As Brig. Gen. Sima Waknin Gil recalls, her dream of working in military intelligence began when she was a small girl.
It was accompanied by an
unquenchable curiosity for all things scary or different. To make certain that
she could remember those scary or different things, Gil, now Israel’s chief
military censor, always carried a notebook and pen.
“Then I would see if
I could analyze what I saw,” Gil tells The Jerusalem Report
for things that were out of the ordinary to see if I could understand what was
That early childhood curiosity led her, as a teenager, to
revel in the Hasamba children’s adventure novels and other similar mystery
Forty-three years later, Gil, still fascinated with intelligence
work, is in her seventh year in the powerful post, deciding what local and
foreign journalists residing in the country are allowed to publish – and what
they are not.
She seems miscast: rather than toughtalking, stentorian,
yet revealing little, as one might imagine a chief censor to be, Gil is gentle,
soft-spoken, and eager to talk about her job endlessly. At 47, with
short-cropped gray hair and an obvious enthusiasm in her voice, she appears
diminutive behind her desk in a Tel Aviv office building.
battles with aggressive journalists at home, she faces an equally perplexing
task trying to beat back critics abroad, who argue that the very existence of an
Israel Defense Forces censor’s office makes Israeli claims to be a democracy
disingenuous. “Explaining censorship in a liberal democracy is hard,” admits
Gil. Explaining it at all marks a change. Her four predecessors felt no need to
explain or justify censorship, only to enforce it.
It was far more
difficult for Israel to run a censor’s office that would try to win worldwide
approval in the 1950s and 1960s when security officials feared that even the
slightest revelation about the IDF would help its enemies: “I don’t want to say
censorship was draconian then but the whole concept was different from today,”
“The concept was, ‘We will do anything to protect State security.’”
“Doing anything” meant barring journalists from writing about the IDF, or and
the Mossad. On May 30, 1950, The Jerusalem Post wrote about the IDF but did so
almost in code: “The air force today celebrated the second anniversary of the
appearance of its first fighter planes in the skies.”
There was no mention of
where the air force celebrated or of the type of fighter planes flown. Still,
the censor had been unusually generous for that time.
A 1966 agreement
between editors and the censor, a tit-for-tat arrangement, had journalists
promising to abide by censorship on security topics while political issues,
opinions, or assessments would not be barred. But the censor still felt
compelled to prohibit articles that might damage army morale.
and Syria launched surprise attacks against Israel in 1973, journalists were
furious with the censor. They accused him of preventing journalists from
publishing details on the early-warning signs that Egypt was preparing to attack
Israeli forces in Sinai in October 1973. The journalists complained bitterly
that had the censor exercised less restraint, the Yom Kippur War might have been
Even though journalists could not prove that
publication of their stories might have avoided war, no longer could the censor
keep them on a tight leash. Moreover, from 1973 onward, with Israel’s existence
no longer in imminent danger, the censor had more and more justification to
adopt a lighter touch with incoming articles.
In 1989, that lighter touch
won Supreme Court backing when the court ruled sympathetically to journalists in
a case involving Ha’ir editor Meir Schnitzer that the censor could not prevent
the publication of an article critical of the Mossad chief on grounds that state
security might be harmed. In his ruling, Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak
wrote that “only in exceptional and special cases,” when there was “near
certainty” that genuine damage to Israeli security would be caused, should the
censor forbid publication.
Given the journalists’ uproar in 1973 and
Barak’s “near certainty” edict, Gal contends that the cause for the newly
transparent censorship lies more with these historical events than her personal
judgment about what journalists can publish.
One of five children born in
Kiryat Yam near Haifa to a Turkish-born mother and Moroccan-born father, Brig.
Gen. Gil acquired her taste for curiosity from parents who stressed Zionism and
learning as the two guiding principles of life in Israel. “For them,” she notes,
“learning was a tool, a vehicle for promotion in the country. And, of course, we
were also supposed to do everything we could for the country’s safety. “Serving
as a soldier in the air control unit of the Israel Air Force, one of the few
jobs open to women at the time, Gil then took a six-month officer’s course,
serving more than 10 years in Air Force Intelligence before creating and heading
an officer’s school for Air Force combat support tasks from 1995 to
Along the way, she picked up an undergraduate degree from Tel Aviv
University in political science and Middle East studies and a Master’s degree
from the National Defense College in national defense studies. She is now
embarking on a doctorate, planning to write her thesis on how censorship can
balance the needs of state security with freedom of expression, the anchor of a
One of 30 candidates for the chief censor’s post, Gil won the
competition in 2005. Why would so many apply? “Because,” says Gil, “you know
almost everything that happens in Israel because you have to defend it from
being published.” She wears an IDF uniform, but notes that it is “misleading,”
because the censor’s unit is a civilian department despite getting its budget
from the IDF.
Under the “near certainty” edict, Gil and her 34-member
team ride a wave of openness that permits 85 percent of stories submitted to the
censor to go untouched. Another 13 percent are modified lightly and two percent
are barred from publication. In the 1950s and 1960s the chief censor identified
61 subjects that might be blue-penciled compared to 36 topics
Reflecting a new restraint that would have been unimaginable in
the early days of statehood, Gil recently permitted extensive publication of the
so-called “Harpaz affair.”
The episode concerned Col. (res.) Boaz Harpaz,
a former Military Intelligence officer who allegedly forged a document detailing
a strategy of how to get former Southern Command head Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoav
Galant appointed chief of staff. Bowing to democratic impulses within Israeli
society, Gil, despite believing that publishing “Harpaz” might have exposed
covert operations, allowed the story to see light.
Just as with the
Harpaz affair, with regard to the public debate over whether and when Israel
should attack Iran to crush its nuclear efforts, Gil has approved full coverage
of the debate. In the past, such a debate – which has included fiery comments
from former security agency chiefs – would have been censored on the grounds of
assuring that Israel retained the element of surprise in an attack against
“The only thing I will not allow,” says Gil, “is if you come to me
with an article in which you say exactly how the Air Force will
It is not just public debate affecting the military that passes
censorship today. Articles detailing military strategy, equipment such as the
Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, and IDF personnel reach the Israeli media
regularly. Today we know the names of many of the IDF top brass and the heads of
both the Mossad and the Shin Bet.
Conventional wisdom has it
that the advent of digital technology, especially the Internet and smart phones,
has made it harder for the censor’s office to act against journalists. But, to
Gil, that is a myth because of the new, more congenial attitudes coming out of
her office. “I don’t have to stop anyone from there,” she says.
and good, but what if a journalist were to blog that the country had many
nuclear weapons? In the past, given the nation’s policy of ambiguity, the censor
has come down hard on anyone writing from Israel that it possessed such
Gil could arrange charges that could get the blogger 15 years
in jail – a sanction that has never been imposed. Today, with an eye on that
amibuity, Gil will negotiate the language a journalist may use in writing about
Israel’s nuclear capability.
How does Israeli censorship stack up in 2012
with the practice in other countries? Certainly it is far milder than in such
authoritarian regimes as Saudi Arabia and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Gil argues,
where, without freedom of expression, there is no need for censorship
As for America, despite its profession of being democratic, Gil
contends that the US practices a far more strident censorship than Israel does:
after all, the US in 2003 “embedded” the media to prevent journalists from
wandering in a war zone, and during that same war barred the televising of
funerals of US soldiers killed in Iraq. Less remembered but equally stark was
the case in 2010 of the Pentagon burning 9,500 copies of Operation Dark Heart, a
book that it claimed harmed national security.
In the new atmosphere of
openness, Gil sometimes confronts journalists with whom she is willing to
negotiate rather than ban their stories outright. “Some of them,” she says
resignedly, “know things that I as the censor don’t know.” She is open to
negotiation: “You can persuade me to do things. You can try to show me that I’m
One example occurred in 2006 when Israel feared that a
miscalculation by either side might trigger possible Israeli- Syrian violence.
When a Yedioth Ahronoth journalist obtained highly classified information on a
planned intelligence operation in Israel’s north, the censor did not ban its
publication, as had happened just before the 1973 war. Instead, getting IDF
intelligence officers to reformulate the original leak, Gil preserved the
journalist’s “scoop” and prevented imminent harm to state security.
this open-mindedness sometimes goes too far in Gil’s view, as when the IDF
releases information that she wishes had been kept secret. That was the case in
2010 when the IDF spokesman announced new details about the satellite unit of
the IDF intelligence branch. To Gil, those details gave Syrian and Hizballah
intelligence officers a rare gift.
But she allowed the IDF news release
to get into print.
Perhaps the most severe test of censorship in recent
years related to the case of an IDF conscript, Anat Kamm, who supplied military
secrets to Haaretz journalist Uri Blau. Kamm’s leak suggested that the military
had defied a court ruling against assassinating wanted militants in the West
Bank, who might otherwise have been taken alive and arrested. Gil contends that,
despite IDF claims that too many military secrets had been exposed, the Israeli
public had a right to know about the case. “Even if Uri Blau thinks the army did
wrong,” she argues, “I cannot prohibit it from being published because the
debate is worthy.”
Will Sima Waknin Gil’s effort to foster more moderate
censorship gain new friends among critics of press restrictions? Probably it
will not. But it may trigger thoughts of replacing the word “censor,” with all
its pejorative intonations, with a new kinder, gentler term. As for what that
new term might be, Gil acknowledges that she has no idea. But she continues to
search for the word.