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Behind the Kamm Affair

A young, bespectacled former soldier and a journalist in self-imposed exile have become the latest Rorschach test for the vexing balancing act Israel faces as it tries to defend democracy and protect the safety of its citizens.

Those on the left believe that the espionage charge now lodged against Anat Kamm, the 23-year-old former Israel Defense Forces soldier who copied classified military documents and leaked them to reporter Uri Blau, is but the most recent example of Israel’s dangerous march toward suppression of civil liberties and dissent in the name of security.

Those on the right believe that both Kamm and Blau are grievously at fault for flouting the rule of law and abusing freedom of the press. One member of Knesset from the right-wing National Union party even called upon the government to shut down Blau’s paper, Haaretz, until he returns to Israel and hands over all the documents in his possession.

This ongoing drama was made more complicated by a gag order imposed on Israeli media in reporting Kamm’s arrest in January, and then a further order not to report on the original gag order. When that clumsy attempt at censorship fell apart — as it was bound to happen in the age of the Internet — the government’s motives seemed even more suspect.

This much can be said: Gag orders of this type are simply ridiculous, prone to backfire as this one did, and no longer justifiable at a time when information can and must flow freely.

Most everything else about this case leaves a careful observer in a quandary. Tempting as it is to turn Kamm and Blau into martyrs, their stories are not fully known, and what is known is complicated. If Kamm’s motive was to blow the whistle on what she believed to be unlawful military conduct and “war crimes” (her words), why did she copy so many documents, some of which allegedly contain sensitive information that could put at risk future military operations? As for Blau, it is not clear why his initial agreement with the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, to relinquish documents in return for prosecutorial immunity collapsed, and who is at fault.

Unfortunately, as Kamm remains under house arrest and Blau remains in London, the more troubling implication of his journalism has been obscured. Blau’s November 2008 story asserted that the Israeli military issued operational guidelines that essentially permitted targeted assassinations, in a manner that violated court orders instructing soldiers to at least try to take Palestinian suspects alive and not endanger innocent bystanders during such operations. The army said that Blau’s story was inaccurate.

There is a larger issue here: the efficacy of targeted assassinations, and whether the benefit of this practice outweighs the possibility it would, instead, spur on more acts of violence and revenge. This is the kind of issue that Israel, the only true democracy in the Middle East, ought to debate fully and freely. Holding government accountable is the media’s primary responsibility, and in the end can strengthen the bond between citizens and their leaders, a bond that now seems ever more dangerously frayed.

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