In his book The Making of Israeli Militarism, Uri Ben Eliezer described Israel as a nation-in-arms—the Jewish collective identity in Palestine was constructed mainly through the militarization of the society. The Zionist leadership used the army as the principal agent of development and integration. Through mandatory reserve service and seasonal mass maneuvers, the army became the hammer and anvil forging national entity.

The media was recruited for the nation-in-arms very early on. Military reporters helped to invent the mythology of Israeli heroism in the battlefield, even when spinning the bloody reprisal operations against the civilian population in the 1950s. Many future leaders of Israel would emerge from the core group of military heroes celebrated by the press: Rabin, Netanyahu, Barak and Sharon. The media’s cooptation curbed significant criticism and alternative thinking. The Israeli media was corrupted by this total submission if only because of the secretive nature of the army. The media could serve as spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) but not as its watchdog. Very rarely was the army’s immunity from outside supervision questioned or challenged.

But the army did more than militarize the media as the years went by. It produced aggressive policies toward the country’s neighbors and coercive domestic policy toward any group with an agenda that contradicted the overall objectives of Zionism as understood by the political elite. The army became a dominant actor in the economy, politics, administration and culture. Until 1948 the task of supervising settlement was in the hands of Jewish Agency officials. After the 1948 war, settlement meant reoccupying deserted villages from which Palestinians were expelled. This mission was entrusted to the IDF. The army had, and still has, a special force to implement this Zionist imperative, probably the most important one, in Palestine. [1]

In the more optimistic atmosphere of the Oslo period, when many writers began to trace post-Zionist tendencies in Israeli Jewish society, critical Israeli sociologists found abundant evidence for the claim that the nation-in-arms model was weakening. [2] Then came the second intifada. For the time being, all the sanguine assessments of a different Israel have been disproven by the re-entry of the powerful IDF into public space, particularly the mass media.

“Cut Anything That Does Not Shoot”

Reporters began to feel that IDF coverage was false or misleading during the first intifada. But only in the liberal daily Ha’aretz could alternative reporting on the first uprising be found; the rest of the print and broadcast media did not venture a version of events countering that provided by the IDF spokesman. During the heyday of the Oslo agreements, by contrast, editors and reporters began consistently to refuse to pass their pieces through the military censor.

Following Rabin’s assassination and Netanyahu’s term in office, these buds of a less militarized media started to disappear. Ehud Barak’s election in 1999 aroused new hopes. Barak, always verbose but quite impotent in action, talked about the “army of peace.” He promised to cut the IDF’s budget, in his words to “cut anything that does not shoot.” [3] He charted a vision of a future professional army that would replace the “people’s army.” This could have meant restricting the militarization of the media as well. But the army was not really reduced in size, nor was it professionalized. It assumed an air of professionalization — for instance it adopted the American model of military academies run by senior officers — but its extraordinary hold on society in general and on public space in particular continued and even increased. In fact, the academization of the officers’ corps created the false impression that officers were fit to be parachuted into civilian life in no time. The number of ex-generals in politics and in the media increased, and so did the influence of military thinking in public space.

For a short while, when the public debate in Israel over the IDF presence in southern Lebanon soared to prominence, the Four Mothers movement — a group of soldiers’ mothers — successfully challenged the military’s hold on public opinion, creating a lobby in support of unilateral withdrawal in May 2000 from southern Lebanon. For a while, mothers, and not only generals, appeared in the media to debate that now concluded occupation. But this was a short episode that reflected more Israelis’ lack of interest, even on the far right, in southern Lebanon, rather than a fundamental change in the composition and hierarchy of those invited to participate in the public conversation.

The 1990s brought other new developments which counterbalanced the more optimistic signs that civilians would have a say in security matters. The most important of these was the growing presence of religious-nationalists, most of whom were settlers, among the senior ranks of the officers’ corps. During the second intifada, these officers have been directly responsible for implementing IDF reprisal actions in the Occupied Territories. They assumed an even more central role during Operation Defensive Shield — the March-April reoccupation of West Bank towns following a particularly bloody wave of suicide bombings inside Israel. One settler officer, Ron Shechner, from a settlement near Hebron, was the commander of the units besieging Arafat’s compound in Ramallah. He was and still is a very popular participant in TV and radio shows, where he appears as a “neutral” and “professional” expert on the current crisis.

The Daily Bulletin

In part because of the religious-nationalist presence in the army, when the second intifada broke out, both the military and the media willingly echoed the right-wing line as they had never done before. From the very moment the intifada erupted, the media allowed the army to be its only source of information and interpretation.

In a recent book on the media, Daniel Dor (ex-senior editor of two of Israel’s three major daily papers) discerns in the early intifada coverage what he called a “hermetic self-persuasion of righteousness.” The three main dailies, Dor claims, provided their readers with a one-dimensional picture that fed the sense of frustration and hopelessness among wide sectors of Jewish society in Israel, but stood in stark contrast to what the reporters brought in from the Occupied Territories. In the opening pages of his book, Dor notes how the events between September 28-October 2, 2000 were reported. Each day, the reporters would send news connecting the day’s demonstrations to the previous days, and to a chain that began with Sharon’s visit to the Haram al-Sharif on September 28. The editors decided to ignore the chain of causation, creating the impression that each day brought with it an unexplained burst of Palestinian violence. [4] Thus editorial boards exerted a strenuous effort of selection and distortion of the raw news to reach the required image of reality. The media, Dor continues, was motivated by hate, fear and ignorance in constructing its biased and nationalist narratives, but more importantly simply gave in to the Barak government’s version of events without recourse to basic instincts of critique or skepticism.

Against this background, it was very easy for the army to dictate the media’s language as the intifada progressed. Abiding by IDF images, values and interpretations meant first and foremost that the intifada was a war. A war demands the consensus and recruitment of the media just as it demands recruitment of reservists and the economy. A war meant re-embracing the settlers, after they had been somewhat marginalized in the wake of Rabin’s assassination, and the exclusion of the Palestinian minority in Israel from “our society” and their inclusion in the enemy camp. It also required the silencing of alternative thinking, and swift condemnation of “subversive” activity such as refusal to serve in the occupation army.

The central actors on the local media stage must have surprised the army by going further than could be expected of them. From the beginning, the broadcast media in particular made an effort to exclude any reference to the war as the war of the settlements, and used frequently the term “war of survival,” or in the words of the leader of the Labor party, Minister of Defense Binyamin Ben Eliezer, “a war for the survival of our homes.” When this was the opening gambit, very little in terms of an alternative perspective could possibly be forthcoming.

When one adopts the military perception of reality, certain questions which are basic to any conventional journalistic investigation disappear. For instance, the IDF direction of media coverage absolved the press from dealing with the question of why Palestinians resorted to terrorism and guerilla warfare — focusing instead on how to combat such threats. Needless to say, the term occupation has totally vanished from the media vocabulary. The army was not asked to provide an explanation of its overall objectives, or specify the political horizons beyond military action. All the media did was present its audience with tactical information, like a daily bulletin read aloud by commanders to their troops.

Military Mythology

The army provided, and the media eagerly swallowed, a readymade mythology that helped to forestall deeper analysis. Each myth was substantiated by “facts” — referred to but rarely stated in full — furnished by the IDF, the Shabak and the Mossad. The first was the Camp David myth: Israel made an offer to give everything away, and the Palestinians rejected it. On October 2, 2000, Yediot Aharonot already established the connection between Arafat’s refusal to reach an agreement in Camp David and an overall scheme to commence a war of destruction against Israel. In order to make this connection clear, the paper had to conclude decisively that Arafat stood behind the demonstrations, most of which (at the beginning) were unarmed, and which were described in Yediot Aharonot as a war against the very survival of the Jewish state. “Arafat Instigated the Riots” was its headline on that day.

The second myth held that the intifada is a pre-planned Palestinian campaign of terror and not a popular uprising. On October 3, Alon Ben David, the senior military correspondent of Channel One told the viewers “there is nothing spontaneous about the demonstrations. It is an old, pre Camp-David scheme of Arafat.” On Channel Two, senior Arab affairs analyst Ehud Yaari declared, “Arafat is responsible.” Early demonstrations in the intifada were reported as “assaults on soldiers,” and not relatively peaceful protests and marches against the occupation. [5] At first, the media was ready to accept that the case of the 13 Palestinian citizens of Israel killed by the police in October 2000 should be investigated by an inquiry committee (established by Barak in the vain hope that he could win the votes of Palestinian citizens in the February 2001 elections). The inquiry commission has not as yet submitted its final conclusions, but the media has. According to the media, these citizens of Israel did not demonstrate, but were an integral part of the terrorist campaign against Israel. By March, 26, 2001 the Jerusalem Post had already “exposed” a direct link between Palestinian factions ine territories and the unrest inside Israel. The paper had no doubt that the police were acting in self-defense against enemies of the state from within the state.

The third myth concerned the purity of Israeli arms: the troops only used their weapons when they were in bodily danger. The fact that the IDF shot unarmed demonstrators was never revealed to the Israeli public. Fourthly, in the wake of the September 11 events, the media captains themselves constructed a picture of the PLO as part of the al-Qaeda network. The army soon joined in providing, as media sources have put it, “classified information” on the connection between al-Qaeda and the Palestinian Authority (PA) — information that of course has never been disclosed.

War of Words

The language used by the media to cement these myths in public opinion has been borrowed straight from the IDF’s arsenal of lexical weapons. One weapon could be called “surgical language” — technical terms meant to hide questionable actions. Hence the press would describe the assassination of a wanted Palestinian as a “focused prevention.” Another army lexicon used by the media inflamed public support for the military when anyone criticized IDF conduct, whether Palestinian leaders, Palestinian politicians in Israel or the few Jews in Israel who dared to question the general consensus. Past inhibitions vanished: it was now possible to give vent to latent racism in Jewish society on the air. The language of incitement mostly appeared on radio talk shows — not a phenomenon unique to Israel, to be sure. The most popular among the hosts of these programs is someone called Jojo Abudbul whose opening line is quite often: “If I were in charge of the gunships, I would bomb Ramallah and Bethlehem and let as many people as possible die.” Similar remarks can be heard coming from two cultural heroes in Israel, veteran pop singers Yoram Gaon and Yigal Bashan, who have two hours each between the hustle and bustle of the week and the pastoral weekend on Israeli radio.

Finally, the mainstream media simply borrowed from army experts a rhetoric for interviewers which transformed every journalist conversing with someone who does not belong to “us” — a foreign diplomat, a Palestinian leader, a Palestinian politician in Israel or an Israeli Jew who supports the Palestinian cause — into an interrogator in the service of the state. This newly acquired language has cast doubt upon these journalists’ ethics. Aryeh Golan, who hosts a popular morning radio show, interviewed a considerable number of Palestinians at the beginning of the intifada. In one of his interviews with Ziyad Abu Ein, a PA official, he ended the discussion by threatening: “You want war, you are going to get war. Israel is a powerful state. Did you know that?” Abu Ein replied: “We want peace.” Another radio host, Yaron Dekel, asked the PA council member Faris Qaddura: “Did you receive orders from Arafat for a ceasefire?” and then cut him short before he answered: “Will you cease fire?” In November 2001 Channel One’s anchorwoman Geula Even interrogated another PA official, Hussein al-Sheikh, with equal zeal: “When and how have you decided upon escalating the killing of Jews in East Jerusalem?” These borrowings from the military’s storehouse of words helped to dehumanize the Palestinians in general, and armed Palestinians in particular, in the eyes of the Israeli public. “Bloodthirsty” is the most common adjective used to describe Palestinians in the press over the past year, according to one study. [6] In such a way, the media adopted uncritically all the adjectives suggested by the army for describing Arafat, preparing the ground for his long-term confinement in the governorate in Ramallah. The favorite epithet is “psycho,” according to Ha’aretz reporter Aviv Lavie. Others are “insane” and “murderous.” [7]


The focus on military tactics, the reservoir of military images and the absence of alternative thinking about the intifada’s causes and possible objectives have been especially evident on Israeli talk shows. Despite the privatization and decentralization of the Israeli radio and TV, political talk shows on the national channels, such as the roundtable discussions during prime time, still garner very high ratings. The intifada is the principal topic of discussion since October 2000, and it is mainly debated by generals and ex-generals. They are presented as authorities on the subject; in fact, they are introduced as “objective” and “neutral” observers, compared to the politicians, who are considered to be “biased.” The uniformed participants communicate the message that everything is under control, and do not miss an opportunity to urge the audience to support the army unconditionally. Their views are repeated through the military correspondents, and far more importantly by what the main channels call “our senior military commentator” (of which there are four or five) and “our expert on Arab affairs” (also a very exclusive group of four or five), who usually have little to add to what the military experts said, since they are all fed by military and security intelligence reports. Quite often, one of these will energetically wave a piece of paper on TV, as another document proving this or that claim just made by the official spokesman of the army. The leading expert on Arab affairs in Israel is Ehud Yaari, a man closely connected to military intelligence. Yaari is an intimate friend of Amos Malka, chief of military intelligence, and Amnon Shahak, ex-chief of the general staff and one of the most popular guests on the talk shows. All three loyally serve the IDF line in their interpretations of the intifada. [8]

The corruption of the media was particularly evident in its lack of empathy with foreign colleagues who were banned from proper coverage of Defensive Shield, and then became targets of the army’s harassment and violent abuse. [9] As for itself, the Israeli media imposed a willing blackout on its own screens, receivers and pages during the month-long offensive, partly because attempts to show only what the army deemed right and useful had previously ended in a flop. During the previous operation in March 2002, code-named Journey of Colors, the IDF entered the refugee camp of Tulkarm. The IDF spokesman invited the national TV crews and senior military correspondents to accompany its operation in the camp, hoping to show what it called “the humane face” of the Israeli army. Close-up pictures of soldiers hammering their way from one house into another, frightening the children and destroying most of what was in their way, somehow did not fit the running commentary upon a surgical operation with a particular stress upon avoiding harm to innocent civilians. Shocked viewers responded angrily, and this public relations stunt was never tried again. No TV reporters, not even the loyal local ones, were allowed to escort the troops into the Jenin camp in April. Only one radio correspondent, Carmela Menashe, was allowed to stay in the vicinity of the Jenin operation, from whence she read aloud to listeners from prepared statements handed to her by military commanders on the spot.

To the dismal state of the media, one can add the hijacking of party politics by ex-generals and the militarization of the education system to grasp the deep level at which Israel has become a nation-in-arms in 2002. Sir Thomas Rapp, the somewhat unusual colonialist who headed the British Middle East Office in the early 1950s, was a keen observer of Israeli society. Although he favored, as did almost all British officials at the time, closer ties between Britain and the newly founded Jewish state, he warned: “The younger generation [in Israel] is brought up in an environment of militarism and thus a permanent threat to Middle East tranquility is thereby created and Israel would thus tend to move away from the democratic way of life towards totalitarianism of the right or the left.” [10] Today the old and new left are gone, and authoritarian rule from the right looms as a frightening possibility in Israel and Palestine.


[1] Moshe Lissak, “The Ethos of Security and the Myth of the Militarized Society,” Democratic Culture 4-5 (2001). [Hebrew] [2] Ilan Pappé, “Post-Zionist Critique, Part II: Media,” Journal of Palestine Studies 26/3 (Spring 1997).
[3] Uri Ben Eliezer, “From Nation-in-Arms to a Post-Modern Army: Military Politics in ‘New Times’ Israel,” Democratic Culture 4-5 (2001). [Hebrew] [4] Daniel Dor, A Press Under Influence (Bavel: Tel Aviv, 2001), pp. 13-19. [Hebrew] [5] LAW, The Israeli Media and the Intifada: A Critical Study (Haifa, December 4, 2001).
[6] Khalil Rinnawi, conference paper presented at “A Year of the Sharon Government,” Galilee Center, April 1, 2002.
[7] Ha’aretz, December 17, 2001.
[8] Ha’aretz, November 9, 2000.
[9] The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has documented numerous cases of physical attacks upon journalists during Defensive Shield and previously. Their report is available online at:
[10] Public Record Office, FO 371/82179, E1015/119, Rapp to Ernest Bevin, December 15, 1950.

How to cite this article:

Ilan Pappe "Donning the Uniform," Middle East Report 223 (Summer 2002).

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