Comment: A scandalous saga of withheld film

Delayed release of IDF footage is unforgivable.

IDFsoliderbeatenOnFlotilla311 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson.)
(photo credit: IDF Spokesperson.)
Whichever Israeli officials took the ultimate decision to withhold, for hour after eternal hour on Monday, the IDF’s footage of Israel’s naval commandos being beaten to within inches of their lives aboard the Mavi Marmara, should be relieved of their responsibilities, effective immediately.
Israelis, like the rest of the world, woke up on Monday morning to hear that the interception of the “Freedom Flotilla” to Gaza had gone badly awry. Initial reports suggested that 14, 15, even 19 activists had been killed.
Israelis, unlike the rest of the world, also heard the impassioned IDF Spokesman Avi Benayahu describing, in articulate Hebrew, how the naval commandos dispatched to commandeer the vessels had been “ambushed” aboard the Mavi Marmara, seized as they set foot on deck, attacked, beaten, “lynched,” as he put it. They had come aboard brandishing paintball guns, anticipating little trouble from “peace activists,” but their personal weapons had been grabbed from them and fired at them, said Benayahu, and they had resorted to live fire only because their lives were in absolute danger.
Avi Benayahu is a credible man, and Israelis know enough about the IDF to have believed him – however hard it was to reconcile his narrative with the notion of well-trained, battle-hardened naval commandos facing off against what the international media was largely describing as well-intentioned civilian “peace activists.”
The rest of the world also received the official IDF account of what had transpired aboard the Mavi Marmara, though without Benayahu’s personal passion and precision. And, in the words of one foreign journalist with whom I spoke on Tuesday, “I didn’t believe it, and nor did anybody else. Israeli naval commandos being beaten up by peace activists and having their guns stolen? I mean, come on, how credible is that?”
The lack of credibility given to this official Israeli account, bolstered by the flow of footage from the activists aboard the vessels and the incontrovertible evidence of death, created the narrative on which the international community passed its judgment on Israel as the hours went by on Monday.
Demonstrations flared, first in Turkey and in those parts of the Arab and wider world most hostile to Israel, and then into Europe and beyond.
Official condemnation came quickly, too – the Turks, state sponsors of the flotilla, led the outcry, of course, but they were swiftly followed by some of Israel’s immediate neighbors, and then the statesmen and stateswomen of the rest of the planet. From “murder” and “state terrorism” to merely “unacceptable” and “deplorable,” aggressor Israel was in the international dock once again.
Approximately 12 hours after the event, however, when all the condemnations had been issued, the demonstrators had weighed in worldwide, the Arab League, Security Council, Human Rights Council and all were convening or preparing to devote their attentions to this latest Israeli outrage, official Israel finally decided to release the grainy but distinct footage it had been sitting on all day showing precisely what had unfolded in the pre-dawn battle at sea.
Much earlier in the day, it had made available indistinct footage, shot from overhead, of commandos rappelling down to the vessel, and ostensibly being set upon by a raging mob of activists. But this footage was too blurry to be conclusive. The IDF Spokesman’s Office had added captions, but, said a second foreign journalist with whom I spoke on Tuesday, “You couldn’t make anything out definitively. It just looks like ants running around in all directions down there.”
The belatedly liberated footage, however, was evidently shot from a neighboring vessel, the camera held slightly below the level of the Mavi Marmara’s top deck where the confrontation took place. This footage is also far from perfect, but it is conclusive. The clarity with which it shows the commandos coming down onto the deck and being pounced upon and thrashed is sufficient to render the footage nauseating. The clubs and the irons bars rise and fall with sickening force and frequency.
While many of those aboard the flotilla may have sincerely believed they were on a mission to alleviate suffering in Gaza, those people who mobbed the commandos clearly had a very different agenda. Nobody watching that footage could ever again in good conscience brand them “peace activists” or “human rights activists.”
And everybody watching it could finally appreciate the veracity of Benayahu’s hitherto-unsupported interviews from hours before, claiming that the commandos had faced a veritable lynching.
For many Israelis who had believed the IDF account all along, the belated supporting evidence may have only deepened the frustrations felt all day at the rest of the world’s readiness to doubt Israel’s account of events and believe the false narratives of its enemies.
But for some of the foreign press, who had been less willing to accept Benayahu’s improbable account of commandos overpowered by civilians, the footage was a revelation.
“I saw it, and I realized I had done Israel an injustice,” one of my foreign colleagues said on Monday, with admirable candor. “At that point, and only at that point, I understood what the Israelis had been saying.”
Let there be no doubt about this. The failure to release in good time the video evidence that showed exactly why Israeli commandos resorted to live fire aboard the Mavi Marmara, the video evidence that would emphatically have affected the way the incident was perceived around the world, was not accidental. Neither was it the consequence of some kind of bureaucratic snafu. Nor was it held back for technical reasons.
It was the result of a decision. The officials, in their various competing, conflicting, inadequate propaganda hierarchies, actively chose, after consultation, not to release it. (The Jerusalem Post’s military correspondent Yaakov Katz provides some of the specifics elsewhere on these pages.)
Some of their considerations are not beneath contempt. There was a legitimate concern, for instance, that the footage, showing colleagues in such trouble, might prove demoralizing for Israeli troops. And some of their considerations are utterly contemptible, including the scandalous parochial obsession with local TV – the insistent, misguided desire to hold back dramatic material until late in the Israeli day, so that as many people as possible here will see it fresh on the 8 p.m. Hebrew nightly news.
These, and all other considerations, in a competent official media hierarchy that recognized the urgent imperative to disseminate the footage, would have been immediately set aside. Even allowing generous time for processing and editing the material, the footage could have been flashing across TV screens worldwide by our breakfast time, before news of the entire incident was even beginning to permeate. Would it have completely transformed the way the incident was reported and understood? No. Would it have greatly helped Israel’s case? Unquestionably.
This is not the first time Israel’s abysmal official public diplomacy hierarchies have made this kind of criminal misjudgment, to the terrible detriment of the national interest.
In July 2006, early in the Second Lebanon War, they did almost exactly the same thing. A pre-dawn Israeli air strike on a building in Kafr Kana, in which sheltering Lebanese civilians were killed, was globally reported as having been utterly lacking in military justification and accepted by the international community as evidence of criminal, indiscriminate Israeli aggression.
Only at the end of that black day did the Israeli security establishment convene a press conference – in Hebrew, just in time for the nightly news here – at which footage was released showing Katyushas being fired from the immediately adjacent area.
Monday’s failure was more abject, however. Rather than hopefully enabling a well-intentioned viewer to begin to understand why Israel had acted, as was the case in 2006, the promptly released Mavi Marmara film would have left no doubt about the authenticity of the Israeli narrative.
One of my foreign colleagues said his TV station would repeatedly have run the key few seconds, showing the rods and clubs pounding the outnumbered, ill-equipped commandos. Indeed, on Tuesday, numerous world TV stations were doing precisely that, and some of them were commissioning stories asking why official Israel had shown such spectacular public diplomacy ineptitude in withholding the clip. This behavior puts paid to that other false and defeatist Israeli claim about the foreign media, which has also been reprised in the last two days: “They wouldn’t have broadcast the footage anyway.”
The delayed release of the critical footage was far from Israel’s only public diplomacy failure on Monday. Numerous foreign journalists will tell you that they made phone call after phone call seeking official Israeli responses to the unfolding events, in vain.
Choosing the Israeli politician most beloved by Turkey, Deputy ForeignMinister Danny Ayalon, he of the low sofa for the ambassador fromAnkara, to deliver the Foreign Ministry’s late-morning press conferencewasn’t the smartest idea, either. And giving little time to English atthe Foreign Ministry and the defense establishment press conferenceswas predictably short-sighted, too.
But these are minor peccadilloes compared to the crime of the delayedfootage. Israel will pay and pay for that failure in the days, weeksand months ahead.
But will it spark the long overdue strategic overhaul of Israel’sconduct on the “second battlefield?” Will it finally prompt the primeminister to establish a single, effective, properly resourced hierarchyto coordinate the way Israel presents and explains its challenges inthe media, legal and diplomatic forums?
As a former ambassador to the UN and a highly polished media performer, he of all people should understand what’s at stake.
Surprise us, Mr. Netanyahu.