The bloodbath that wasn't: Sa-Nur and Homesh (archive)

This piece originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post on August 26, 2005. Television viewers and newspaper readers at the beginning of this week were left with no doubt: there was about to be a bloodbath in the northern Samaria settlements of Sa-Nur and Homesh. No scenario was too violent. IDF deserters would open fire on the evacuation forces; hand grenades and Molotov cocktails had been stockpiled; and the roof of the fortress in Sa-Nur would be the scene of a Massada-like mass suicide. The heads of the army and police contributed to the gore fest with their own bombastic statements about being prepared for the worst eventualities, and made it clear that in northern Samaria there would be no Gush Katif-style hugs between settlers and officers. The fact that the leadership in both settlements made it clear that they were not planning to use violence and that in Sa-Nur they even got rid of a few troublemakers, didn't change the grim media picture. In the end, the 'great battle' of Sa-Nur and Homesh was completed within 10 hours, with a handful of light casualties. 'The media did a terrible thing when it cranked up this story,' an IDF officer who is an expert in dealing with crisis situations told me on Monday in Homesh. 'The irresponsible reporting could have caused a tragedy. When people hear that the media is describing them as dangerous criminals, those who had no plans to use violence ask themselves, 'What do we have to lose?' and the really violent ones are given an incentive to exceed the expectations.' A short while before, a senior officer in the police's general staff who was accompanying the commissioner in Homesh, said to me, 'These reports in the press only helped us to deter the protesters here.' OTHER SENIOR officers felt similarly. On Wednesday, Haaretz's military affairs correspondent wrote that OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh 'noted with satisfaction that the psychological warfare that he had waged had been useful. For days, the IDF had sold the press inflated accounts of the preparations in Sa-Nur and Homesh. Not only did the media buy these accounts, so did the settlers, and some families left the settlements for fear of getting hurt.' Rabbis and other leaders arrived on the scene to prevent bloodshed. Still, the reports were not entirely baseless. In Homesh, I met an intelligence officer in one of the evacuation units - himself a settler, and, obviously, sympathetic to the cause - who told me that the security services had received 'definite information' that chemicals used to make Molotov cocktails had been brought into the settlement. Another reliable source told me that the night before, rabbis had gone around to the barricaded houses and made sure that certain devices were removed from the roofs from where the Molotov cocktails were supposed to have been thrown. What is clear is that for better or for worse, the media was used by the the IDF and police spokespersons. In hindsight, it might seem that the prophecies of doom actually helped to deter violence, but the ultimate test for the media is whether it told the truth. While it's clear that there was indeed potential for serious acts of violence, it's equally clear that the settler leaders made a decision to defuse that potential. Not only did that decision receive scant media attention, but on Tuesday morning, the day of the evacuation, newspaper headlines warned of direct fire on IDF soldiers. In many cases, the media has no choice but to trust its security and intelligence sources. But as The New York Times found out a year and a half ago, when it turned out that its sources in the CIA had provided misleading information about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, intelligence people always have an agenda. In this case, at least, the media had an alternative source. A sizable group of reporters was based in Homesh and Sa-Nur in the days before the evacuation, and they could have reported on the other side of the story: the serious and ultimately successful efforts to deter violence. Instead, what was seen on screens and front pages was overwhelmingly one-sided, because the editors sitting in their newsrooms in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem will always prefer to emphasize the most drastic and sensationalist scenario. The reporters out in the field know this and slant their reports accordingly. If they had produced a more accurate and complex picture, the editors would have preferred the version of their police and military affairs correspondents, relying on their regular sources and spokesmen.