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Analysis: Israeli media bypass censors to report on Syria raid

BBC Monitoring

Analysis by Peter Feuilherade of BBC Monitoring on 18 September

On 6 September, Israeli air force planes reportedly entered Syrian airspace from the Mediterranean. Unidentified fuel tanks, possibly from one of the Israeli aircraft, were later found on Turkish territory near the Syrian border, indicating the planes' probable exit route.

Syria's air defences had fired at Israeli warplanes on 6 September, said an official announcement on Syrian state TV.

Subsequently, Israel imposed what correspondents described as the strictest censorship in recent times.

Israeli media have reported details of the raid, but only from foreign sources. On 16 September, a senior Israeli official said the policy of silence over the incident had eased tensions with Damascus.

Official silence

Although Syria, too, released no details of the Israeli raid, it lodged a formal complaint with the UN Security Council over the affair.

On 14 September, Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Miqdad warned that Damascus would retaliate. "Syria has the right to react to Israeli aggression against its airspace... Syria is used to reacting to violations and it will choose the place and the hour of the response. It will answer all Israeli aggressions," he told the French news agency AFP.

Initial speculation about the target of the Israeli raid centred on two hypotheses: the first that Israel bombed weapons destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon and financed by Iran, and the other that the incident was related to a suspected nuclear shipment from North Korea to Syria.

Within days, details of the raid had been leaked to foreign newspapers.

The New York Times reported: "Israeli warplanes inside Syria struck what Israeli inte! lligence believes was a nuclear-related facility that North Korea was helping to equip, according to current and former American and Israeli officials."

The North Korean foreign ministry rejected these reports as an "unskilful conspiracy". "Recently some US media including the New York Times have been spreading allegations that we are secretly helping Syria with its nuclear programme. Such reports are groundless and misleading," a ministry spokesman said.

Israel maintained a policy of official silence, and took steps to stifle media coverage of the apparent air strike against Syria. The military censor issued an order, valid until 30 September, requiring reporters to seek written approval from the censor before publishing anything on the incident.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert limited himself to saying: "The security services and Israeli defence forces are demonstrating unusual courage. We naturally cannot always show the public our cards."

The BBC dipl! omatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus reported: "Long-standing contacts are uncharacteristically silent, noting only that Israel's military censorship on this subject is as tight as they can ever remember."

Israeli comments

Over the weekend of 15-16 September, speculation about the alleged air raid on Syria was rife in the Israeli media. But with the news blackout still in force, it was largely based on foreign sources.

The first senior Israeli official to comment publicly was Tsahi Hanegbi, head of the foreign affairs and defence committee. He told Israel radio that the government had "adopted an attitude that consists of saying nothing about what happened on 6 September as we are going through a tense period".

Hanegbi said that Israel was taking Syrian threats of retaliation seriously.

He added: "We have to show restraint and it is in our interest to say nothing and not to make the slightest of allusions. This policy has proven itself. The tensions have slightly eased since 12 days ago. The more we bite our tongue, the better it will go."

On 16 September, Israel's military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin told the Knesset's f! oreign affairs and defence committee that Israel had recovered its "deterrent capability".

Yadlin said that he would not address the incident with Syria directly, but his statements "alluded to the Israeli raid," Israel radio reported.

He added: "The new situation affects the entire region, including Iran and Syria."

Military censorship vs global media

The affair has shown that Israeli officials are still ready to invoke military censorship, even in the age of 24-hour news, blogs and citizen journalism.

They can forbid correspondents from reporting certain events. But they cannot prevent them from speculating or drawing conclusions based on foreign reports.

Commentator Shelly Paz wrote in the Jerusalem Post on 17 September: "The age of fast and accessible information has changed the rules of the game. Israeli journalists are no longer content to let their hottest stories be blocked, resorting to professional tricks such as leaking to foreign correspondents that publish the `forbidden', allowing the Israelis to then quote them as sources."

By 18 September, some commentators in the Israeli media were beginning to question whether military censorship was compatible with democracy.

Ha'aretz columnist Amir Oren wrote: "The strict adherence to information secu! rity, an essential component of operational surprise, conflicts with the duty of the country's elected officials to obtain the approval of voters or their representatives before embarking on a planned military operation, and to do so in advance, not after the fact."

Source: BBC Monitoring research 18 Sep 07


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