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ISRAEL: Wartime media

January 10, 2009 |  5:17 pm

Applying one of the many lessons learned in the 2006 Lebanon war, Israel is enforcing strict censorship regarding its operations in the Gaza Strip. The border area was declared a closed military zone, and local and foreign journalists are denied access. Israel Defense Forces spokesman Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu regulates the information, emphasizing that the policy is intended to protect soldiers' lives and information security, not to undermine the freedom of the press.

Besides the army just putting its foot down, there are practical, operational reasons for restrictions. Geographic distances are short, and every second counts toward the element of surprise. The first hours of the ground operation had been censored and two reporters from East Jerusalem were arrested and accused of violating censorship by reporting troops' movements to Arabic media outlets in real time. One, identified as Khader Shahin, turned himself in after police had spent two days looking for him with a warrant after he was "outed" by veteran Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari during a live TV news broadcast.

Soldiers have had to surrender their cellphones upon entering Gaza.

Two years ago in Lebanon, Israeli soldiers often called home. Information flowed freely -– too freely, say many -- and in real time. Information was leaking from higher up too. After the war, it was reported that Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz, the army chief of staff at the time, had ordered his officers' phone records and found 460 unauthorized conversations between army officers and reporters on a single day of combat.

Blabbing is a low-tech problem, but there are high-tech concerns too. Phones can disclose one's pinpoint location and serve as listening devices. Senior officers are often instructed to shut theirs down in meetings. Certain bases and defense installations require cellphone cameras disabled. The army has been battling cellular compromising of information, particularly with an eye on the north, where the militant group Hezbollah has become increasingly tech-savvy in gathering information as well as protecting its own data. Hamas' technological abilities may be inferior by comparison, but, as Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar recently pointed out, "Hamas has heard of laptops, you know."

-- Batsheva Sobelman

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