Help plug leakers of army secrets, Israelis urged

TEL AVIV Thu Jan 8, 2009 8:22am GMT

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TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Escalating a campaign to control information about its Gaza Strip offensive, Israel has opened a hotline for tip-offs about uniformed officers or politicians suspected of spilling state secrets.

A phone number advertised in radio spots connects to the Defense Ministry's Field Security Department, where a clerk -- apparently loath to surrender the military practice of saying little over open channels -- answers with a brusque: "Yes?"

It is a testament to the distance that Israel, where outspokenness and irreverence are something of a national ethos, has come since a 2006 war in Lebanon in which setbacks were often blamed on media leaks from the battlegrounds.

Information on the now nearly two-week-old offensive in Gaza has been stage-managed for both the domestic and foreign press.

Soldiers have had mobile phones confiscated to prevent them sending SMS messages about combat losses or troop deployments as they advance on Hamas and other Palestinian guerrillas in Gaza.

Military censors, who avoid nosing around routine news coverage, now show their teeth. Two Israeli freelancers were arrested on suspicion they gave an Iranian TV station details about the Gaza sweep that was not cleared for publication.

"In terms of information security, we definitely learned our lessons from the last war," said Captain Benjamin Rutland, a military spokesman.

Alon Ben-David, a correspondent for Israel's Channel Ten television and Jane's Defense Weekly, said the military had transformed itself into a "media bunker" since the 2006 war.

Then, senior officers took time out from fighting to inveigh against their high command in off-record chats. Now, Ben-David said, the military brass are under a "regime of terror" that includes a threat of having their phone conversations monitored.

"But we understand that this is the way it has to be, given Israel's situation, and there is always a way of working things out with the censors so everyone gets what they need," he said.

While Reuters and other news agencies with a permanent presence in Gaza have been reporting on the conflict, foreign journalists seeking to join them from Israel have been stopped at the border. Israel cites security concerns for the closure.

Yet some reporters suspect there is a deliberate effort by Israeli authorities to divert international scrutiny to nearby frontier towns reeling from Palestinian rocket barrages.

"I am totally convinced -- and some people on the Israeli side have told me as much -- that they want reporters to show the misery of Israeli citizens around Gaza and keep us away from showing the misery of the people inside Gaza," said Conny Mus of RTL Holland. "It's loud and it's clear and it's a fact."

Israel allowed a BBC cameraman to embed with its forces in Gaza on Wednesday, indicating the press curbs may be lifting.

(Editing by Angus MacSwan)