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Are Israel's Most Sensitive Military Operations Top Secret? Apparently Not

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Pixelated photos of the IDF fighters who participated in the botched operation in Gaza's Khan Yunis in November 2018.
Pixelated photos of the IDF fighters who participated in the botched operation in Gaza's Khan Yunis in November 2018.
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Last week’s episode of the “Uvda” investigative TV magazine, about the botched heroic operation in Khan Yunis in November 2018, was a polished, interesting program that offered new information and played on the emotions as only host Ilana Dayan can. In recent years the season openers of “Uvda” have featured items on obscure military operations and special units. Indeed, it seems these stories never get old, as evidenced by the numerous series and articles in Israel and abroad about the achievements of the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service. “Uvda” and its crew delivered the goods this time as well. The organization that cut corners to realize the mission was the Israel Defense Forces.

Since the , Military Intelligence’s Information Security Department and the military censor have done everything they could to block all publication. They went so far as to prevent the publication in Israel of the soldiers’ photos, equipment, identity cards and credit cards that were displayed by the Al Jazeera network to the entire world. It was forbidden to say that the special operations department was involved, or that the operation’s purpose, at least according to Hamas, was to bug the organization’s most secret, encrypted communications lines so they could be monitored.

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In the past there were instances that the defense establishment banned publication about an operation, falsely citing security grounds, because it failed miserably or was illegal and was a source of terrible embarrassment. This time there was the feeling, both among journalists and analysts known for their skepticism, that there was justification for the heavy veil pulled over the operation. The security establishment warned that any crumb of information was liable to put lives at risk. In general, special operations involving assassinations, wiretapping or computer hacking, or those rare instances where female undercover fighters are involved, as was published by Al Jazeera, are considered the holy of holies of military intelligence.

But the strong stance of the priests of the security cult started to weaken as the date of the broadcast drew closer. The desire to please obscured their judgment. That’s how IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, MI Chief Tamir Heyman, information security commanders and senior air force officers ended up cooperating with “Uvda.” Even if some military censors opposed the broadcast, they didn’t manage to prevent it.

One could understand the ’s agreement to tell the story of ., a Special Operations senior commander, who was killed in the operation. M. and his comrades were the real heroes. They were coolheaded, resourceful and courageous. M. sacrificed his life for his country and its laws (though recent years raise doubts about whether it deserved that sacrifice). The IDF sought to thank M.’s widow and his family for his contribution and to cultivate his battle heritage for the benefit of the next generation.

But what was the justification for allowing Operations Branch chief Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, who retired recently, and other senior officers to relay the story of the operation in such detail? While Alon and the other officers didn’t hesitate to admit their mistakes, they hastened to reveal facts that it seems even Hamas didn’t know, or didn’t want to disclose. For example, that means of observation in the operational envelope weren’t activated for some 20 minutes; that the forces in the field and the command and control forces weren’t using the same broadcast frequency and that they were mistaken about the name of the imam with whom a fighter in the force ostensibly prayed.

I believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant and that the public has a fundamental right to information. But if publication is banned, there should be consistency and no zigzags. The behavior this time indicates, and not for the first time, that the attitude to security considerations must be taken with a grain of salt. The explanations and reasoning we are given are often sugar-coated. The defense establishment always has explanations that can justify a certain position and also its opposite. They will say that circumstances have changed, “we know what we’re doing” and harm to state security is no longer a concern.

But most of the time these are just slogans attempting to hide the simple truth: When it’s convenient for the security establishment, it will trade in information not for operational or intelligence needs, but to promote other interests. This is national security with the flexibility of a contortionist.