Article published in the July 2021 Newsletter of the Pen & Sword Club. © Richard Kemp

Indignation from Israeli and international media followed allegations that the Israel Defence Forces deliberately misled journalists during Operation Guardian of the Walls, the recent 11-day conflict with Hamas in Gaza.

The IDF was accused of posting an ambiguous tweet and sending text messages to journalists, interpreted as meaning Israeli forces had entered the Gaza Strip when in fact they had not, and Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, IDF international media spokesman, was alleged to have personally confirmed to journalists that a ground incursion was in progress.

Conricus denies he deliberately misled the media, claiming an honest mistake. The tweet, however, was enigmatically worded, saying the IDF was ‘attacking in the Gaza Strip’. Israeli tanks and artillery were indeed firing at Hamas targets inside Gaza, but from the Israeli side of the border. The IDF had massed forces along the fence-line to deceive Hamas that a ground offensive was imminent.

Hamas took the bait and sent dozens of fighters underground into the ‘Metro’, a vast tunnel network constructed since the last Gaza conflict in 2014, to outflank, ambush and abduct IDF troops. Once the fighters were inside, the Israel Air Force unleashed Operation Blue South, attacking the tunnels with 160 combat planes in just 40 minutes.

Leaving Conricus’s personal role aside, it appears possible the IDF did seek to manipulate the media into inadvertently supporting their deception operation with its tweet and text messages. Reading the media outrage, you would be forgiven for thinking the IDF in 2021 had invented this kind of manipulation. So often, IDF operations are viewed in isolation and their tactics painted as outside the norms of war by the press. That is usually far from the truth, including in this case.

During the Battle of Britain in 1940, the British government fed fake statistics on own and enemy aircraft losses to the press — under-stating RAF fighter losses and exaggerating Luftwaffe bomber losses — in order both to deceive the Germans and boost morale at home. In his BBC broadcast on D-Day in 1944, General Eisenhower spoke of ‘initial landings’ in Normandy, using the media to give a false impression that the real invasion would follow — virtually the mirror opposite of the IDF’s deception plan.

Operation Bodyguard — named after Churchill’s dictum: ‘in war-time, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies’ — had created an entire bogus army, 1st US Army Group, to mislead the Germans into thinking the main thrust would come later and elsewhere. This non-existent formation was briefed extensively to the media, reinforcing the deception that saved many Allied lives and helped ensure success at Normandy and an eventual victory over Nazi Germany.

During the build up to Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Coalition forces also deliberately manipulated the media. For example, ensuring press coverage of staged exercises on the Saudi coast to give the impression of preparations for a Marine amphibious assault, which was never part of the plan.

Almost ten years earlier, in 1982, a misleading media briefing was given by a senior British civil servant, intended to deceive the Argentinians about the likely nature and locations of amphibious assaults to recapture the Falkland Islands.

These are just a few of many examples where media has been manipulated to reinforce military deception plans. Deception operations often rely on hoodwinking enemy intelligence.

The media has long been an important intelligence source for military forces, forming a major part of what is known as OSINT, or Open-Source Intelligence.

During the Second World War, the US and UK both established media monitoring services which have today evolved respectively into Open-Source Enterprise (under the Director of National Intelligence) and BBC Monitoring (until recently funded mainly by the Cabinet Office, Foreign Office and MOD). I and my colleagues depended heavily on such material alongside secret intelligence while working for the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee.

Intelligence from media sources is increasingly significant in the digital era, with its dramatic increase in both volume and immediacy. With such all-pervasive coverage it is quite possible that a crucial deception operation would fail unless false information was fed to the media.

In the case of Operation Blue South, if the IDF had been attacking into the Gaza Strip for real, there is no doubt the media would have reported it. With armour massing on the Gaza border, but no media coverage of an impending ground assault, Hamas is likely to have smelt a rat and the deception — and, therefore, the entire plan — might not have succeeded. Even back in the Second World War it is unlikely that the creation of 1st US Army Group, with phoney radio transmissions and blow-up tanks, would have fooled the enemy without extensive media reporting as well.

As in the past it remains inconceivable today that military commanders would rule out such an important source of intelligence to the enemy as a tool for deception while planning operations vital to the defence of their country and often affecting the life or death of many people. But manipulation of the media should only be for significant military gain, never to obfuscate foul-ups or failures — which would amount to deceiving the public rather than the enemy.

Where operational security permits, deception involving the media can be openly admitted after the event in order to maintain public confidence. It is likely that members of the public will understand, and support measures taken by their armed forces to protect them and save soldiers’ lives. The modern-day media, on the other hand, feeling used, will understandably become peeved — as we have seen in this case — which will likely affect their objectivity.

Because of that, such activity has to be not only as subtle and opaque as possible, but also sparing and selective. Military commanders weigh its benefits against risks with great care.

Operation Blue South, the killing of many Hamas fighters and destruction of a large swathe of their tunnel network, was clearly of immense military importance. Not just in bringing the conflict to a swifter end and saving the lives of Israeli and Gazan civilians, but also in staving off the next round of fighting with Hamas and sending a message to Hizballah in Lebanon, with its 150,000 missiles pointed at Israel.

If the IDF did deliberately mislead the media, it can be assumed that commanders determined the military advantage of their plan outweighed the potential damage to trust.

Is this trust one-way? The American journalist Arthur Lubow wrote: ‘Mutual mistrust is part of the shared heritage of soldiers and journalists in time of war.’

In the case of Israel, it goes well beyond that, with media often blatantly hostile and not even a pretence of objectivity. Writing of the 2014 Gaza conflict in The Atlantic, Canadian journalist Matti Friedman observed: ‘Confused about the role they are meant to play, and co-opted by Hamas, reporters described this war as an Israeli onslaught against innocent people.

‘By doing so, this group of intelligent and generally well-meaning professionals ceased to be reliable observers and became instead an amplifier for the propaganda of one of the most intolerant and aggressive forces on earth.’

Examples of media bias against Israel are legion: here are just two. During Operation Guardian of the Walls, the IDF destroyed a high rise building that housed Hamas equipment intended to disable the Iron Dome missile defence network, a system that saved countless Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives amidst a 4,500-missile bombardment.

Obviously a very high value target. AP and Al Jazeera also had offices in the building, and all the occupants were evacuated before the strike which, therefore, harmed nobody.

Perversely, rather than condemn Hamas for endangering its employees by locating warlike facilities in a building used by civilian press during a conflict started by them, AP all but accused Israel of lying about the reasons for the strike. The Foreign Press Association accused the IDF of interfering with the freedom of the press and the International Press Institute condemned the attack as a ‘gross violation of human rights and internationally agreed norms’.

This operation occurred the day after the Metro tunnels attack, and some journalists suggested the IDF might at least have waited for the dust to settle on ‘misuse’ of the media before razing the building. A clear failure to understand the imperative for rapid action as and when possible, without consideration of media sensibilities which in war do not trump everything else.

Immediately after the Gaza operation had concluded with a ceasefire, the New York Times published a powerful and moving front page entitled ‘They Were Just Children’, with thumbnail pictures of some of the children and adolescents killed in the preceding 11 days and Israel held responsible for all but three.

The Times ignored the reality that most of these children were the victims of Hamas human shield tactics. In addition, one wasn’t killed in the fighting at all, two were later revealed to be active Hamas terrorists, and eight were killed by Hamas missiles falling short into Gaza.

Can the fourth estate, when it behaves in this way, really demand respect as of right at the expense of significant military gain?

Perhaps this sort of hostility and distortion has the effect of lowering the threshold for military manipulation of the media in a cost-benefit analysis. Perhaps we can understand if IDF commanders sometimes wonder: ‘what do we have to lose?’

Image: inflatable dummy tank in World War II. Source: National Archives and Records Administration