Israel is undermining its credibility

Editorial

Haaretz

Tishrei 22, 5765

The State of Israel, via the Israel Defense Forces, the intelligence community and the Foreign Ministry, and with the encouragement of the prime and defense ministers, has become entangled in and embarrassed by the affair of the Qassam-or-stretcher in Gaza. In its eagerness to show that the Palestinians will stoop to any means, Israel behaved with reckless haste and injured its pretensions to superiority over the Palestinians with regard to credibility. This has implications not merely for public relations, but also for diplomacy, and is even liable to weaken Israel in the legal arena.

This does not mean that the United Nations, and especially its Relief and Works Agency, is completely guilt-free. Their identification with the Palestinians is clear and open. But the question is not whether Qassam crews, or other groups of armed men en route to commit attacks, really make use of UN vehicles. There have certainly such been cases, just as, in the 1950s, there were cases in which IDF units, including some well-known to Ariel Sharon, made operational use of either genuine or fake UN observer vehicles.

There is only one issue at stake here: How the Israeli establishment came to commit a gaffe that increases skepticism about official announcements made by the state, its army and its ambassadors - and not for the first time. Last October, during another aerial operation in Gaza, two major generals - then-Air Force commander Dan Halutz and head of the Operations Directorate, Israel Ziv - were found to have deliberately misled the Israeli public via the military correspondents. For the sake of gaining an operational advantage, the IDF published false announcements about its use of helicopters, with the blessing of the chief of staff and the defense minister. Then, the problem was essentially domestic. Today, the conflict is with foreign parties, who in the future will be much harder to convince.

It is possible that the Palestinians who were filmed putting a long object into a UN vehicle were, indeed, handling a Qassam rocket. Possible - but that is an insufficient level of probability. Israel did not prepare in advance for the presentation of an alternative explanation, such as a stretcher (something that could reasonably be expected to be found in the hands of a medical crew summoned to treat casualties), and therefore it could not refute it. After four years of promises by the army and the intelligence agencies about how carefully their personnel cross-check information before tagging someone for a targeted killing, the defense establishment has demonstrated hasty amateurism. Now, it will have to work much harder to prove its claims.

Any idiot would have assumed that before publishing such a weighty charge against the UN, the IDF spokesman, the chief of staff, the head of the Foreign Ministry's public relations department and the responsible ministers, including Sharon, would have examined the entire chain of actions committed by the alleged gang - from placing the object in the vehicle to unloading the rocket or even firing it at the Negev. At the same time, the intelligence agencies should have gathered supplementary information to make certain of the license plate number and the identities of the men who were filmed. But reliable military sources have admitted over the last two days that none of this was done.

No blood was spilled in the Qassam-or-stretcher affair, but it was the verbal equivalent of friendly fire. It must not be allowed to pass in silence. The chain of failures must be investigated, and personal and systemic conclusions must be drawn.