Smile For the Camera, That’s an Order

Lt. Col Eisner hitting an ISM activist in the face with his M-16 rifle. Will soldiers soon be armed with cameras as well as guns? | Photo credit: ISM

This article by Efrat Forsher is republished with the permission of Israel Hayom.

Realizing that it is on a new battlefield, the IDF has trained “tactical documenters,” soldiers carrying video recorders and cameras to document every military action • These days, commanders repeatedly instruct soldiers to assume that everything they do is being filmed • Amid this awareness, how did Lt. Col. Eisner fall into an ambush?

Efrat Forsher

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.

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