Israel's Pentagon Papers

Common sense tells you that the Israeli military, charged with keeping Israeli citizens as safe as possible, should have the right to keep operational plans secret; and that the government--acting within bounds set by the judiciary--should have the right to censor any stories about such plans and prosecute the people who leak them. But what if the military, acting as an occupation force, is itself violating bounds set by the judiciary, and its actions are arguably making citizens less safe? What if a whistle-blower leaks documents to a journalist, who then uses them to write a story questioning the legality or efficacy of the military's actions? What if the story is itself passed by the censor, but the government opens an investigation into the journalist's sources?

What, then, if the journalist, cooperating with the investigation, hands over documents in an agreement that stipulates that they could not be used to prosecute the source, if found? And what, nevertheless, if the government finds the whistle-blower and charges her under laws written, not to deal with the press, but to prevent espionage for a hostile foreign government? What if the government refuses to renounce the option of arresting the journalist for holding prohibited documents--so he remains in London, refusing to return to the country?

THIS, IN A nutshell, is the troubling case of a young woman, Anat Kam, who allegedly (well, apparently) leaked documents from the office of the Central Command to Haaretz journalist Uri Blau, showing that the IDF systematically issued operational guidelines to its soldiers quite different from regulations the courts have required. The latter decreed that the military may not simply engage in targeted assassination in the occupied territories; that, rather, soldiers must at least try to take Palestinian suspects alive, and not unreasonably endanger innocent bystanders during search operations. Blau's original piece exposed how the IDF ignored these bounds. He explored cases where Palestinians who might have been arrested were killed, as were bystanders.

Haaretz--which, as if more proof were needed, is emerging as a great world newspaper--is defending its journalist with all of its force. I won't attempt to compete with its morning edition, that gives any patient reader the full picture, including this editorial, arguing how military intelligence broke the deal it made with the paper, and this follow-up by Blau.

I will, however, make one point the paper does not make, about the efficacy of targeted assassinations themselves. Presumably, these are justified, and the regulations issued to facilitate them justified, because occupation forces preempt attacks on Israeli civilians by getting the bad guys before they get us. I have no doubt that, in some cases, this preemption has saved lives. But what if, on the whole, the opposite is true, that shooting preemptively and recklessly raises the likelihood of violence against Israelis.

ANYONE WHO GIVES this a moment's thought must see this is at least possible. An old friend of mine, the University of Toronto sociologist Robert Brym, carefully studied all 138 suicide bombings between September 2000 and mid-July 2005. He concluded that, in the vast majority of cases, the suicide bombers themselves—whatever their “ideological” predispositions, or the groups that claimed responsibility—had lost a friend or close relative to Israeli fire. They acted, he wrote, “out of revenge.”

Which is precisely why the newspaper was as justified in exposing these secret documents as the Times and the Post were justified in publishing the Pentagon Papers. Haaretz's Akiva Eldar connected the dots this morning when he wrote that he expects the real story of how the Al-Aqsa Intifada got started is buried somewhere in similar documents--the ones we have not yet seen--documents pointed to by Kam's leaked ones, testifying to the IDF's vendetta culture:

Right now, hundreds of clerks and officers are sitting in the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the army lacking the courage to contact a journalist and divulge that the ministers or commanders in charge are endangering their children's future.

Some are keeping to themselves the real story behind the big lie peddled by Ehud Barak, Shaul Mofaz and Moshe Ya'alon - the falsehood that "Yasser Arafat planned the intifada," which gave rise to the disastrous "there is no partner" ideology. The real story, of course, is contained in documents stamped with the words "Top Secret."

I expect we will soon hear stories about Kam's youth, or ingenuousness, or flakiness, which all may be as true as Daniel Ellsberg's depressions. None of this changes the importance to Israeli democracy of airing the question of whether targeted assassinations as practiced and sanctioned by the IDF command are either morally acceptable in a country of law or will make any of us sleep more safely, even if not more soundly.