reported on the strike's target, Israel's censor feared a violent Syrian response to an official Israeli publication

A satellite image of the Syrian reactor several months after the Israeli strike
A satellite image of the Syrian reactor several months after the Israeli strike

The Israel Defense Forces came up with the concept of creating a “space of denial” ahead of the strike against Syria’s reactor. According to this concept, Israeli silence surrounding the attack would help the Assad regime abstain from retaliating, thus avoiding a deterioration of the situation that could possibly lead to war. Thus, a blanket gag order was imposed in Israel on the entire subject. Military censors forbade local journalists from making any direct reference to the air strike after the fact, allowing only quotations from foreign media. Since international media outlets had no clue about the target of the attack, and with only a limited number of Israeli outlets aware of the details of what had been attacked – the whole affair remained unknown to the public for an extended period.

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In the period leading up to the attack, only a small number of journalists noticed any unusual activity by the country’s leaders or in the defense establishment. News items providing some details regarding a possible escalation of tensions were struck down by military censors. Several journalists were summoned for cautionary conversations with the official responsible for security in the defense establishment, during which they were told that their stories could cause exceptional security damage.

Front page of Haaretz a day after the Syria strike

Journalists who asked too many questions were sold a story by the Prime Minister’s Bureau and the IDF spokesman – a story which described a scenario involving some sort of miscalculation, in which deterioration of the situation with Syria could occur over the summer due to mutual suspicions. A week before the attack a story was planted in one of the country’s newspapers, under two different headlines, stating that the tension with Damascus had subsided after it became convinced that Moscow had misled it with regard to Israeli plans to act against Syria.

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The headline in Haaretz on September 7, 2007, the day after the strike, had to make do only with hints: Syria was reporting that it had fired anti-aircraft missiles at Israeli warplanes that had invaded its airspace, and Jerusalem was maintaining its silence. The formula that passed the censors was an indirect one: “Sometimes a photo is all that’s needed. Official sources in Israel are remaining unusually quiet after the announcement made by Damascus, but video recordings released by the IDF spokesman show the essence of the story in eight seconds: Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi smiling from ear to ear while shaking hands with his deputy, Moshe Kaplinsky.” Further down in the article, by Amos Harel, it said that, “with so much butter on his head, it’s not sure the Syrian president will come out into the sun.”

In the next few days the military censors forbade Haaretz from publishing even quotes from an item published by Middle East expert Joshua Landis, who had hinted at the possibility that Syria was developing a nuclear program. In contrast, someone leaked a false story to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, according to which Israel had attacked a battery of new Russian-made SA18 anti-aircraft missiles.

The first time something relating to the secret leaked out was in an interview by Haim Yavin, at Israel’s Channel 1 television station, with then-head of the opposition Benjamin Netanyahu, on September 19. Netanyahu told Yavin that he’d known about the operation in advance and had congratulated Prime Minister Ehud Olmert after it was over. Senior officials criticized Netanyahu for these words, calling them irresponsible and a violation of Jerusalem’s policy of keeping silent.

On September 15, Haaretz submitted to the censors a lengthy and detailed reconstruction of the operation, written by Amos Harel. Among other things the story said that “the air force has attacked a Syrian nuclear installation, built in cooperation with North Korea.” The article was completely nixed by the censors.

In 2009, Aluf Benn conducted an extensive investigation of the affair, which was also struck down by the censors. An appeal by Haaretz to a three-man committee composed of representatives of the public, the military censors and the media was denied. These sweeping gag orders did not prevent Olmert’s people who got hold of the material from praising some of the journalists involved for their precise investigative work. Subsequently, Raviv Drucker, working for Channel 10 television, filed a petition with the High Court of Justice against the censors, for quashing a story he had prepared on the affair.

In 2012 journalist and researcher David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy published an extensive story about the bombing of the reactor in The New Yorker. Makovsky wrote that he was relying in part on many Israeli sources. The wording and details clearly revealed that the mouth that had once forbidden revelations was now the mouth giving permission for them to be disclosed, and that many of the decision makers in the affair had fully cooperated with him. Nevertheless, Israel's censors persisted in the policy of not allowing the local media to publish its own stories on this matter, other than when quoting foreign sources.

The reasoning that continued to guide the censors was the concern that original stories disseminated by Israeli media outlets would be perceived in Syria as a formal assumption of responsibility by Jerusalem, which could still somehow provoke a violent response by Damascus. At the same time there were already stories surfacing about Israeli strikes against arms convoys to Hezbollah in Syrian territory, during the course of the civil war there. In these cases too Israel usually avoided taking responsibility, leaving intact the argument that a “space of denial” was conducive to quiet on the border.

The current censor, Brig. Gen. Ariela Ben-Avraham, has re-examined the issue from time to time. Military Intelligence personnel have told her recently that they have no objection to reports on the attack. On this background has come the belated approval by the censors – 10 year after the attack.

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