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With invasion that wasn’t, IDF suspected of duping foreign press to trick Hamas

During massive overnight bombardment, military spokesman tells media that troops had entered Strip, in move that may have been aimed at luring the enemy into a deadly trap

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

Israeli soldiers at a staging area near the Israeli border with Gaza, amid the escalation of Palestinian and Israeli violence. May 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)
Israeli soldiers at a staging area near the Israeli border with Gaza, amid the escalation of Palestinian and Israeli violence. May 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

The Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit was accused on Friday of deliberately misleading the foreign press that Israeli troops had entered the Gaza Strip the previous night during a massive bombardment of a large Hamas bunker complex in order to trick the terror group into sending operatives into the line of Israeli fire.

Around midnight Thursday, the Israeli military launched its barrage on the tunnel network in the northern Gaza Strip and announced the operation with an ambiguously worded statement, saying: “IDF air and ground troops are currently attacking in the Gaza Strip.”

As earlier in the day the military had said it was drawing up plans for a potential ground invasion of the Strip — a potentially major escalation in the ongoing battle between Israel and Hamas — local and international reporters contacted military officials to clarify if the ground troops referring to in the statement were in the Palestinian enclave or if the targets they were attacking were located in Gaza, while the soldiers, tanks and artillery cannons themselves were still inside Israeli territory.

Most Israeli journalists were assured by military officials that no ground invasion had been launched. Several reporters from foreign news outlets, however, were told explicitly that IDF troops had indeed entered the Palestinian territory and reported that information accordingly, leading a number of leading news outlets around the world, including The New York Times, Washington Post and AFP, to publish articles saying that an Israeli ground assault on Gaza had begun, citing the IDF’s English-language spokesperson Jonathan Conricus.

When The Times of Israel contacted the military to clarify the matter — why one group of journalists was told one thing, while another was told something else by the IDF — this reporter was also told unambiguously that Israeli troops had entered the Strip, despite this not being the case.

“Yes. As it’s written in the statement: Indeed, ground forces are attacking in Gaza. That is that they are in the Strip,” Conricus said.

Only after roughly two hours did the military state that no such invasion or entrance into Gaza had taken place, despite numerous Israeli and international journalists repeatedly seeking clarification on the matter during that period.

And indeed later on Friday morning, IDF spokesperson Hidai Zilberman told Israeli military correspondents explicitly that no soldiers, tanks or cannons entered Gaza during the assault but had instead been positioned within Israeli territory on berms located along the border.

This led to widespread speculation that this false report was designed to convince Hamas that an Israeli ground invasion was at least potentially occurring in northern Gaza, prompting the terror group to send some of its reconnaissance troops and anti-tank guided missile teams out to confront the Israeli troops, where they were struck by the infantrymen, tanks and artillery cannons that were in fact positioned inside Israel, and sending other fighters into its nearby defensive tunnel network, which were then destroyed in the Israeli Air Force’s raids.

The IDF officially denied that it had intentionally misled the foreign press to spread disinformation about the non-existent ground invasion, saying the incident was the result of an internal miscommunication. Conricus told reporters he took “personal responsibility” for the incorrect information.

However, the military did not explain the extended amount of time between it becoming aware of the widespread, significant error — ground invasions of Gaza are exceedingly rare and considered a major step not taken at the drop of a hat — and officials issuing a correction. Zilberman said his unit would investigate the matter.

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 duping 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 in fact been injured in order to prevent Hezbollah from conducting additional attacks on Israel by making it believe it had settled the score.

To do so, 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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