Intelligence services silence a “free press” in Israel

Israeli intelligence officials used gag orders in recent weeks to stifle reporting on the initial investigations into both the abduction and the killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, and the apparent revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager in East Jerusalem.
These restrictions on media coverage of events in the Palestinian territories come more than five years after Israel blocked journalists from reporting on the bombardment of Gaza known in Israel as Operation Cast Lead. The current war in that territory is taking place in full view of foreign correspondents there, as the Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer pointed out.
In past decades, restrictions on the news media gave security officials in Israel a free hand to pursue their objectives under the cover of an information blackout. Now, with access to social media and activist blogging, that is no longer possible, and a vigorous, at times frightening, public discussion of the killings has continued online based on rumor and leaks used by partisans of both sides to indict their enemies.
In the case of the three Jewish students who went missing last month near Hebron as they hitchhiked home from school, Israel’s Shin Bet security service barred reporters from telling the public that gunshots were heard on the furtive emergency call made by one of the kidnapped teenagers. The Israeli journalist and commentator Noam Sheizaf argued that keeping salient facts of the investigation secret for weeks allowed a government-backed social-media campaign to channel outrage over the abductions to grow, but also set the public up for crushing disappointment once the bodies were discovered.
“In schools across the country, including one near my home, signs were hung with the teens’ names and slogans like, ‘looking forward to your return,’ ” Mr. Sheizaf wrote on his blog. “If the teachers knew about the blood in the car, the bullet holes and the sound of gunshots, would they have let their young students paint those signs or have their photos taken with them and posted on the Internet?”
Another Israeli journalist, Raviv Drucker, suggested that concealing facts from the public might have built support for the military operation in the West Bank against Hamas operatives during the search for the teenagers, but also created an atmosphere of blood lust, and open calls for violent revenge, in the days before a Palestinian boy in East Jerusalem was abducted and burned to death.
“That doesn’t mean that the search for the boys should have been halted, but perhaps there would have been fewer mass prayer vigils and empty speeches predicated on the belief that the boys were still alive,” Mr. Drucker wrote. “And perhaps there would have been less pressure from the public for a heavy handed response from our decision makers. Perhaps, too, the wave of ugly incitement would have been a bit smaller.”
The absence of verified information about the missing Israelis initially led some Palestinians to speculate that “no abduction had ever occurred,” according to Amira Hass, a correspondent for Haaretz. The widespread assumption that the boys might be found alive, fostered by statements from Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and other officials, also fueled speculation that the boys might have been abducted as bargaining chips to win the release of Palestinian political prisoners.
Mr. Drucker noted that the continuing suppression of information about the police investigation into the brutal killing of Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, the 16-year-old snatched from a street near his home in East Jerusalem last week, was accompanied by an apparent campaign to deflect blame by tarnishing the victim’s reputation. Opaquely sourced reports suggested that the boy might have been killed not by Jewish extremists, but by his own family in a dark “honor killing.”
As the police pursued this line of inquiry, evidence about the nature of the crime and the possible identity of the killers emerged through the efforts of Palestinian journalists, Internet activists and the boy’s family, who shared surveillance-camera footage with foreign correspondents who have more latitude to evade Israeli gag orders.
Bushra Abu Khdeir, an aunt of the boy, showed British reporters grainy, black-and-white video of the abduction, recorded by a surveillance camera.
Days later, the Palestinian-American blogger Ali Abunimah published clearer images, recorded by another security camera, that he said appeared to show the kidnappers’ faces.
The Palestinian Wattan News Agency also obtained and published video of men reviewing the same security camera footage, which was apparently recorded just before the abduction.
Details of the investigation into Muhammad’s death are officially secret, even after an Israeli police spokesman announced the arrest of six suspects and said there was a “strong possibility” that the motive for the killing of the Palestinian teenager was “nationalistic,” indicating that it was a revenge attack by right-wing Jewish extremists.

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