The censor and the air strike

Israeli censorship of the media is an old and outdated institution.

Ehud Barak at Gaza security evaluation 370 (photo credit: IDF Spokesman)
Ehud Barak at Gaza security evaluation 370
(photo credit: IDF Spokesman)
Israeli censorship of the media is an old and outdated institution. It was established nearly 80 years ago during the British Mandate in Palestine. Its authority is derived from British Emergency Laws, some of which have been adopted by the State of Israel.
The institution is replete with contradictions.
For example it is a military unit which employs mainly civilians. The Chief Censor is a military officer in uniform (the post has been held in recent years by female Brigadier-General Sima Vaknin-Gil), who is not subordinate to the Chief of Staff, but to a civilian, the Defense Minister. This is meant to provide the Chief Censor’s office some measure of professional independence.
Indeed, many censorship decisions are reasonable and professional and intended to prevent the leakage of core secrets, which could genuinely damage national security. But sometime the censor’s efforts are futile.
Such was the case of the recent Israel Air Force attack on a Syrian weapons convoy headed for Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. The Israel government and military kept silent and the local media had no clue what had happened the night of January 29. When the first reports emerged from Lebanon and later from the Western media about a mysterious air strike, Israel censorship went into a state of panic. Military Intelligence feared that if the Israeli media reported the incident from its own sources, Syria or Hezbollah might hold Israel responsible and retaliate.
Thus, the military censor tried to prevent the Israeli media from publishing information or even hints that Israel was behind the attack. In some instances, the over-zealous censors were performing in a theater of the absurd. They refused to allow the publication in Israel of facts or analysis that had originated in the foreign media. Local journalists dealing with security matters were frustrated and helpless.
But a few days later the weakness and limits of censorship were fully exposed.
It was no less than Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the censor’s boss, who upset the apple cart.
While attending an international security forum of diplomats and defense officials in Munich, he was asked about the air strike. He initially toed the censor’s line saying, “I cannot add anything to what you have read in the newspapers about what happened in Syria several days ago.” But then he let the cat out of the bag by adding, “I keep telling frankly that we said – and that’s proof when we said something we mean it – we say that we don’t think it should be allowed to bring advanced weapons systems into Lebanon.”
It was not the first time that Israeli leaders and officials have broken the strict censorship, which they themselves impose on the media. The leaders preach and condemn the media for supposedly leaking secrets, while they hint, wink and make a mockery of the censorship, which does not have authority to censor them.
The attack on Syrian soil was meant to serve as a warning to the crippled Bashar Assad regime not to transfer sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah and, above all, not to move anti-aircraft missiles and radar systems, which can limit the freedom of the IAF to fly in Lebanese skies.
However, if the Syrian regime does not understand the message and keeps transferring weapons to the Shiite organization, it will be difficult for Israel to repeat its action. Syria will face tremendous difficulties to swallow its pride in the face of the Israeli violation of its sovereignty.
Despite its weakness and lack of desire to open another front, which may exacerbate its collapse, the regime will most probably have no choice but to retaliate next time.
Yossi Melman is a commentator on security and intelligence matters for Walla, a Hebrew news website.