Last August, First Sergeant Naor Blanco joined a Netzah Yehuda battalion (Kfir brigade) nighttime operation to arrest a wanted man suspected of terrorist activity in the Jenin refugee camp. Blanco, a combat cameraman working for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Spokesperson’s Unit, arrived ready for the mission, however, as is often the case on the battlefield, things got complicated. “Shortly after we went in, they started shooting at us from different directions,” he recounts. “We acted according to regulations, and our forces returned fire when they had identified the sources of the shooting. While advancing in one of the alleyways, a large brick hurtled towards me and fell a short distance from me. That whole time, I held the camera and documented the battle and the exchanges of fire. I turned towards the direction from which the brick was thrown at me, and I identified a terrorist standing on a nearby rooftop. He was about to throw another brick at me. I realized I was in a life-threatening situation.”
Blanco didn’t hesitate: “I had no doubt about what I needed to do in the situation, and I acted swiftly. I put the camera in my vest, and I raised my rifle. The clip was already loaded. The terrorist was about 30 or 40 meters away from me. I aimed, pulled the trigger, and shot a single bullet, which hit him precisely, below his knee. He was injured, and neutralized, and no longer a threat to me or my fellow force members.
The operation ended with the suspect killed, and two Palestinians injured in the confrontation with IDF forces. But even after the forces left Jenin, Sergeant Blanco’s work continued. “When we finished at the refugee camp, I immediately made contact with the chief IDF Spokesperson representative in Central Command Major Ran Baroz and brigade representatives in Judea and Samaria. I understood from them that according to reports that had already been released by Palestinian sources, the IDF had purportedly perpetrated crimes in the nighttime operation, and a 14 year old youth had been injured. I took out my playback equipment, and sent the video documenting the development of the event. The material had been through preliminary editing, the images were distributed to all the communications networks, and within a short time, the tone of the reports cooled down.
“The visual material proved that it was a planned operation to capture a terrorist, and there was clear documentation of the fact that it was the terrorists who opened fire on us. The footage left no doubt that the forces that operated in the field acted with restraint, and the soldiers only fired when a life-threatening situation arose. The footage included cries of “Kill the Jews,” which could be heard constantly in the background. There is nothing better than seeing something with your own eyes, so headlines saying “The IDF invaded Jenin” were switched within minutes and updated to say “The IDF carried out an anti-terrorist operation in Jenin.”
“This is the pinnacle, from every perspective, on every level,” he admits with a glint in his eyes. “I know that the communication networks hate to retract reports they have published. And here, my footage from the field changed the entire thrust of the event’s coverage.”
Blanco is one of 24 fighters who are classified as "combat cameramen" who were trained in a special unit established by the IDF Spokesperson’s unit two years ago, and which operates as a combat platoon in every respect. They have undergone arduous training in the Golani brigade, like any other combat soldier. They know when to place the enemy in the crosshairs of their rifles, and when to point their cameras at them.
One picture is worth a thousand spins
Years later than it should have, the IDF has come to understand that stealth fighters and smart bombs are not enough to win the battle for public opinion, and that one good picture can save commissions of enquiry and a few other international headaches. En route to this victory, the IDF decided to forego one or two guns on the battlefield, and to replace them with still or video cameras that will make it possible to tell the same story to the world, in an entirely different way.
The men documenting operations are combat soldiers in every respect. They operate in the hottest conflict zones, they are up against civilian populations in the field, they see the whites of the terrorists’ eyes, and when bullets are whistle over their heads, their story only gets more interesting. When the forces advance towards their target with their fingers on their triggers, the combat cameraman points a loaded, battle-adapted camera, so the IDF can guarantee itself victory in the next battle - the one that will follow the moment the soldiers have left the heat of the battlefield: the battle of how the operation is perceived.
“We all have a love for this, we have the bug,” says Blanco, who studied cinematography as a communications major of the Rothberg High School in Ramat Hasharon. “It is safe to assume that if my first encounter with a camera had taken place only in the army, I would simply not be here.”
"They have the physical ability of any fighter,” said a senior officer in the IDF Spokesperson’s division who is responsible for the unit, “More than this, and more than their photographic abilities in a wide variety of situations, these soldiers know the language, and know how to understand the commands that are given in the field in the most high-pressure situations, and to communicate with the forces operating alongside them. Being a soldier is a profession, and soldiers have a language. Our operations documenters know it, because they are soldiers who have undergone the entire training process that their colleagues have, and it helps their ability to operate in the stormiest circumstances.”
The decision to create the operations documenters’ division was made during the tenure of the previous IDF Spokesperson, Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai, who has since been promoted to the rank of Major General, and today serves as Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. The current IDF spokesperson, Brig. Gen. Motti Almoz, adopted this approach, and ordered the continued development of the new unit, which provides priceless material for IDF public relations.
The soldier behind the camera
Friday afternoon, the third week of February. The Jalazone Palestinian refugee camp is ready for battle, while the neighboring Jewish settlement Beit El is anticipating the weekly rioting. This is actually a good day for riots: clear skies, warm weather, and mild sunshine overhead. An IDF aircraft continuously transmits images of what is happening in the refugee camp to the Binyamin Regional Brigade - preparations for a major riot, in which the participants will try, as they always do, to challenge the IDF forces, reach the settlement’s fences, and break through.
The IDF forces are ready on the ground. The battle lines have been drawn up in advance: the valley, a swathe of green separates Beit El from Jalazone a landscape of terraced olive groves. The forces have already deployed a few ambushes out in the area. The fighters know well how close they will let the rioters get to the fence around the settlement, and also when to employ the means at their disposal to disperse the riot. On the outskirts of the village someone is trying to incite the riot - but it does not erupt. Minutes go by, a mob burns a tire, others try to throw rocks from the ineffective distance of a few hundred meters. It’s boring. “It’s actually a nice day today,” says the operations documenter, Sergeant Shuval Nachum, who has already prepared himself for a major riot. “I was sure there would be a fierce standoff, and there would be work.”
Sergeant Nachum, who has been taking pictures since he was 12, and went to the Ironi Bet Public High School in Modi’in where he majored in communications at a very high level, knows exactly what is expected from him when things heat up. “If there is a disturbance, I go down from here, to the area where the incident is taking place, and I document everything possible in order to bring the most relevant pictures possible from there,” he says. “I can’t remember a situation in which I was sent on a mission and I didn’t have the means to do it. If I shoot video at night, I have special tools that allow me to film in complete darkness, using night-vision technology. All the lights on the camera are well hidden, because, of course, we know that any little light and any flash could cause our forces to be exposed and complicate things. In many cases, we also use cameras that are attached to our helmets. Everything is adapted to the needs in the field.”
While the documenters wait on alert for the anticipated flare up, a Binyamin Regional Brigade officer, Col. Yossi Pinto, arrives at the troops’ meeting point in order to assess the situation feel the lay of the land. Relaxed? According to the brigade, it only seems that way.
When the Jalazone rioters begin to attack the Jewish settlers with the stones and Molotov cocktails that they have prepared, Col. Pinto finds time to talk about the IDF before the combat documenters were deployed, and compare it to today, when no commander can allow himself to plan an operation, or any military activity, without one. “Today, any military operation performed by forces in the field without a combat documenter would be lacking,” he says. “The documenting of an incident or operation allows me to incriminate the people involved after the event. When I have the appropriate documentation, I send forces at night to arrest the perpetrator that I recorded earlier, and to imprison him.”
Can you give examples?
“For example, it happened not long ago in an even where a rioter was photographed throwing a Molotov cocktail. The photo that the combat documenter provided allowed us to take action against him and was the basis for his conviction. Dozens of convictions have been made this way. That is why, in the vast majority of operations, I insist that a documenter join the operation. Because their output serves not only communications needs, but also all manner of operational purposes, or for debriefing.”
It is not uncommon, during riots or clashes at check points to which combat documenters were sent, for rioters to try and block the lenses with their hands. “In quite a few instances there is physical contact between me and the rioters in the field. They push me, touch the cameras, try to block the lens with their hands,” says Sergeant Nachum. “If my fellow force members aren’t covering me at that time, I manage alone - I push back and create good photo opportunities for myself. A year ago, I was sent to a riot that involved Molotov cocktails being thrown, and I arrived quickly at the scene, really just a few seconds before the soldiers who were supposed to disperse the riot. I was stuck between the masses and I started documenting, while there was physical contact with the rioters going on. I brought two of them to the ground with my hands.”
“We know in advance about every operation or activity that is expected for the coming week in all the areas in which the IDF operates, and we decide together with the commanders in the field where there will be a combat documenter, and where there won’t,” says the officer in charge of the unit. “In all the instances, brigades ask to have a documenter with the forces and there are many situations in which we say ‘no,’ because there are no documenters available. Our preference is for the documenters to work in the more complicated areas.
“The documenters themselves know which forces they will be joining in future conflicts, in case of an operation in Gaza or Lebanon. They prepare for such events and train for them. They know the commanders, and they are experts in combat situations like any soldier. In time of need, every one of them will know what he must do, and no one will be surprised.”
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit is planning to continue the program and train more such documenters, so it will be possible to send fighters armed with cameras even to the complex operations of Squadron 13 other elite units. “It will happen. No one has any doubt of that,” said an IDF Spokesperson. “Today, we can only imagine how the Muhammad al-Durrah incident (during the Second Intifada) would have unfolded had we had a combat documenter at the scene.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on April 3, 2014
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