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ISRAEL: Censorship, criticism and morale, Gaza Operation Media, part 3

January 13, 2009 |  7:16 am

Censorship has successfully kept reporters out of Gaza, and self-censorship by the Israeli media has been equally successful in keeping disturbing news footage to a minimum. But the absence-breeds-solidarity policy is beginning to be questioned, as is the affordable measure of criticism allowed to be expressed during wartime. Support

Last weekend, poet, novelist and long-time peacenik-with-an-attitude Yehonatan Geffen published a column in Maariv harshly criticizing Israelis' indulgence in self-pity, sparing no vulgarity telling civilians as well as the home-front command exactly what he thinks they can do with themselves. You have problems? Deal with them, he wrote. Those in Gaza don't have a home-front command to relieve their children's distress. The bluntness infuriated Oded Tira, a former chief artillery officer in the Israeli Defense Forces and chairman of Israeli industrialists, prompting him to buy a full-page newspaper ad and tell Geffen he had crossed red lines and can go do the same himself.

Later on Israel Radio, Tira explained that he doesn't reject criticism but that Geffen's column went way beyond that with a blunt and vulgar mockery that had no place in public discourse at a time like this. Besides being distasteful, Tira found Geffen's piece to undermine solidarity -- the public resource most needed to win a war.

An interesting exchange followed between Tira and Carmela Menashe, the radio's veteran military reporter, about journalism, censorship and morale.

Shut out of Gaza, she brought a bit of Gaza to the radio and broadcast a phone conversation she had with Kamal, a Gazan acquaintance of many years. Kamal said he and his family have had no electricity or gas for eight days. Loud noises were audible throughout the conversation, Kamal said it was gunfire from helicopters. "What have my children done to deserve this? What have I done? ... Can you hear it?! They're firing at us, ashkara ... No, I can't see any Hamas people around outside. There's nothing around. Leave the house?? How can I leave the house? They shoot at us inside." A baby screamed in the background.

"I ask all the leaders, Hamas, Israel ... to solve the problem with diplomacy, not with wars that kill innocent people and waste life on both sides. Haram, really." More firing, this time closer, another crying child. "Another one! Right under my house! What can I tell you, Carmela. Where can I take cover? You tell me. Save us. What do we care about such [political] things, it's not our fault."

There is a feeling in the public that it's uncomfortable, even forbidden to talk about this because there's a war going on and it spoils something in the consensus, the reporter said. "But children are being killed; there is a civilian population there. Hamas doesn't care about them and hides behind them, but we must bring their voices to the public. ... I am a journalist, not a politician. I need to do my job."

Tira agreed that a sober view of reality was needed, but added that people get hurt in wars and that this is something those who initiate it must take into account. He didn't object to the interview with Kamal being broadcast, but questioned what such things did to solidarity.

Menashe ended the discussion by saying it wasn’t her job to keep up public solidarity or morale.

Note: This radio discussion took place Monday morning. Tuesday morning, the reporter already broadcast voices of soldiers she had spoken with inside the Gaza Strip. The army had let her and at least one other Israeli reporter in.

-- Batsheva Sobelman

Photo: A banner outside a shopping mall in Mevasseret Zion, Israel, says "IDF, the people of Israel are behind you!" It is signed by Bnei Akiva, a religious youth movement. Credit: Batsheva Sobelman