With helicopter crash, Military Censor again confronts social media, comes up short

2 MKs shared information about Monday’s deadly crash, violating a gag order and, in one case, spreading a false rumor – but not before the internet was already awash with reports

Judah Ari Gross

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

An Israeli army flare illuminates the sky during searches, after a military helicopter crashed off the coast of Haifa on the night of January 3, 2022. (Alon Nadav/Flash90)
An Israeli army flare illuminates the sky during searches, after a military helicopter crashed off the coast of Haifa on the night of January 3, 2022. (Alon Nadav/Flash90)

Two Knesset members violated the orders of the Military Censor on Monday night, sharing information about the evening’s deadly helicopter crash and prompting fierce criticism.

However, by the time the two MKs — Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Ram Ben-Barak of the Yesh Atid party, and David Amsalem of Likud — made their remarks, supposedly censored information about the crash, some of it true, some false, had long since been floating around various Telegram channels, WhatsApp groups and Twitter.

At around 9 p.m., an Israeli Air Force AS565 Panther helicopter crashed off the coast of Haifa, close enough to shore that the flaming wreckage could easily be seen by onlookers. Search teams were immediately called in to locate the three crew members — two pilots and a naval officer — who had been onboard the aircraft. Immediately after the crash, the censor told journalists and editors that no information about the incident could be published — save for the fact that a helicopter crash had been reported and rescuers were on-site — and particularly not that it involved a military aircraft.

A short time later, the military informed reporters that at least one person had been pulled from the sea with mild injuries, but that rescue efforts continued for the other two. Yet, around that time, false rumors began to circulate on social media that all three had been recovered. Neither of those narratives was cleared for publication by the censor, which continued to bar the reporting of information about the crash beyond that it had happened. Yet they were published anyway, mostly without attribution, by a number of leading outlets.

Ben-Barak announced from the podium of the plenary around that time that “as far as I know all of the people have been rescued from the helicopter and are on their way to the hospital, and it seems that the incident ended without loss of life.”

When he was told not to discuss the matter, Ben-Barak, a former deputy head of the Mossad, brushed off the calls to stop. “Why not? It’s in the news,” he said.

Ram Ben-Barak leads a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, July 5, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In addition to violating the censor order, Ben-Barak was misinformed.

It would take more time before the other two crewmen on the helicopter were pulled from the water and pronounced dead after resuscitation efforts failed.

Lt.-Col. Erez Sachyani (right) and Major Chen Fogel, who were killed in a helicopter crash on January 3, 2022 (Israel Defense Forces)

Ben-Barak on Tuesday apologized for his comments, saying they were an honest mistake and wishing condolences to the families of the fallen pilots and wishes for a speedy recovery to the injured naval officer.

An hour and a half later, at midnight, Ben-Barak was joined in his violation of the censor by Likud’s Amsalem, who announced from the podium that “he saw a report that two IDF soldiers perished” in the crash. That was a full hour before the Military Censor cleared for publication that the two had died.

Amsalem too subsequently apologized, saying the comments were made “mistakenly and innocently” and calling them “an unfortunate error.”

Ben-Barak’s and Amsalem’s violations were, however, understandable. By the time they made their remarks, the information was widely available to anyone with internet access and the inclination to look for it.

IDF Spokesperson Ran Kochav railed against those who spread the information before it was cleared for publication, though he did not mention the MKs specifically.

“The publication of these statements before the families of the casualties were formally notified, despite explicit requests to not publish the details, represents a gross violation of a protocol that has been respected for decades, which is based on concern for the families of casualties in their hardest hour,” Kochav said in a statement.

Likud MK David Amsalem during a plenum session in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on December 6, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/ FLASH90)

Growing criticism

The Military Censor is one of Israel’s oldest institutions, having technically been formed prior to the creation of the State of Israel, and it has increasingly been accused of being anachronistic and ineffective. The events of Monday night again brought those criticisms to the fore.

Recent months have not been particularly kind to the Military Censor. In October, a trip by Defense Minister Benny Gantz to Singapore that was meant to be censored was published anyway by Israeli media, after Gantz’s office initially told outlets they could reveal the trip once he returned, but then changed course and demanded it be kept secret at the request of the Singaporeans. That month, the participation of the Royal Jordanian Air Force in an IDF aerial exercise, which was also meant to be secret, was accidentally revealed by a German military photographer on Instagram.

The censor, whose powers have grown and shrunk over the years, is technically permitted to only bar publication of information that could directly harm national security, but it has also struck an agreement with editors of major news outlets allowing it to also block reports about deaths within the military until the family of the service member can be notified.

The Israel Defense Forces has a unit specifically tasked with informing and maintaining contact with the families of fallen troops, the so-called IDF Casualties Department. As these efforts are performed in person, the process can take several hours or even a day if a family member cannot be easily reached, during which time the fact that a soldier has been killed cannot be published. The goal is to ensure that the families of fallen soldiers learn what has happened from authorities with bereavement training, not from the media.

Illustrative. Mourners attend the funeral of Israeli soldier Omer Tabib, 21, in Elyakim in northern Israel, on May 13, 2021. Tabib was killed when Palestinian terrorists in Gaza fired an anti-tank missile near the border. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

In the era before widespread social media use, maintaining such secrecy was possible, but today it is nearly impossible. And this was particularly so in the case of Monday night’s helicopter crash, which was clearly visible from the shore, as were the subsequent search-and-rescue efforts. Anyone standing near the coast or waiting outside Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center would see — or not see, in this case — casualties being brought in from the scene and could then share videos of that to the wider public.

“An event that is happening in front of a crowd in the age of social media — even if the IDF spokesperson makes an effort, it won’t help,” said former military censor Brig. Gen. Rachel Dolev, on Kan radio on Tuesday.

What can’t be hidden shouldn’t be hidden

This should come as no surprise to the military, which has in the past used that fact to its advantage. In September 2019, following a failed missile attack by Hezbollah, the IDF attempted to deceive the Lebanese terror group into believing it had in fact injured troops — in a convoluted effort to get Hezbollah to refrain from firing further — by sending a helicopter with a soldier covered in fake blood and bandages to Rambam Medical Center. As intended, the pretend evacuation was photographed and shared widely on social media.

Despite Monday night’s helicopter crash playing out in public, the former head of the IDF’s Casualties Department railed against the media for reporting on the matter.

“The race against social media isn’t fair. Today every citizen is basically a reporter with their smartphone. But this is the first time that professional figures, with whom the IDF has a years-long understanding, failed as well,” Col. (res.) Jocelyn Bash told Army Radio.

Though the military’s goal of ensuring the families of fallen soldiers learn about their loved ones’ death in a compassionate way may be admirable, the problem with censoring information in a case like Monday’s helicopter crash is that it demands an unrealistic suspension of intelligence by the public.

Some three hours after a helicopter crashed into the frigid January waters of the Mediterranean Sea — when Amsalem made his remarks — the chances of the remaining two crew members still being alive would be exceedingly slim if not nonexistent, something any reasonable person would know.

“What can’t be hidden shouldn’t be hidden,” said Dolev. “The IDF must think about how it updates people because we have to update people and make sure the facts are right — otherwise its credibility will be damaged, one way or another.”

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed