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IDF spokesman denies deliberately misleading press on nonexistent Gaza invasion

Blaming incident on officer’s ‘misunderstanding,’ Hidai Zilberman apologizes for inaccuracy, says his unit doesn’t take part in psychological warfare

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Incoming IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Hidai Zilberman speaks at a ceremony in which he took over for outgoing spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis on September 15, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)
Incoming IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Hidai Zilberman speaks at a ceremony in which he took over for outgoing spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis on September 15, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman on Saturday denied intentionally misleading the foreign press about a nonexistent ground invasion of the Gaza Strip as part of a ruse against the Hamas terror group earlier in the week, blaming his unit’s false statements about the matter on an “honest mistake.”

Around midnight Thursday, the Israeli military launched a large-scale barrage on the tunnel network in the northern Gaza Strip using both air and ground troops, announcing the operation with an ambiguously worded statement that could have indicated that Israeli soldiers had entered the Palestinian enclave.

When reporters called the IDF’s foreign media spokesperson, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, to clarify the matter, they were told that IDF troops were indeed operating within Gaza — despite this not being the case — leading to reports in leading news outlets around the world, including The New York Times, Washington Post and AFP, that an Israeli ground invasion had begun.

This false report was alleged to have been a deliberate trick by the IDF aimed at getting the Hamas terror group to send more of its operatives into the line of Israeli fire.

In a letter to the president of Israel’s Foreign Press Association, Zilberman denied that this was the case, saying it was the result of a misunderstanding by Conricus.

“I have personally conducted a comprehensive investigation into this matter and concluded that the officer involved, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, made an honest mistake in his conveying of the reality on the ground,” Zilberman wrote.

“Despite conspirational reports to the contrary in both international and Israeli press, this was not some elaborate attempt to manipulate the media in order to achieve a tactical victory. By definition and our guiding belief system, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit does not engage in psychological warfare and is tasked with conveying only the truth to the public, a mission we have devotedly undertaken for more than seven decades,” he said.

A ‘wounded’ IDF soldier, in a staged evacuation, at the scene of an APC that was struck by a Hezbollah anti-tank missile on the Lebanon border on September 1, 2019. (Screen capture/Twitter)

This was not the first time in recent years that the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit has been accused of misleading reporters in the hope of tricking enemy forces.

In September 2019, Hezbollah sought to avenge some of its soldiers killed in an IDF strike by firing anti-tank guided missiles at an Israeli armored ambulance with five soldiers inside near the Lebanese border, narrowly missing the vehicle. The IDF attempted to trick the terror group into believing that two soldiers had been injured, ostensibly settling the score, to prevent Hezbollah from conducting additional attacks on Israel.

At the time, the IDF flew two men covered in fake blood and bandages in a helicopter to Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center — a scene that was filmed by Israeli media. Though the IDF spokesperson at the time, Brig. Gen. (res.) Ronen Manelis, told Israeli journalists that no soldiers were injured in the attack, the deliberately staged scene of injured troops at the hospital led to initial false reports of casualties.

IDF officials have since acknowledged that misleading the Israeli press in this way was inappropriate and said they would not do so again in the future.

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