If all’s fair in love and war, why is everyone on the IDF spokesman’s case? For it looks like Israel has pulled off one of the shrewdest military feints since the eve of D-Day, when America fielded the First United States Army Group.
Just after midnight Friday the Israeli Defense Force spokesman released a carefully-worded statement, informing the press in Hebrew, Arabic, and English that “IDF air and ground troops are currently attacking in the Gaza Strip.”
The statement was technically accurate. Tanks, artillery and other IDF units that can accurately be described as “ground troops” indeed joined the Airforce in an attack on Gaza. Then again, it was also, perhaps deliberately so, a bit off the point.
Those ground forces conducted their attack from the Israeli side of the Gaza border. They did not cross into the Hamas-controlled strip, as in the last Gaza war, in 2014. At that time a major land invasion resulted in a high number of casualties, including many civilians. With that in mind, leading American editors ran ahead of what turned out to be the more important “ground troop” story.
One reason is that the IDF English-language spokesman, Jonathan Cornicus, went a bit further than the original statement, telling reporters of the New York Times, Washington Post, and wire services that troops indeed went into a Gaza enclave, telling them, “Yes. As it’s written in the statement: Indeed, ground forces are attacking in Gaza. That is that they are in the Strip,” according to the Times of Israel.
The Hebrew language IDF spokesman, Hidai Zilberman, later clarified that no troops infiltrated Gaza, but by then the headlines were out. As Liz Sly, a Washington Post reporter based in Beirut, dramatically tweeted, “Breaking: Israeli troops have crossed into Gaza, the Israeli military confirmed early Friday.”
Stories on the start of the IDF invasion in Gaza ran in major American outlets, emphasizing Israeli escalation in the war and pending horrors for Gaza civilians. Yet a day later, the tenor of the story changed. And as it turns out, the target media consumers for the spokesman’s original statement weren‘t knee jerk anti-Israel media reporters at all.
According to a story widely reported in Israel Friday, the IDF and its spokespersons conducted a carefully-constructed ruse to achieve a life-and-death military objective. It was aimed at Hamas’ strategy of employing a vast network of underground tunnels.
Heavily fortified facilities beneath Gaza’s cities (built, incidentally, with concrete supplied to the strip as international humanitarian assistance) serve as military headquarters, transportation routes, and, at times, attack venues to infiltrate Israel.
In an emergency, these tunnels serve also as a hiding place for Hamas military brass. Unlike most of Gaza’s civilian population, these commanders have a place to hide when attacked from the air. Arms and other major military assets, including Hamas’s most secret weapons, are also stored underground.
Once the story about a pending ground invasion led major world press outlets, Hamas bigwigs ran for safety under the ground, lest Israeli troops would find and kill them.
Except that Israeli intelligence apparently has had these underground facilities well-mapped. The IDF Air Force promptly started shelling the underground facilities. Air attacks first targeted tunnels’ entryways and exits, and later, apparently using American-made bunker-busting bombs, destroyed the tunnels, burying everything in them.
IDF sources are careful to say they’re still assessing the damage. Yet they hold out the hope that the Friday morning attack will prove to be a major “game changer” with a lasting effect on Hamas’s ability to attack Israel in the future. It looks like the most important operation so far in the “Guardians of the Walls,” as the IDF calls the current war.
Where does all this leave the IDF’s spokesman office. Even foreign reporters that are most skeptical of what they consider Israeli propaganda rely on IDF spokesmanship as one of the least deceptive sources for news in the theater. Now they feel the spokesman’s office abused that trust and used them as a tool of war.
Which brings us back to the First United States Army Group. It was a vast group of units, some assembled in the fields of Britain at Dover, designed on the eve of D-Day to deceive the Nazis as to where the invasion come ashore at France. One of the Allies’ most famed generals, George Patton, was at one point put at the head of the fake command.
What just happened at Gaza wasn’t quite in that league, but it’s certainly dramatic. Israel has risked what could be damage to the IDF spokesman’s credibility. General Eisenhower got away with it. But that might be merely the fact that today’s press isn’t as sympathetic to Israel’s struggle as it was to the Allies cause in World War II.
As for the business about love and war, It was John Lylly who, in 1579 in a novel called “Euphues,” wrote that “the rules of fair play do not apply in love and war.” Say what one will, as adages go it has certainly survived the test of time.