Monday, August 14, 2006

Some reflections...

...  on media coverage of the crisis (in Lebanon)

As the late Susan Sontag put it,  'Words alter,  words add,  words subtract.' (1)  It is not original to say that this war in Lebanon and Israel is being fought not just with bullets,  artillery shells and rockets,  but also with words:  words on the TV and radio,  in newspapers,  in think tanks and weblogs and other online media.  Words also matter in the search for a UN resolution that could bring an end to this conflict.  As I write,  there is a dispute over the exact meaning of  'the immediate cessation of all offensive military operations'.  On the other hand,  demands for  'immediate Israeli withdrawal'  leave little room for argument.

What follows is unscientific and necessarily incomplete.  It is a personal impression of some of the things that have been said that are wrong and,  more importantly,  of the things that have not been said.  I should also caution that events are moving quickly,  especially on the diplomatic front,  and so consequently is the way this conflict is being portrayed. 

But first the facts (or some of them).
For the last six years,  there had been a sort of armed stand-off between Israel and the Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon.  On Wednesday 12 July,  as well as capturing two soldiers and killing eight,  Hezbollah launched Katyusha rockets,  targeting the town of Shlomi and outposts in the Shebaa Farms area.  Israel responded with air strikes.  Hezbollah responded by launching rockets deeper into Israel.

When the events of 12 July occurred,  most of us were aware that Israel had withdrawn from Lebanon in 2000.  We also had fuzzy memories of the 2004 prisoner exchange and issues like the Shebaa Farms.  We were also aware that Hezbollah had invented the car (or truck) suicide bombings in the 1980's,  carried out hostage-takings and that their terrorist attacks had continued into the 1990's.  But the wave of Shi'a extremism unleashed by the 1979 revolution in Iran seemed to have subsided.  Reformers were gaining at least some power in Iran (this of course went into reverse in 2005).  Above all,  after September 2001,  everybody knew that we were faced by a new wave of terrorism from Sunni groups,  who professed to hate the Shi'a.  The terrorist acts of Shi'a groups seemed to be in the past.  In some ways,  we were prepared to give Hezbollah the benefit of the doubt.

I was also not alone in having doubts,  strong reservations even,  about Israel's reactions to the capture of a soldier near Gaza on 25 June. (2)
 
Media reaction
To return to events that followed 12 July,  some reaction has been totally predictable.  John Pilger wrote in the The Guardian:
The resistance to rapacious power,  to epic crimes of invasion (which the Nuremberg judges called the "paramount" crime) is humanity at its noblest;  yet the paradox warns us that no resistance is pretty;  that each adds its own form of violence in order to expel an invader (such as the civilians killed by Hizbollah rockets);  and this has applied to heroic partisans in Europe and heroic Kurds and those faceless,  despised Iraqis who have succeeded in pinning down the American homicidal machine in their country. (3)
The "invader" is,  of course,  Israel,  in spite of the fact that Hezbollah initiated the hostilities by firing rockets into Israel and killing eight and capturing two soldiers (in Israel). (4)  A reversal of definitions takes place:  the invader or aggressor becomes the heroic resistance to invasion.

It is easy,  of course,  to ridicule Pilger's rant.  But it is important to note how such views,  or a pale reflection of them,  have seeped into the mainstream.

At the time of the launch of the Euston Manifesto,  Norman Geras and Nick Cohen wrote that 'our discussion focused on our common sense of discord with much current left-liberal thinking.  We talked of how the prevailing consensus had ample representation in the liberal press, on the BBC and Channel 4...' (5)  This was with regard to the dominant anti-war discourse over Iraq.  Taking Channel 4 News as an example,  their coverage of the crisis in Lebanon now seems to be even less balanced.  I wrote myself (on 8 August - to repeat events are moving very quickly) that this is not a matter of direct lies:
It's all done by distortion,  selection and omission.  [In] C4's coverage reporters are constantly trying to make 'points'.  There are various subpoints and subtexts,  but here are the main ones.

'point' number 1all that's needed is for the US (and Britain) to call for an immediate ceasefire.  When a cessation of the violence is proposed,  Hezbollah and the Lebanese government reject it and call for the immediate withdrawal of Israeli troops.

'point' number 2nobody is prepared to contribute troops to an international force.  France and others have expressed willingness.

'point' number 3in spite of Israel's offensive,  Hezbollah continues to fire rockets into Israel.  Therefore the offensive is pointless.  Even if Israel manages to push them back several miles,  Hezbollah has long-range missiles.  Therefore,  again,  it's pointless.  Hezbollah has different types of rocket.  Most of them are the short-range Katyusha and they only have a few of the longer-range ones (hopefully).

In general,  the real issue  -  the hollowness of Hezbollah's case  -  has not been addressed at all by C4,  and hardly by the BBC on their TV and radio output (though their website has some useful pieces).
Underpinning this,  there are other voices on the web.  See,  for example,  Paul Rogers at opendemocracy.net. Many of these present an extraordinarily unbalanced view of the conflict.  A particularly shameless example is Caroline Pailhe's in Le Monde diplomatique. (6)

Much of the focus has been on the "humanitarian catastrophe"  -  the destruction of infrastructure,  casualties among civilians,  the difficulty in evacuating civilians or getting aid to them.  All this,  undeniably,  has been much worse on the Lebanese side.  Beyond this,  many have shown a readiness to believe that Israel is committing war crimes and a willingness to overlook those committed on the other side.

There has been a great deal of argument about how much coverage has been given to Israeli casualties as against Lebanese. (7)  To a large extent, this is a sterile debate.

War is horrible.  We all know that.  We have tried to mitigate its effects since 1945,  by strengthening the conventions on its conduct.  But it is still horrible.  The important thing is to stop wars breaking out in the first place.  Or,  when they do,  to bring them to an end as quickly as we can,  if possible.

So,  it is important to examine the causes of this conflict.  Rodric Braithwaite writes:
No single event is the proximate cause of the current mayhem [...] The causes go back in almost infinite regression. (8)
This is correct in relation to Gaza and the wider Israel/Palestine issue.  But, considered purely in the context of Lebanon, the more Hezbollah's "case" is examined,  the more it dwindles almost to the vanishing point.

Take the Shebaa Farms.  This is a sliver of land of around 15 square miles.  The UN recognises this as part of Syria.  If Syria conceded that it was part of Lebanon,  then,  in all likelihood,  Israel would have had no problem withdrawing from its occupation there. (9)

Early on in the crisis,  I noted that:  'People speaking for the Arab side usually prefix their remarks with a formula such as,  "nobody speaks about the Lebanese prisoners..."  Yet they are given plenty of access to the BBC,  say,  and they always mention it.'  To confirm this,  an article in The Observer,  to which my attention was drawn later (10):
One senior journalist posted in London,  who asked not to be named,  claims that the origins of the current conflict have not been adequately explained.  "The prisoners' issue remains unresolved six years after the Israelis were forced out of Lebanon.  But nobody talks about that."
Well,  fine,  let's talk about it,  about the Lebanese prisoners held by the Israelis.  It turns out there are 3 (yes, three) that Hezbollah want released (some Israelis say there are one and a half, other people say four).  There are thousands of Palestinian prisoners,  but for that to be relevant,  as with the question of Israel's actions in Gaza,  you have to accept Hezbollah's right to make the "linkage",  to claim these things as a reason for them to attack Israel in the north.  Too many people unthinkingly accept that linkage  -  or just want to see Israel punished for its actions in Gaza.  Whether Hezbollah's actions are actually helpful for finding a solution with regard to Gaza and Hamas is debatable,  to say the least.

But to return to the Lebanese context,  Shebaa Farms,  the prisoners,  these both turn out to be not legitimate grievances,  but pretexts for Hezbollah.  Yet, in spite of this,  or perhaps because of it,  these questions rarely receive proper analysis.  Instead,  ever more fantastical theories are concocted to explain Israel's (and the US's) malevolence.

It is tempting at this point to conclude by saying,  'Hezbollah have absolutely no case at all.'  But let's try really hard and see what sort of a case can be made for them.  There are,  I think,  two things that can be said.

The first point is made by Paul Rogers.  He speaks of 'the Israeli bombardment of the Lebanese border areas,  the Beqaa valley and targets near Beirut at the end of May 2006'  though he admits that 'this,  the most intensive Israeli military action in five years,  was a reaction to rocket attacks from Hizbollah.'  But I have not seen this used elsewhere as an argument in favour of Hezbollah.

The second point is more complex.  Maybe Hezbollah and its apologists are right to claim "linkage" with Gaza and Palestinian issues.  After all,  Palestinian prisoners were released as part of the deal negotiated with Hezbollah in 2004.  And there is another dimension to this.  Dr. Karim Makdisi,  a Lebanese political analyst,  wrote at the time  'that the prisoner exchange has proven to Israel that it doesn’t pay to abduct Lebanese nationals as bargaining chips.' (11)  An editorial in Haaretz,  on 30 June 2006,  clarifies this:  'Israel also kidnapped people from Lebanon to serve as bargaining chips in dealings with the kidnappers of Israeli soldiers.'

Another article in Le Monde diplomatique argues that 'the Israeli government has negotiated prisoner exchanges several times...' (12)  The only problem with this line is that it plays into the hands of the hardliners on the Israeli side.  They will argue:  we should not have negotiated that prisoner exchange;  in fact, we should not negotiate anything with our enemies. (13) It cuts away the ground of the moderates.  I'm prepared to be corrected,  but it's hard to imagine Haaretz making the same point about the soldiers captured near Lebanon.

Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah,  has told us in chilling terms that he seeks to defend Lebanon against attacks from 'North Palestine' (broadcast of 9 August, relayed by the BBC without comment).  Hezbollah's war has transformed their rhetoric into action.  It should not be necessary to remind people of the commitment of the Euston Manifesto  -  'We recognize the right of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples to self-determination within the framework of a two-state solution.'

The real case against Hezbollah is not that it is "terrorist",  but that it is confrontationalist.  And those who glorify it,  or even those who "explain" its actions or seek to find the blame elsewhere,  should know one thing:  their cause is not peace,  but discord and violence.

Notes:
(1) Susan Sontag,  The New York Times,  May 23, 2004, on the Abu Ghraib scandal inter alia;  quoted in http://davidp1.blogspot.com/2004/12/gambling-and-earning.html

(2) Doubts about Gaza - see http://davidp1.blogspot.com/2006/06/events.html.
Also,  Jeff Weintraub and Jonathan Edelstein (the 'Head Heeb') in http://davidp1.blogspot.com/2006/07/fog-of-war-replies.html.

(3) John Pilger,  quoted by Norman Geras in  http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2006/07/  hymning_hizboll.html
See also Harold Evans in The Guardian: http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/harold_evans/2006/08/   we_are_all_hizbullah_now_reall.html

(4) In the initial incident,  three soldiers were killed in Israel and a further five as they pursued the abductors into Lebanon.

(5) Norman Geras and Nick Cohen in the New Statesman, 17th April 2006.

(6)  Paul Rogers,  Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University; see, for example,  'A proxy war' at http://www.opendemocracy.net/themes/article.jsp?id=2&articleId=3752.
Caroline Pailhe,  Groupe de recherche et d’information sur la sécurité (GRIP), Le Monde diplomatique,  August 2006 http://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/carnet/2006-08-09-liban - not available on the English language version site at the time of writing.

(7) See,  for example,  Newsnight's Whos_telling_the_truth and comments.

(8) Rodric Braithwaite,  Financial Times,  3 August 2006;  quoted in http://www.belgraviadispatch.com/2006/08/  whitehall_protests.html;  republished in the Daily Mail,  4 August.

(9) On the Shebaa Farms,  see Bitter Lemons,  Edition 24 Volume 4 - June 29, 2006  http://www.bitterlemons-international.org/previous.php?opt=1&id=138.

(10) http://davidp1.blogspot.com/2006/07/fog-of-war-replies.html;
 'As Lebanon sinks into crisis,  a new dispute grows - over bias', The Observer, 23 July 2006.

(11) Dr. Karim Makdisi,  'Hezbollah 1, Israel 0',  Bitter Lemons, Ed. 7 Vol. 2 - February 19, 2004
http://www.bitterlemons-international.org/previous.php?opt=1&id=28.

(12) On Israel negotiating prisoner exchanges previously:  'Crimes de guerre, offensive contre la paix',  'Israel’s offensive against peace:  War crimes'.   
 
(13) Yehoshua Porath,  Bitter Lemons, Ed. 7 Vol. 2 - February 19, 2004;  Ami Isseroff, 'Fighting Hezbollah in the worst way possible'.

Addendum:  Also at opendemocracy.net,  is an article by Zaid Al-Ali which gives a link to an International Crisis Group report of 25 July 2006.  This is a very detailed analysis,  which should be read.  Its conclusions are reflected in much of the French proposals regarding the crisis and in the UN Security Council resolution that has been finally adopted,  resolution 1701.

 http://www.opendemocracy.net/conflict-middle_east_politics/hizbollah_victory_3809.jsp

 'Israel/Palestine/Lebanon:  Climbing Out of the Abyss',  Crisis Group, Middle East Report N°57.
http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?l=1&id=4282

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

this war is a very complex issue and your analysis, eventhough it is trying to sound thorough is nowhere close.

a patchwork of ideas:
is israel a kind of land anyone would dream to live in? daily military actions and terror actions in response (the only way palestinians have to defend themselves). there is something very sick in the state of israel. something very unbalanced, unhealthy and immoral.

i suppose that you are jewish and you live in england. suppose you were regarded - at this day and age - as a second rate citizen because you are not christian. suppose you were not allowed to marry a christian, suppose you had to face all sorts of restrictions only on the basis of your religion... am i mistaken, or is this how israel is run today? a bit racist, no?

instead of breeding hatred around you, learn how to interact with your neighbors. they dont recognize israel? you've never given them any reason to recognize it. you cant make people flee their lands, destroy their homes, occupy their territory, fly over their cities and violate their airspace, etc etc etc and expect them to recognize israel as a state.

peace can only be attained if you have the will to listen to the other.

israel lives in fear, secluded and keeps on secluding itself further and further in its ghetto-like state.

not only have the jews chosen an inhabited land to build their state, they chose an arid one. so you need water? why cant you buy it from your neighbors? instead of trying to reach the litani, holding on to the shebaa farms and the golan heights.

so on and so forth...

1:30 am, August 15, 2006  
Blogger DavidP said...

Anonymous 1:30 AM, August 15, 2006
With regard to my analysis claiming to be thorough, I said at the beginning that it was 'necessarily incomplete'.

Much of your comment relates more to the Palestinian issue. As I said, I had strong reservations about Israel's actions following 25 June. More on this later, hopefully. But my post was mainly about Lebanon. The situation after the conflict will be complex, but the problems the government faces are mostly with Syria and Hezbollah, not Israel.

I am not Jewish. Non-Jews, mainly Arab Muslims, make up 20% of the population in Israel. They have the right to vote and elect members to the Knesset (if you watch the news, you may have seen one of them heckling during Ehud Olmert's speech yesterday). Like minorities in any state they have their problems. Their rights are generally upheld by the Israeli judicial system. Concerning legal restrictions on marriage, I do not believe this is the case.

Israel tried 'to reach the Litani' because Hezbollah were firing rockets from south Lebanon.

2:35 pm, August 15, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you David for having taken the time to reply.
if you were a jew i would have understood your desire to defend a country that you consider your own (even though i try to understand but i still dont why a religious community should identify itself to a plot of land and appropriate it).
as you are a non jew, i invite you to re-read the history of the region with objective eyes and assess the character of the Zionist movement from the start of the 20th century up to today (terrorist acts of the Irgun, illegal immigration, deportation, terror acts by the Israeli state, illegal settlements, destruction and killings in the territories, etc.)
now we can talk about the lot of the minority group, as you put it. A minority which was once a majority and which has turned into a minority by the systematic 'ethnic cleansing' carried out by the state of israel in order to maintain the Jewish character of its country.
yes i know you are talking about lebanon. lets talk about lebanon. if the israeli state had not driven hundred thousands of palestinians out of their towns and villages, they would not have fled to a neighboring country, lebanon, would they? then followed plo, 18 year occupation by israel, hezbollah as a resistance group to drive out the israelis... one should always look at the root of the problem.
i am not pro hezbollah - i myself am armenian, christian - i am not pro any extremist group or state. but i do understand their wish to resist and defend their country - a task that a weak ordinary army cannot do when faced to the most powerful army in the middle east. no, i dont think that abducting 2 soldiers is an act of war, it is an act of provocation, provocation which has been going on both sides of the blue line. further, there are sources that say that the abduction was done on lebanese soil. and that the israeli attack had been long planned, long before July 12.
i honestly hope that the lebanese army will have the strength to defend the country one day and will not have to rely on a guerilla fighting group.
by the way, do you know that israel has inflicted more damage to lebanon in a month than the 15 year old civil war. and now, israeli lawyers are suing the lebanese government and asking for compensation? there is a limit to barbarism and indecency. and somehow, israel always goes overboard.
as an armenian, i understand the suffering of people who have been massacred. the jews in the 20th century, the palestinians... yes i have compassion for the jews - i have many jewish friends - but i stop having compassion when the jewish state of israel acts like a terrorist itself.
and by the way, israel - a land of martyrs and victims - has never recognized the armenian genocide perpetrated by the ottoman empire (aka turkey)... victims should understand victims, no?
turkey is a friend to israel, but when you base your whole being on the shoah, you cannot act with such disdain.
... its all about the water, turkey has water and israel not. I believe you are aware of israel’s water shortage, and the way it is linked to the territories it is still occupying.

Peacefully yours
letlebanonlive.skynetblogs.be

1:58 pm, August 17, 2006  

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