The Israeli army unit involved in a training accident in the Negev three weeks ago was planning a commando attack on a Shi’ite fundamentalist leader in Lebanon, according to a report in the Miami Herald.
If true, the report sheds light on why the military censor here barred publication of several key details of the accident, in which five soldiers died and six others were wounded.
According to the Herald, the accident occurred hours before an elite commando unit of the Israel Defense Force was to make a strike in Beirut on Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, a leader of the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah, which has stepped up attacks against Israel in recent weeks.
The paper said the mission was scrapped after the accidental firing of a missile during what was intended to be a dry run.
In Jerusalem, the Prime Minister’s Office refused to confirm or deny the Miami Herald report.
If the report is accurate, it would explain why the military censor initially barred publication of the names of top generals who were present at the training exercise.
It took 10 days to reveal that the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, and his deputy, Maj. Gen. Amnon Shahak, witnessed the Nov. 5 accident at the Tze’elim training grounds.
And it was only after mounting media pressure that the censor earlier this week allowed publication of the fact that the chief of army intelligence, Maj. Gen. Uri Saguy, was present at the exercise.
Israeli journalists wondered why the names of top officers at the ill-fated training exercise were blanked out, in contrast to past practice by the censor.
And when members of the generally well-informed Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee found out that the presence of the top officers had been withheld, they were outraged.
But ironically, the ensuing allegations of an army coverup shifted public focus away from questions over the accident itself to the broader issue of censorship.
The controversy over reporting of the affair underlines the ambivalence of Israeli journalists as they report on defense issues.
Like all other eligible Israelis, reporters serve in the army reserves, and there is not much they are not aware of. Their efforts to inform the public are balanced by a desire to protect national security.
These considerations stand in contrast with the perspective of major overseas media, whose correspondents are assigned to Israel for a year or two before being posted elsewhere. Their insistence on the public’s right to know remains unqualified.
The powers of Israel’s chief military censor derive from a 1945 law dating to the period of the British Mandate. At the time, it was vigorously opposed by the Jewish Yishuv as an attempt to stifle protests against the anti-Zionist policies of the British.
Later, an understanding was reached with Israeli editors tempering the summary powers of the military censor to close down a newspaper for infractions.
A three-member appeals board rules on appeals against censorship rulings, with the army chief of staff remaining the final court of appeal. The board represents the censor and the editors, with a neutral civilian as the swing vote.
Last week, the country’s most respected newspaper announced its withdrawal from the agreement. Ha’aretz said it would look to the Supreme Court rather than the chief of staff as the final court of appeal.
Whether other news organizations follow suit remains to be seen.
But one thing is clear: The Tze’elim incident has had an impact on Israeli national affairs far beyond that of a simple army training accident, of which there have been several in recent months.
How much the issue is in the forefront of the Israeli psyche at the moment was illustrated when Israel Radio announced Tuesday that “the only general whose name is not affected by the censor has arrived: Gen. Winter rushed in last night, with full pomp and circumstance, accompanied by thunder and lighting, ushering in the first major storm of the winter.”