In the wake of the death of the Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and the images of Israeli police officers beating pallbearers at her funeral, the discussion over the past week has focused primarily on the question of the damage to Israel’s international reputation – and not the fear that a life was taken due to an error the responsibility for which has not yet been determined, whether that of an Israel Defense Forces soldier or a Palestinian gunman. The violence of the police officers during the funeral procession also drew little attention from most Israelis and Israeli media outlets. To many people, appearances are everything.
Against the backdrop of this public atmosphere, it is easy to understand how it is that the IDF Military Censor – which operates by dint of emergency regulations that have been in effect since the country's establishment, in the name of national security – got up on its hind legs in order to prevent a different publication with the potential to affect Israel’s image: the purpose for which, according to defense sources, then-Mossad chief Yossi Cohen traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2019 (see story, page 1).
Cohen visited Congo three times during that year with the Israeli billionaire businessman Dan Gertler, without coordinating with the authorities and while concealing his identity. During at least two of these trips he met with Congo’s former president, Joseph Kabila, a matter that aroused the suspicion of President Felix Tshisekedi. Cohen’s relationship with Kabila and his uncoordinated visits triggered apprehension in people close to Tshisekedi, and in a rare move he expelled the Mossad director from the country at the end of the third visit. Cohen’s odd conduct, which led to his expulsion and the exposure of his activity in Congo, is the part of the story that was not censored.
The purpose of these visits is in itself a Pandora’s box, but the censor is not permitting publication of those details. It appears that Cohen’s mission in Congo had only a tangential connection to Israel’s national security, and his employment of the Mossad in dealing with it raises difficult questions regarding the judgment of Cohen and of the state.
It can be said with a great degree of certainty that the Military Censor is preventing publication for considerations having to do with the image of the state that do not necessarily have direct bearing on its security. Although publication of the details of the affair has the potential to generate an international storm, it is difficult to imagine that their disclosure could do concrete damage to national security.
Just as the Military Censor does not have a mandate to prevent publication of the images from Abu Akleh’s funeral – even though they are harmful to Israel’s image – it is similarly exceeding its mandate when it prevents publication of Cohen’s reasons for traveling to Congo. The censor must immediately lift the blackout on details of the affair. A state whose military censor operates out of considerations of the optics does not deserve to be called a democracy.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.