Here are some interesting points raised this week
by a leading commentator and published in a respected daily newspaper:
"The Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert embeds his soldiers in Israeli
communities, next to schools, beside hospitals, close to welfare centers, ensuring
that any Israeli target is also a civilian target. This is the practice the
UN's Jan Egeland had in mind when he lambasted Israel's 'cowardly blending
among women and children.' It may be cowardly, but in the new warfare it also
makes macabre sense. For this is a propaganda war as much as a shooting one,
and in such a conflict to lose civilians on your own side represents a kind
You probably did not read far before realizing that I have switched "Israel"
for "Hezbollah" and "Ehud Olmert" for "Hassan Nasrallah."
The paragraph was taken from an
opinion piece by Jonathan Freedland published in Britain's Guardian
newspaper on Aug. 2. My attempt at deception was probably futile because no
one seems to seriously believe that criticisms of the kind expressed above can
be leveled against Israel.
Freedland, like most commentators in our media, assumes that Hezbollah is using
the Lebanese population as "human shields," hiding its fighters, arsenals,
and rocket launchers inside civilian areas. "Cowardly" behavior rather
than the nature of Israel's air strikes, in his view, explains the spiraling
death toll among Lebanese civilians. This perception of Hezbollah's tactics
grows more common by the day, even though it flies in the face of the available
evidence and the research of independent observers in Lebanon such as Human
Explaining the findings of its latest report, HRW's executive director, Kenneth
Roth, blames Israel for targeting civilians indiscriminately in Lebanon. "The
pattern of attacks shows the Israeli military's disturbing disregard for the
lives of Lebanese civilians. Our research shows that Israel's claim that Hezbollah
fighters are hiding among civilians does not explain, let alone justify, Israel's
HRW has analyzed the casualty figures from two dozen Israeli air strikes and
found that more than 40 percent of the dead are children: 63 out of 153 fatalities.
Conservatively, HRW puts the civilian death toll so far at over 500. Lebanese
hospital records suggest the figure is now well over 750, with potentially many
more bodies yet to be excavated from the rubble of buildings obliterated by
Giving the lie to the "human shields" theory, HRW says its researchers
"found numerous cases in which the IDF [Israeli army] launched artillery
and air attacks with limited or dubious military objectives but excessive civilian
cost. In many cases, Israeli forces struck an area with no apparent military
target. In some instances, Israeli forces appear to have deliberately targeted
In fact, of the 24 incidents they document, HRW researchers could find no evidence
that Hezbollah was operating in or near the areas that were attacked by the
Israeli air force. Roth states: "The image that Israel has promoted of
such [human] shielding as the cause of so high a civilian death toll is wrong.
In the many cases of civilian deaths examined by Human Rights Watch, the location
of Hezbollah troops and arms had nothing to do with the deaths because there
was no Hezbollah around."
The impression that Hezbollah is using civilians as human shields has been reinforced,
according to HRW, by official Israeli statements that have "blurred the
distinction between civilians and combatants, arguing that only people associated
with Hezbollah remain in southern Lebanon, so all are legitimate targets of
Freedland makes a similar point. Echoing comments by the UN's Jan Egeland, he
says Hezbollah fighters are "cowardly blending" with Lebanon's civilian
population. It is difficult to know what to make of this observation. If Freedland
means that Hezbollah fighters come from Lebanese towns and villages and have
families living there whom they visit and live among, he is right. But exactly
the same can be said of Israel and its soldiers, who return from the battlefront
(in this case inside Lebanon, as they are now an invading army) to live with
parents or spouses in Israeli communities. Armed and uniformed soldiers can
be seen all over Israel, sitting in trains, queuing in banks, waiting with civilians
at bus stops. Does that mean they are "cowardly blending" with Israel's
Egeland and Freedland's criticism seems to amount to little more than blaming
Hezbollah fighters for not standing in open fields waiting to be picked off
by Israeli tanks and war planes. That, presumably, would be brave. But in reality,
no army fights in this way, and Hezbollah can hardly be criticized for using
the only strategic defenses it has: its underground bunkers and the crumbling
fortifications of Lebanese villages ruined by Israeli pounding. An army defending
itself from invasion has to make the most of whatever protection it can find
as long as it does not intentionally put civilians at risk. But HRW's
research shows convincingly that Hezbollah is not doing this.
So if Israeli officials have been deceiving us about what has been occurring
inside Lebanon, have they also been misleading us about Hezbollah's rocket attacks
on Israel? Should we take at face value government and army statements that
Hezbollah's strikes into Israel are targeting civilians indiscriminately, or
do they need more serious investigation?
Although we should not romanticize Hezbollah, equally we should not be quick
to demonize it either unless there is convincing evidence suggesting
it has been firing on civilian targets. The problem is that Israel has been
abusing very successfully its military censorship rules governing both its domestic
media and the reporting of visiting foreign journalists to prevent meaningful
discussion of what Hezbollah has been trying to hit inside Israel.
I live in northern Israel in the Arab city of Nazareth. A week into the war
we were hit by Hezbollah rockets that killed two young brothers. The attack,
it was widely claimed, was proof either that Hezbollah was indiscriminately
targeting civilians (so indiscriminately, the argument went, that it was hitting
fellow Arabs) or that the Shi'ite militia was so committed to a fanatical war
against the Judeo-Christian world that it was happy to kill Nazareth's Christian
Arabs too. The latter claim could be easily dismissed: it depended both on a
"clash of civilizations" philosophy not shared by Hezbollah and on
the mistaken assumption that Nazareth is a Christian city, when in fact, as
is well-known to Hezbollah, Nazareth has a convincing Muslim majority.
But to anyone living in Nazareth, it was clear the rocket attack on the city
was not indiscriminate either. It was a mistake something Nasrallah quickly
confirmed in one of his televised speeches. The real target of the strike was
known to Nazarenes: close by the city are a military weapons factory and a large
army camp. Hezbollah knows the locations of these military targets because this
year, as was widely reported in the Israeli media at the time, it managed to
fly an unmanned drone over the Galilee photographing the area in detail
employing the same spying techniques used for many years by Israel against Lebanon.
One of Hezbollah's first rocket attacks after the outbreak of hostilities
after Israel went on a bombing offensive by blitzing targets across Lebanon
was on a kibbutz overlooking the border with Lebanon. Some foreign correspondents
noted at the time (though given Israel's press censorship laws I cannot confirm)
that the rocket strike targeted a top-secret military traffic control center
built into the Galilee's hills.
There are hundreds of similar military installations next to or inside Israel's
northern communities. Some distance from Nazareth, for example, Israel has built
a large weapons factory virtually on top of an Arab town so close to
it, in fact, that the factory's perimeter fence is only a few meters from the
main building of the local junior school. There have been reports of rockets
landing close to that Arab community.
How these kind of attacks are being unfairly presented in the Israeli and foreign
media was highlighted recently when it was widely reported that a Hezbollah
rocket had landed "near a hospital" in a named Israeli city, not the
first time that such a claim has been made over the past few weeks. I cannot
name the city, again because of Israel's press censorship laws and because I
also want to point out that very "near" that hospital is an army camp.
The media suggested that Hezbollah was trying to hit the hospital, but it is
also more than possible it was trying to strike and may have struck
the army camp.
Israel's military censorship laws are therefore allowing officials to represent,
unchallenged, any attack by Hezbollah as an indiscriminate strike against civilian
Audiences ought to be alerted to this danger by their media. Any reports touching
on "security matters" are supposed to be submitted to the country's
military censor, but few media are pointing this out. Most justify this deception
to themselves on the grounds that in practice they never run their reports by
the censor as it would delay publication.
Instead, they avoid problems with the military censor either by self-censoring
their reporting of security issues or by relying on what has already been published
in the Israeli media on the assumption that in these ways they are unlikely
to contravene the rules.
An e-mail memo, written by a senior BBC editor and leaked more than a week ago,
discusses the growing restrictions being placed on the organization's reporters
in Israel. It hints at some of the problems noted above, observing that "the
more general we are, the freer hand we have; more specific and it becomes increasingly
tricky." The editor says the channel will notify viewers of these restrictions
in "the narrative of the story." "The teams on the ground will
make clear what they can and cannot say and if necessary make clear that
we're operating under reporting restrictions." In practice, however, BBC
correspondents, like most of their media colleagues, rarely alert us to the
fact they are operating under censorship, and self-censorship, or that they
cannot give us the full picture of what is happening.
Because of this, commentators like Freedland are drawing conclusions that cannot
be sustained by the available evidence. He notes in his article that "this
is a propaganda war as much as a shooting one." He is right, but does not
seem to know who is really winning the propaganda offensive.