A picture is worth 100,000 words.
Every IDF officer has known this for quite some time, because a single picture can outweigh more than 1,000 words of praise in one’s service record. We live in an age when everyone carries cameras and mobile phones; documenting every event; instantly uploading pictures to Facebook, videos to YouTube, and tweets to Twitter, all in real time. The IDF has decided not to lag behind, and is determined to provide its own documentation.
Claims that the military’s public relations machine has failed to function or was slow to respond have been uttered on more than one occasion. This was the case with the Mavi Marmara incident. Employing a one-sided approach, international media repeatedly screened pictures and testimonies of passengers on the ship who harshly attacked Israel, while the IDF took its time before it aired images of its beaten soldiers under attack. When the pictures - including shots of weapons concealed on the ship and used to attack the soldiers - were finally broadcast, it was too late. Colossal damage to Israel’s image had been done.
The affair involving Lt. Col. Shalom Eisner, who was photographed hitting a Danish protestor blocking the Bekaa Highway with his rifle butt, recreated the atmosphere surrounding the Marmara incident, this time amid the IDF’s top brass. The IDF knew that it was vital that the army present its own parallel documentation of this event. But Eisner explained that the battery in his camera had run out.
“One does not expect pleas of 'I was a victim' from a lieutenant colonel,” said a senior IDF officer.
Rage grew when Eisner claimed that the protestor had attacked him and broken his fingers before the event was filmed. There was no trace of this claim in the civilian footage. What the media aired again and again were images portraying Eisner as an officer suffering a lapse in judgment while facing unarmed civilians.
In the early 2000s, the IDF realized that it was important to document events involving a conflict with civilians. That was in the days of the Second Intifada. The IDF had to contend with two fronts. The first front involved terror attacks within and beyond the Green Line (pre-1967 borders), as well as clashes with Palestinians. The second front was that of public relations.
“It was clear to us that public relations were a major front of ever-growing importance. And that in many respects, what was important was not the truth, but how an event is portrayed to media consumers as well as to the broad Palestinian and Israeli publics,” explains then-IDF spokesman, reserve Brig. Gen. Ron Kitri.
Comprehension of the importance of documentation began to permeate the military after the incident involving a young Palestinian boy, Muhammad al-Dura, as well as after the lynching of Vadim Norzich and Yossi Avrahami, two IDF reserve soldiers who took a wrong turn into Ramallah.
In the Al-Dura affair, scenes were repeatedly broadcast around the world showing the isolated and prolonged agony of a young boy dying in his father’s arms after allegedly being shot by the IDF. Pictures of Al-Dura became an international symbol. Streets were named after him in Arab countries. This was followed by the 2000 October Riots in which 13 Arab-Israeli citizens were killed. Retroactive proof that the IDF was not responsible for Al-Dura’s death and that he had apparently been shot by Palestinians made no difference to anyone. The images had been etched into public consciousness.
Chilling footage of the lynching in Ramallah had similar repercussions. The images were briefly aired by international media, but the IDF’s response soon took center stage. A few hours after the lynching, combat helicopters were dispatched to bomb the police station where the grim event had taken place. From that moment, international media repeatedly broadcast scenes from Ramallah showing Israeli combat helicopters firing missiles and demolishing a civilian building.
Combatants trained as photographers
“We concluded that it was preferable to present our own material rather than rely solely on the material that the other side rushes to put out. We started developing the field of tactical documentation. The idea was that we would carry out documentation wherever the army was active,” Kitri explains.
Initial courses were offered at the time. Having purchased dozens of cameras and video recorders, the IDF preferred to train some of its combatants as photographers rather than embed external photographers within its ranks.
Kitri admits that there have been many gaffes and blunders in the area of tactical documentation. The issue has not been sufficiently assimilated into commanders' awareness, and regional brigades have repeatedly avoided letting in a tactical documenter.
“During that period," says Kitri, "the question was ‘a photographer or a sniper?’ In other words, when you send a vehicle on a military mission and you have one vacant seat, who do you do? Take a military photographer or another sniper with you?"
“We tried to develop the theory that it would make more sense to take a photographer and to instill the idea among commanders that this was a type of weapon. That dismissing or ignoring this principle would boomerang. But it was hard to make that trickle down to the troops in the field.”
In the following years, further attempts were made to embed tactical documenters in a more widespread and professional fashion. But this largely failed, in part because of the prolonged and unwieldy process of disseminating the filmed material and photos, and because of the IDF’s difficulty in competing with the enormous number of cameras making the rounds in Judea and Samaria.
These include cameras of human rights organizations like B’Tselem (The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), and its Camera Project, which provides cameras to Palestinians in high-conflict areas. This also includes Jewish settlers who understand the power and importance of documenting police and military activities following the 2006 demolition of homes in the Amona settlement outpost.
There has been a palpable shift in recent years in the IDF’s understanding of the importance of documenting its activities and in its professional preparedness to do so. Efforts have been made to tailor its capabilities to these fast-paced technological times. The IDF has begun to employ cameras at flash points of conflict. This is not just for the sake of defense but a means of collecting evidence during incidents of public unrest and confrontation between Palestinians and settlers or soldiers.
There is an increasing realization among officers and soldiers in the field that everything is now documented by means of digital camera or mobile phone. Everyone does it: Jewish settlers, Palestinians, Israeli left-wing activists, and foreign activists. Priorities have changed and awareness has increased. As have the orders to soldiers in the field.
A position paper distributed to every battalion deployed in ongoing security operations in Judea and Samaria outlines “dos and don’ts.” It stresses to soldiers that Judea and Samaria are awash with cameras and that their working assumption should be that they are constantly being photographed.
When preparing to evacuate settlement outposts, for example, commanding officers in the field receive a clear order to bring a camera to every event. There is an emphasis on the importance of capturing broad shots, including as many details and incidents as possible in one frame. In addition, they are asked to “freeze” the entire picture upon their arrival at the scene. In other words, to film and document the outpost before evacuation begins. They will later film and document every minute of the evacuation-in-progress, including dialogue between the military and police or settlers, any clashes that occur, and finally, the demolition of buildings.
A senior defense official told me about a briefing of soldiers that took place a few months ago on the eve of a major, predicted demonstration by Palestinians at one of the most sensitive conflict sites in Judea and Samaria. The division commander stressed the following: “Don’t play into their hands. Don’t use unnecessary force. Assume that everything will be documented on camera.”
The greatest shift and upgrade in the field of tactical documentation took place over the last year. In response to orders from the head of the IDF Ground Forces Command, about 100 combatants now also serve as tactical documenters. They are distributed among all battalions, with particular emphasis on divisions in Judea and Samaria.
After attending a special training course, they are equipped with the most sophisticated cameras on the market, featuring mobile communications which permit the broadcast of footage in real time. In the past, a military photographer had to leave the field after taking pictures and travel as far as the IDF Spokesman’s Office in order to disseminate them. This ate up a great deal of precious time. Current technology permits tactical documenters to send material directly from the field to a special war room established in the IDF Spokesman’s Office at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv.
The IDF is also now taking steps to establish a special tactical documentation company. It would in effect serve as an elite company within the IDF Spokesman’s unit. Soldiers with a background in professional photography would serve in it, and candidates would be identified as early as their initial enlistment screening. After completing the course and settling into the new company, they would be deployed and dispatched to events and missions which could have a significant and explosive impact in the media.
Tactical documenters do not merely film conflict - they document military exercises, briefings, etc. The IDF Spokesperson's Unit previously provided material to the media at a very late date, when it was no longer relevant or interesting. The unit should now be able to distribute material at an expedited pace.
Still, the unit finds it difficult to keep pace and compete with the speed of social networks. “It was never this way before,” says Kitri. “The army is a fighting organization, with different skills. The mobile phone is the declared enemy of a military spokesman. When any incident in the field requiring clarification takes place, IDF spokespeople send a query up and down, the chain of command to get an answer, and this takes time. The query goes to the division level, then the battalion level, then the company level, until it reaches the sergeant in the field who saw what happened, and who now has to provide the answer."
“By the time the answer gets back to the IDF spokesman, the event has already been publicized on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and every possible blog, before anyone has taken the time to clarify or process the issue. The information has been distributed, and by that point, it’s over. The IDF spokesman will forever continue to play catch-up with events and try to explain them. That’s the reality and it isn’t going to change.”
Despite that pessimistic assessment, the IDF is attempting to contend with "digital speed." The IDF opened its first Twitter account three months ago. It is operated by a few soldiers who take pains to tweet ongoing reports about various news events. The army’s official Facebook page was also launched for the first time this year, and has already earned 95,000 “likes.”
The problem is conduct
If awareness of cameras has increased to such an extent, how did the shameful event in the Jordan Valley involving Lt. Col. Eisner take place? The IDF admits that it had no preliminary knowledge of the protesters’ intention to block the road. Thus, when the reserve company under Lt. Col. Eisner’s command arrived at the site, they lacked a tactical documenter, and there were no batteries in the one camera that was available. IDF officials say that what happened in the Jordan Valley was a gaffe. Not because Lt. Col. Eisner was caught on camera, but because his conduct was unbecoming to an army that prizes ethics and morals.
“A correct analysis of what happened there would take the media into account," said Reserve Brig. Gen. Kitri. "One can see from the footage that many photographers were present and surrounded the event. When examining the photographed material in hindsight, one realizes that media were not taken into account."
“It’s like walking forward, knowing there’s a pit, and falling into it anyway. This was by definition a provocative situation. It was a demonstration. In such cases, it is incumbent upon us to take the media side of things into account, not get into a situation where you don’t think about the implications of your presence and actions. The damage was more the result of the officer’s violent actions toward an unarmed civilian than from any lack of documentation on our part.”