In a state established on a founding myth –
that the native Palestinian population left of their own accord rather than
being ethnically cleansed – and one that seeks its legitimacy through a
host of other lies, such as that the occupation of the West Bank is benign and
that Gaza's has ended, deception becomes a political way of life.
And so it is in the "relative calm" that has followed Israel's month-long
pounding of Lebanon, a calm in which Israelis may no longer be dying but the
Lebanese most assuredly are as explosions of U.S.-made cluster bombs greet the
South's returning refugees. The anonymous residents of Gaza perish by the dozens
each and every week under the relentless and indiscriminate strikes of the Israeli
air force while the rest slowly starve in their open-air prison.
Israeli leaders deceive as much in "peace" as they do in war, which
is why it is worth examining the slow trickle of disinformation coming from
Tel Aviv and reflecting on where it is leading.
Many of Israel's war lies have already been deeply implanted in Western consciousness
by the media:
- that Hezbollah "started" the war by capturing two Israeli soldiers
rather than that Israel maintained a hostile and provocative posture for the
previous six years by daily sending its warplanes and spy drones into Lebanese
- that Hezbollah's launching of rockets into Israel was an act of aggression,
even though they were fired after, and in response to, Israel's massive bombing
of civilian areas in Lebanon;
- that Hezbollah, unlike Israel, used the local civilian population as human
shields, even though Israel's continual and comprehensive aerial spying on
south Lebanon produced almost no evidence of this;
- that Hezbollah, not Israel, targeted civilians, despite a death toll that
suggests the exact opposite;
- and that Hezbollah's arming by Iran is entirely illegitimate, even though
the weapons were used to defend Lebanon from a long-prepared Israeli attack,
while Israel has an absolute and unchallengeable right to receive its arsenal
from the U.S., even though those armaments have been used offensively, mostly
against Lebanese and Palestinian civilian populations.
Similar deceptions are now being sown after the fighting.
For example, it now appears to be accepted wisdom that Hezbollah's rocket
attacks on Israel led to one million Israelis being made refugees. The most
senior commentator with Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper, Yoel Marcus, made
exactly this point the other day in an
op-ed in Britain's Guardian newspaper, when he observed that "about
a million Israeli refugees" had been forced to leave the North. Marcus
appears to take an extremely liberal view of the meaning of the word "about."
In fact, it is impossible that one million Israelis could have been made refugees,
as a quick calculation proves. There are approximately 1.2 million Israelis
living in the North, with the population divided equally between Jewish and
Arab citizens. Hardly any Arabs left the North during the Hezbollah rocket attacks,
either through a residual fear that their homes might be taken by the state,
as were those of Palestinians who fled or were terrorized away during the 1948
war, or because they had nowhere else to go. Most assumed, probably rightly,
that the Jewish population in the country's center would not welcome them as
It is also reported that 300,000 Israelis sought sanctuary in bomb shelters.
Such shelters were open only in the North, and do not exist in the country's
Arab areas, so those using the shelters must have been the North's Jewish citizens.
Which means that if 300,000 of the 600,000 Jews in northern Israel were in shelters,
there can have been at most – assuming all other Israeli Jews fled –
Why does Marcus want us to believe that one million Israelis were turned out
of their homes? Because it helps Israel portray the threat posed by Hezbollah
in a more terrifying light, and because it makes more convincing the claim that
Israelis suffered as much as the Lebanese, one million of whom really did end
up as refugees.
It also conveniently glosses over the fact that most of the 300,000 (or fewer)
Israeli "refugees" were staying with relatives or friends 60 mi. or
so further south in spare rooms and out of harm's way. They were not, as were
the Lebanese, fleeing for their lives – their convoys under fire from warplanes
– and living in the open air without shelter, food, or water and still
within range of missile attacks.
Outside of Kiryat Shmona, close to the border with Lebanon, almost all of
Israel's "refugees" returned to untouched homes, whereas tens of
thousands of Lebanon's refugees have found their houses turned to rubble,
and amid that rubble cluster bombs that threaten to kill and maim them.
But again, that is not what the Israeli government wants us to believe,
which is why it published a report this week claiming that 12,000 buildings
had been damaged by Hezbollah rocket attacks. That seems a strangely large
figure given that the Israeli army says only 4,000 rockets were fired into
Israel and that a substantial proportion supposedly landed in open ground.
The same report also says more than 400 bush fires were started by the rockets.
So how and why did the government reach the figure of 12,000 buildings?
That would mean that each rocket that hit a structure damaged at least another
three buildings. Anyone who has seen the destruction inflicted by a Katyusha
rocket (Hezbollah's main weapon) will known that it does little more than
punch a hole in whatever surface it hits. The spray of shrapnel, however,
does minor damage to neighboring structures (though much worse harm to human
beings), such as piercing the rendering on homes or breaking windows. In other
words, most of those 12,000 "structures" – and of course none
of us can know what Israeli officials are including as a structure (individual
apartments, garages, dog kennels?) – suffered minor damage that can be
fixed in an afternoon.
So why the need to promote that inflated number? Because Hezbollah is reporting
that 15,000 buildings were destroyed: that is, wrecked beyond repair by Israel's
missile attacks. As is the tradition in Arab society, many of those several-story
buildings were home to multiple families, meaning that probably many more
"homes" than 15,000 have been destroyed. Some Lebanese sources estimate
that more than 100,000 homes have been ruined. But for Israel the goal is
to make it look as though its own people's suffering is the same as that of
Interestingly, the estimates of economic damage inflicted on Lebanon by Israel's
onslaught stand at about $5 billion, a figure that again Israel says neatly
fits with its own assessments of its losses. It seems that each time one of
those American-supplied munitions was dropped it did as much harm to Israel's
defense budget as it did to the place where it exploded. The point presumably
is that, if and when the reparations account is being settled, Israel will claim
its own losses cancel out those of Lebanon's.
Many of Israel's deceptions are also being used domestically to determine
who will benefit – and who will be excluded – from the government's
largess as it plans the North's "reconstruction." No surprises about
which way the wind is blowing.
Government ministers, for example, have been claiming in the war's aftermath
that Arab – not Jewish – municipal leaders fled from their communities
to avoid the rocket fire. For example, after a tour of the North, the interior
minister, Ronnie Bar-On, argued that the failings in some towns and villages
to cope with the war stemmed from the fact that local leaders "ran away,
at the highest levels." Asked to name the mayors and local councilors who
had fled, Baron would only say: "Those people I am referring to …
I can say that in their towns I saw no synagogues."
Why make this claim, even though all the evidence suggests that the Arab populations
of the North stayed put during the fighting while, as we have seen, a large
number of Jewish citizens did flee? There are two reasons.
First, the government has been embarrassed by reports that nearly half of
the civilians killed by rockets were Arab, and by suggestions that the reasons
for this were the state's long-standing failure to protect Arab communities
by building public bomb shelters, providing air raid sirens, and disseminating
advice from the civil defense authorities in Arabic. Better to shift the blame
onto their elected leaders.
And second, the government is amassing huge sums of money for the reconstruction
effort from Jewish groups in America and Europe and is looking for an excuse
not to fund work in Arab communities. Another senior politician, Effi Eitam,
leader of the National Religious Party, has accused Arab authorities of "pretending
to be deprived." The North's Arabs will most likely be cut out of tasting
the reconstruction pie. Certainly there is no discussion of building public
bomb shelters for Arab towns, even though few in Israel appear to believe the
cease-fire with Hezbollah will hold long.
Similarly, the environment minister Gideon Ezra has stated that Arab communities
in the North should not receive money to rehabilitate their separate and grossly
deprived education system, on the grounds that during the war "the residents
there behaved as per usual, as if nothing had happened" – a reference
that sounds like they are being penalized because they did not flee. His reasoning
appears popular, among the public and in the cabinet, because Arab citizens
generally opposed Israel's war.
A related deception being promoted by the government is that it is committed
to compensating workers and businesses in the north who lost income during the
war. But the list drawn up by the finance ministry of areas eligible for compensation
reveals that all Arab communities have been excluded, apart from four Druze
villages (the Druze serve in the army and are treated by Israel as a national
group separate from the rest of the Arab population). Most of the money, millions
of dollars, is being made available only to Jewish citizens, even though Arab
citizens comprise half the population of the North. What a contrast to Hezbollah's
nondiscriminatory policy of compensating all Lebanese harmed by the fighting,
whether from its own Shia community or Christian, Druze, and Sunni Muslims.
(Incidentally, according to Ha'aretz, in one court case being brought
by an Arab engineer from the village of Fassouta who, unlike his Jewish colleagues,
is being denied compensation for loss of income during the war, it is noted
that he could not leave his home because the Israeli army was firing artillery
batteries stationed on the edge of the village. So much for Israel's argument,
adopted by the United Nation's representative Jan Egeland, that only Hezbollah
was using civilians as human shields!)
Israel's postwar deceptions, of course, embrace the Palestinians living
under occupation too. Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet secret service, is
claiming that, inspired by the success of Hezbollah, Palestinians in the Gaza
Strip are turning Rafah into "the garden of Eden of weapons smuggling."
Apparently Israel knows about 15,000 guns, 4 million bullets, 38 rockets,
10-15 Katyusha rockets, and dozens of anti-tank missiles that have entered
Gaza through the Rafah crossing in the past year. Israel believes that just
about everything bar tanks and planes is coming across the short border with
Egypt it still controls. In a few years, says Diskin, Israel will face the
same situation in Gaza as in south Lebanon. We will just have to take his
word for that.
But there is a problem. Since November 2005, say human rights groups, the
Rafah crossing has been almost continuously shut. Those weapons must have
been smuggled in a stampede on the day or two when the crossing was open.
Further doubt is cast on Diskin's claims by a report in Ha'aretz this
week that the blanket closure of the Rafah crossing has continued since one
of Israel's soldiers was captured by Palestinian fighters two months ago. The
reason for the crossing's closure, recommended by Shin Bet, is also noted by
Ha'aretz – and it has nothing to do with weapons smuggling. The
blockade was imposed as a way to put pressure on the Palestinians to release
the Israeli soldier, a form of collective punishment illegal under international
Diskin's comparisons between developments in Gaza and south Lebanon are at
best fanciful. How Gaza's resistance fighters will be able to build hundreds
of underground bunkers in the Strip's flat, sandy terrain unknown to Israel
as its planes and tanks freely roam the area, and as military intelligence operates
its network of collaborators, is not explained. But Diskin's conclusions presumably
will be used to justify Israel's continuing assaults on Gaza's civilian population.
Better, the argument will go, not to wait to be caught out as in Lebanon.
The biggest deception of all, however, relates to the reasons for Prime Minister
Ehud Olmert's decision this week to reject the establishment of an independent
commission of inquiry, headed by a judge, that would have been free to investigate
all aspects of the war. Instead Olmert has set up two separate internal committees
of investigation, one to examine government decision-making and the other the
army's conduct. (A third watchdog body, under the government's state comptroller,
is supposed to look at failings in civil defense.)
Most Israelis are deeply unhappy about what one commentator has called Olmert's
"committee of non-inquiry." Separate investigations mean that the
remit of each committee will be very narrow, focusing on technical issues
and failings, and unable to look at the wider picture.
The members of the committee who will be investigating Olmert have been
handpicked by him. All the judges approached to head the committee turned
down the offer, as did the country's foremost constitutional law expert, Amnon
Rubinstein, apparently aware that being party to a whitewash would permanently
tarnish his reputation.
It will now be led by a former head of Mossad, Israel's international spy
agency. Observers have speculated that 77-year-old Nahum Admoni's room for
criticizing the government will be extremely limited, given that he himself
was admonished by the Kahan Commission of Inquiry that in 1982 investigated
Israel's role in the massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Lebanese refugee
camps of Sabra and Shatilla. Admoni failed to give "an unequivocal warning
about the danger entailed in the Phalangists' entry into the camps" that
resulted in the slaughter of more than 1,000 Palestinians. Mossad was keenly
involved with the Christian Phalangists, attempting to install them in power
as a puppet regime.
Kahan took no action against Admoni, however, because he – like Olmert
now – had only recently taken up his job. It will be hard for Admoni
to treat Olmert more harshly than Kahan treated him two decades ago.
Why would Olmert want a discredited committee rather than a proper commission
of inquiry, especially if, as he claims, the reason against the latter is
that it will take years to report? By then, he may be out of office and never
have to face the fallout. The official reason, according to Olmert, is that
such a delay would paralyze the army. But most commissions of inquiry have
produced interim reports, making recommendations for reforms, within a few
months and have then taken their time to produce a final report.
Other factors are at play, relating to the past and the future. The obvious
one is that a powerful commission would almost certainly investigate the six-year
buildup to the war following Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon. There
is a real danger that its investigations might throw an uncomfortable light
on Israel's motives for continuing provocative overflights by its war planes
in Lebanon; on its refusal to hand over the maps of the minefields it planted
in south Lebanon during its two decades of occupation; on its refusal to release
the last remaining Lebanese prisoners in its jails, thereby perpetuating a
state of hostilities; and its refusal to negotiate with Lebanon and Syria
about an end to its occupation of the Golan Heights and with it a resolution
of the disputed status of the corridor of land known as the Shebaa Farms,
which Lebanon claims.
But there is an even bigger threat posed by the establishment of a commission.
It might unearth evidence that the war against Lebanon was long planned, that
it had nothing to do with the capture of two soldiers on the border, that
it was coordinated with the United States, and that its ultimate goal was
an attack on Iran.
Olmert, and Israel's political and military leaders, do not need another
Kahan Commission – or another embarrassment like its findings about Israel's
involvement with the Sabra and Shatilla massacre. Israel needs a free hand
to strike unchallenged when the next stage of the war on terror takes shape.
Olmert admitted as much in his coded observation that a commission of inquiry
would distract from the central goal: "to focus on the future and the
A clue where Israel might be heading next emerged this week when Olmert's
trusted international ambassador, Shimon Peres, "revealed" that Iran
is trying to transfer its nuclear know-how to terrorist organizations. Peres
did not name Hezbollah, but it is only a matter of time before the link is made
and a new casus belli established.