The crowds in Beirut last year demanding a Cedar
Revolution, "the first shoots of democracy" supposedly planted by the
United States, are a distant memory. Yesterday we saw in their place the fury
of Lebanon directed against the capital's United Nations building – an early
"birth pang" in Condoleezza Rice's new Middle East.
If Israel wanted to widen its war, it could not have chosen a better way to achieve
it than by sending its war planes back to the mixed Muslim and Christian village
of Qana in south Lebanon to massacre civilians there, as if marking a morbid anniversary.
A decade ago, Israeli shelling on the village killed more than 100 Lebanese civilians
sheltering in a local UN post.
To the Lebanese, and most in the Arab world, the United Nations now symbolizes
everything that is corrupt about the international community and its "conscience."
The world body, it has become clearer by the day, is a mere plaything of the United
States and, by default, of Israel too. It is nothing more than a talking shop,
one so enfeebled that it lacks the moral backbone even to denounce unequivocally
the murder of four of its unarmed observers by the Israeli army last week. How
can Lebanon expect protection for its civilians from an international body as
emasculated as this?
The rage we saw directed against the United Nations building in Beirut, as if
we needed reminding, will be converted in time into more violence against the
West, to more 9/11s and to more London and Madrid bombings. Will these attacks
wake up the slumbering Western publics to stop their leaders engineering a global
war, or will more of us simply be persuaded that the Arab world is fundamentally
irrational and savage?
Why do they hate us? Qana provides the answers, but it appears few in the West
are really listening.
All morning when Arab channels were showing the crushed building in Qana, and
the Red Crescent workers extracting from under it more than 60 bodies, mostly
children, embalmed in blood and dust, Israel was showing family movies on its
main television networks.
Foreign channels were hardly better. It is in the first responses of the Western
broadcasters – before they have had time to hone and polish their scripts and
cover all the bases – that their partisan agenda is at its most transparent.
So all morning their attention was directed less at the new Qana massacre than
at the destruction of the UN building in Beirut, as though it was our last rampart
against the rampaging hordes of Islam. In this framing of the world, our provocative
acts appear so much less significant than the mystifying response, the Other's
Noticeably, our news anchors were careful to avoid referring to the massacre of
Lebanese children at Qana as "an escalation" by Israel. That word, intoned
so solemnly when eight Israeli railway workers were killed by a Hezbollah rocket
in Haifa a fortnight ago, was not uttered on this occasion. According to our media,
when we suffer, it is an escalation demanding retaliation; when they suffer, maybe
it is time to begin talks about talks about a cease-fire.
BBC World's presenter in Beirut, Lyse Doucet, personifies this moral blindness.
She chided Lebanese speaker after speaker for the crowds attacking the UN building.
"Why are they doing this when the UN is trying to broker a cease-fire?"
she demanded in bafflement of each. The headlines at 11 a.m. GMT even began with
her quoting an expression of regret she had extracted from a Hezbollah MP for
the attack on the Beirut building, as though amid all that morning's carnage the
destruction of UN property was the real issue.
This presumably is what our media mean when they talk about "balance."
Jim Muir, the BBC's fine reporter in Tyre, observed in the same broadcast that
it was noncombatants who were paying the price in this war, and that the majority
of the dead on both sides were civilian. Where did he get that idea? In Israel,
the great majority of dead are soldiers, but you would hardly know it listening
to our media. In the same spirit, Jonathan Charles in Haifa observed that it had
been "a difficult day" for both countries, adding – in case we
could not fathom what he meant – that Israel had faced a hard day on the
diplomatic front. What lengths our broadcasters must go to to remain evenhanded
when we massacre innocents.
Israel, as usual, can be relied on to defend the indefensible. A government spokeswoman
told the BBC in another easy-ride interview that the army would never target an
area if it knew Lebanese civilians were there. Then she performed a somersault
of logic several times by arguing in her country's defense that the army knows
Hezbollah hides behind civilians. If she is right, then even as the pilot fired
on the Hezbollah fighters he assumed were inside the building he knew civilians
would pay the price too. But, of course, Hezbollah fighters were not in the building.
This endless sophistry is designed to lull us into acquiescence. Only vigilance
keeps us asking the right questions. How, for example, after its reconnaissance
planes and spy drones have been hovering over south Lebanon for the best part
of three weeks, was Israel not aware that hundreds of civilians were still in
Qana? But no one raised that question.
Cut through the apology, both from Israel and our media, and the aerial strike
on Qana looks, at the very best interpretation, recklessly ambivalent about the
likely civilian death toll. A cynic might go further. Was the attack meant as
a warning to other civilians still in south Lebanon to get out – and fast?
After its clear failure to win a conventional war, does the Israeli army want
a freer hand to begin the job of incinerating Hezbollah, using its cluster and
incendiary bombs, the Middle East's napalm? Was the answer to be found in the
statement of Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, yesterday that, generously,
he was giving civilians 24 hours safe passage to get out of the south.
Or was the massacre crafted as punishment for Qana's villagers, for those living
among Hezbollah, for those who are related to Hezbollah, for those who believe
that Hezbollah is their best hope of preventing another Israeli occupation? Did
Israel's Justice Minister Haim Ramon not make precisely this point last week when
he announced in a cabinet meeting: "Everyone in southern Lebanon is a terrorist
and is connected to Hezbollah"?
Moshe Marzouk, a former senior Israeli army officer who has turned his hand to
being a "counter-terrorism expert" in one of the country's leading academic
institutions, told the American Jewish weekly The Forward that one of Israel's
goals in this war is to teach Lebanon's Shi'ite community that it will pay a tremendous
price for Hezbollah's actions. Maybe Qana was part of the price he was talking
Israel offers a second excuse for the massacre: it says it dropped leaflets on
Qana warning civilians to leave the area. Again, our cynic could point out that
those leaflets were dropped 10 days ago, as they were across most of south Lebanon.
Qana had no reason to expect worse than anywhere else – and possibly it expected
better, assuming that Israel would not dare to stage a war crime here for a second
time after it troops massacred more than 100 civilians in 1996.
Our cynic could also note that Israel has bombed the escape roads from the south
and is shooting at anything that moves on what is left of them. And he could point
out that many of Qana's families have no cars to leave in, that they can
find no petrol to fill the cars that remain after Israel bombed all the petrol
stations, and that in any case they have nowhere else to go.
Though these things are all true, they distract us from the real issue: that Israel
has no right to empty south Lebanon of its population, to make a million people
homeless, just because its leaflets say they must leave. Jim Muir let us and himself
down when he observed that south Lebanon is "not an area which can become
depopulated overnight." No it isn't, but the deeper question is why
should it be depopulated? At what point did the international broadcasters fall
unnoticed behind an agenda that demands south Lebanon be ethnically cleansed to
Our media are oblivious to the double standards. Did Hezbollah's leader Hassan
Nasrallah not publicly warn that he would attack Haifa days before he did so,
if Israel continued its aggression and refused to negotiate over a prisoner swap?
Were Israelis not warned to leave too? And would we allow Hezbollah to use that
as a justification for its rocket fire on Israel?
On Friday Hezbollah fired its first Khaibar missile, packed with 100kg of explosives,
close by Nazareth – we could feel the earth tremble from the impact. The
Shi'ite militia waited more than two weeks before launching a warhead of that
size, after it made repeated threats to do so if Israel continued its onslaught.
Who will point out that had Hezbollah wanted to, if Israel's destruction was the
real aim, it could have fired those Khaibar rockets from day one?
And on Saturday, Nasrallah promised to strike "beyond Haifa" with even
more lethal rockets if Israel refused to countenance a ceasefire. Who on the BBC,
or CNN, or any of our other channels will quote that warning as justification
if Hezbollah extends its fire to Hadera, Netanya, or Tel Aviv in the coming days?
This is not a war of two narratives, nor even of two worldviews. It is a war in
which we, the West, speak for both sides. Where we define the meaning of suffering
and death, and of victory and peace. Where our humanity alone counts because we
feel only our own pain as the birth pangs take hold.