For over three years, the name and image of Lt. Col. Mahmoud Kheir el-Din, an officer in the special operations unit of Israel’s Military Intelligence who was killed in a covert operation gone wrong in the Gaza Strip in 2018, were kept secret under military censorship.
During that time it was argued that publication of these details may jeopardize national security. In recent months, following reexamination by the military censorship and senior figures in the special operations array, it has been determined that revealing his identity will no longer endanger national security.
The decision to publish Kheir el-Din’s identity was made ten days before it was published in the media. In a briefing to military reporters Saturday, Head of the Israel Defense Forces Operations Directorate Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva said that examination of the possibility to publish the officer’s name began around two months ago, following a routine reexamination of censored news reports.
Senior security figures told Haaretz that the procedure of examining lifting censorship on sensitive security news is done on a regular basis, which they said is due to the difficulty in indefinitely preventing the publication of reports the media is interested in.
There are two scenarios which lead to such examinations. The first is when the Military Censor reaches out proactively to the relevant units and commanders to reassess the damage that would be caused by publishing the report. The second follows contact by media outlets or other entities interested in publication of the information at hand. In both cases, Military Censor officials consult with the relevant actors to assess the degree of damage caused that would be caused by reporting the information.
In Kheir el-Din’s case, it was the Military Censor that contacted senior special operations figures. Supporters of disclosing Kheir el-Din’s identity believed that it could be published as a reasonable amount of time had elapsed, and revealing his name and picture would not jeopardize the mission. The fighters were documented in the Gaza Strip by security cameras and their images were published by Hamas immediately following the incident. Those who were undecided wished to examine whether the disclosure of Kheir el-Din’s name may, even more than three years after his death, harm national security due to other operations he took part in.
An examination of the possibility of lifting censorship from a report focuses, according to senior security figures, on information that may serve the enemy in achieving objectives and obtaining relevant information to be used against Israel. The security establishment understands that in the current media reality, and in light of social media, it is difficult to keep reports of high interest to the public secret. Significant amounts of information can be found on social media, though such information is not necessarily reliable, and often comes from unofficial sources. On the other hand, senior figures say that a report that has been officially released by the Israeli military and has cleared censorship is regarded as reliable.
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Haliva says that the gag on Kheir el-Din’s identity was removed a few days ago, though it was decided to take his identity public towards the end of the weekend. Haliva, who supported the publication in order to honor Kheir el-Din's, claimed that the decision to delay the publication was made due to family demands.
If a media outlet had published information pertaining to his identity during the days following the removal of censorship, it would have been legal – even if the family objected. Senior Israeli military sources say that despite the importance t given to family wishes, their position is not legally binding, and it is on a moral and ethical basis that the military decides whether to adhere to a family's wishes pertaining to publication. Though the military will rarely go against a family's wishes save for cases when a media outlet proactively approaches a military spokesperson and censorship office, thereby giving the military limited say in prohibiting publication.
In a briefing with military reporters, Haliva claimed that broad staff work is underway regarding publication of the picture of Lt. Col. Emmanuel Moreno, a fabled commando fighter who died in combat on the last day of the Second Lebanon War. For 16 years the censorship has banned the publication of Moreno’s picture, for several reasons. Discussions and considerations are different in his case, according to various security sources, than that of Kheir el-Din.
While in the case of the Khan Yunis operation Hamas had documentation from security cameras, and published it not long after the incident, Moreno’s image has not been published to this day. This, security establishment sources say, helps maintain secrecy. As opposed to the case of Kheir el-Din, where the special operations array supported the publication, Moreno’s case is more complicated and until now publication received no support.
Sources in military intelligence believe that due to the amount of time that has passed – 16 years since his death – the damage from publishing his picture will be miniscule, but the examination remains ongoing. Haliva shows more openness on the subject and believes that in cases where the information can be disclosed without security risks, it should be published to honor those killed in cover missions, without the public knowing their exact deeds or sacrifices made for the country.