As wounded Israeli troops return home, military censorship is harder to enforce


Israeli soldiers ready their gear in a staging area very close to the Gaza Strip border in southern Israel. (Abir Sultan/European Pressphoto Agency)

— The Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv is on a war footing. In the 10 days since Israel started its ground operation in the Gaza Strip, the hospital has received more than 50 soldiers with wide-ranging combat injuries.

As wounded soldiers return from the front line, however, the army is facing a new challenge: how to stop the troops — who are surrounded by medical staff, volunteers, friends and family — from sharing strategic information from their battles.

Add into the mix a digital element — soldiers reuniting with their smartphones and everyone around them constantly plugged in to multiple social-media platforms — and controlling the flow of sensitive information in this escalating conflict becomes more difficult than ever.

On Sunday, the rehabilitation department in Sheba was buzzing with activity. Volunteers delivered treats and snacks to the wounded, family and friends hovered around the young soldiers, and international journalists showed up to hear troops’ stories of battling Hamas militants in the coastal enclave.

“We went into a house. There was an explosion; it was booby-trapped, and parts of the house fell on top of me,” said Elnatan Mor, in a wheelchair flanked by his parents and the object of sudden media attention.

Amid renewed fighting between Israel and the Palestinian territories, The Post’s Ishaan Tharoor offers a background on the decades-old conflict and the current escalation. (Davin Coburn/The Washington Post)

Within seconds, an army spokeswoman standing nearby dashed to his side, her cellphone next to her ear. She advised Mor against speaking to the media, explaining to reporters that military censors had deemed the experiences of his unit too sensitive to share.

But even as Mor’s parents wheeled him back to his room to recuperate, others in the hospital who have been caring for the soldiers were more than willing to share the war stories they had heard.

“Some have told us about ­booby-trapped donkeys exploding and about Hamas fighters shooting from behind women. The soldiers are hesitant to respond when that happens, and that is when they get shot,” said Zeev Rotstein, chief executive of the medical center. He also said he could tell from the soldiers’ injuries that they had faced many shells and explosives during the daily battles.

Such war stories also are backed up by information leaked on social media. The army has clear guidelines for soldiers in certain combat units about their activities on social media, but those who work in support positions and do not deal much with sensitive information face less stringent rules about posting online.

On July 20, for example, hours after Israeli forces entered the Gaza City neighborhood of Shijaiyah, word began to emerge that an explosive device detonated by militants hit an armored personnel carrier, which had a large number of soldiers inside.

A little later, messages began appearing on the texting platform WhatsApp listing the names of the dead soldiers. Some of the names were incorrect, however, causing deep anguish for some families who immediately assumed their sons were dead. Three days later, Israeli military police announced that they had arrested three soldiers and a civilian for leaking information about the incident.

“There is no question that we are facing a new challenge,” said Capt. Eytan Buchman, an Israeli military spokesman. “Things have changed profoundly since 2006, when Israel experienced its last operation with such a large number of casualties. I am sure this is something that the military will need to address after this operation.”

“It’s a big challenge because everyone is online and has smartphones, and it’s so easy to communicate,” said former Israeli military spokeswoman Avital Leibovich, who helped found the army’s interactive-media branch. “The army does understand that it needs to deal with this.”

In the meantime, Leibovich said the army’s other challenge was defending its actions in the field and standing up to the “other side” in its battle for public opinion online.

“It is interesting to see that the other side is putting more money, time and effort than ever before into its social media. We have not seen this in the past,” she said.

Ruth Eglash is a reporter for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.
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