The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Israel told the media it had ground forces in Gaza. Then it changed the story.

Israel's Iron Dome antimissile system intercepts a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip on May 13. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the time the Israeli military tweeted about “ground forces” in Gaza. It was at 12:22 a.m. local time, not 1:22 a.m. The error has been corrected.

Israeli military officials told the media early Friday morning that ground troops had entered the Gaza Strip, in what would have been a major escalation of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants.

About an hour later, Israeli officials walked back their statement. No ground incursion was in fact underway.

The statement and subsequent clarification meant that for a brief, frenetic window, much of the foreign press corps in Israel, including reporters for The Washington Post, were working under the assumption that ground forces were operating inside Gaza — only to be told by the very same people that they had been misled.

At 12:22 a.m. local time, the Israel Defense Forces tweeted that “IDF air and ground troops are currently attacking in the Gaza Strip.” Some took that to mean ground forces were in Gaza, while others interpreted it to mean they were firing at Gaza.

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At 1:26 a.m., a spokesperson confirmed to The Post: “There are ground troops in Gaza.”

For days, Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, has been lobbing rockets into Israel, to which the Israeli military has retaliated with devastating airstrikes on the densely populated territory, which have left scores of civilians dead. The supposed Israeli ground offensive was characterized by foreign media as a major escalation in the conflict.

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Major U.S. outlets, including The Post and the New York Times, sent out breaking news alerts. But, according to Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, that information was only shared with the international press. Israeli journalists did not receive the same comments from the military.

At 2:13 a.m., the IDF issued a clarification to The Post and others, saying: “there are currently no IDF ground troops inside the Gaza Strip,” and causing outlets across the world to retract their initial reporting.

The IDF apologized for what it said was miscommunication but did not offer a clear explanation of why foreign reporters were given false information.

Some analysts are saying it was a plausible mistake as ground troops assembled on Gaza’s border. Others have leveled accusations that the Israeli military used the press, deliberately spreading misinformation as a tactic.

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Around the time the alerts of ground offensives went live, the military launched an air offensive on Gaza that involved 160 planes and more than 400 bombs, targeting Hamas’s network of underground tunnels.

An article in the Jerusalem Post, headlined, “Did IDF deception lead to massive aerial assault on Hamas’s ‘Metro’?” reported speculation that the initial English-language tweet and the foreign coverage of the ground assault could have been an effort on the military’s part to push Hamas fighters to gather in the tunnels as they steeled themselves for a ground invasion that never came, making them more vulnerable to the attacks that did come.

Read more:

Israeli forces hit Hamas tunnels in Gaza as all-out war looms; more rockets rain down

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What’s behind the violence in Israel and Gaza?