July 2006

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 Condoleeza 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.

When journalists use the word “apparently”, or another favorite “reportedly”, they are usually distancing themselves from an event or an interpretation in the supposed interests of “balance”. But I think we should read the “apparently” contained in a statement from the head of the United Nations, Kofi Annan — relating to the killing this week of four unarmed UN monitors by the Israeli army — in its other sense.

 When Annan says that those four deaths were “apparently deliberate”, I take him to mean that the evidence shows that the killings were deliberate. And who can disagree with him? At least 10 phone calls were made to Israeli commanders over a period of six hours warning that artillery and aerial bombardments were either dangerously close to or hitting the monitors’ building.

This week I had the pleasure to appear on American radio, on the Laura Ingraham show, pitted against David Horowitz, a “Semite supremacist” who most recently made his name under the banner of Campus Watch, leading McCarthyite witch-hunts against American professors who have the impertinence to suggest that maybe, just maybe, Arabs have minds and feelings like the rest of us. It was a revealing experience, at least for a British journalist rarely exposed to the depths of ignorance and prejudice in the United States on Middle East matters — well, apart from the regular wackos who fill my email inbox. But five minutes of listening to Horowitz speak, and the sympathy with which his arguments were greeted by Laura (“The Professors — your book’s a great read, David”), left me a lot more frightened about the world’s future.

Crossing red lines

24 July 2006

Two myths are taking root as the carnage mounts in Israel and Lebanon. The first is that, while Israel is doing its best to target “terrorists” and fight a clean war, Hizbullah is interested only in killing Israeli civilians with its rockets and in endangering Lebanese innocents by hiding among them. The second myth claims that Israel’s current bombardment was triggered not simply by Hizbullah’s attack on an army post on July 12, in which three soldiers were killed and two captured, but by an unprovoked barrage of rockets from the Shiite militia on Israeli towns. Both ideas are shaping the British government’s understanding of current events, including that of Foreign Office minister Kim Howells as he tours the region. However, there is little evidence that Hizbullah is acting any worse, or better, than Israel in the confrontation between them.

The general surprise that Lebanese civilians are taking the brunt of Israel’s onslaught – and the unwillingness in some quarters of the media to report the fact – reflects a poor understanding of Israel’s historical use of violence. Since its birth six decades ago, Israel has always been officially “going after the terrorists,” but its actions have invariably harmed civilians in an indiscriminate manner. The roll call of dishonor is long indeed, but its highlights include: the massacre of some 200 civilians in Tantura, as well as large-scale massacres in at least a dozen other Palestinian villages, during the 1948 war that established Israel; Ariel Sharon’s attack on the village of Qibya in 1953 that killed 70 innocent Palestinians; the Kfar Qassem massacre inside Israel when 49 farm workers were gunned down at an improvised army checkpoint; …….

A cactus bush in Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab town, was riddled with holes from the shrapnel that sprayed out as a Katyusha rocket slammed into a street here today. Playing in front of the bush at the time were two children, aged three and nine, who were killed instantly. This was not the first Hezbollah strike on one of the 100 or so Arab communities inside Israel – several have been hit in the past few days – but the two children, Rabia and Mohammed Abu Taluzi, were the first deaths among Israel’s 1.2 million Arab citizens. A second rocket strike on a car showroom in the centre of Nazareth reportedly injured one person.

After two Hizbullah rocket strikes on the largest Arab city in Israel yesterday, the residents of Nazareth might have expected a little sympathy from their Jewish compatriots. “Rockets don’t discriminate between Jew and Arab,” said one young hijabbed woman close to the site where two brothers, aged three and nine, died from the spray of shrapnel as a rocket landed outside their uncle’s home. These were the first deaths among Israel’s 1.3 million Arab citizens since Hizbullah’s rocket attacks began more than a week ago, though several of their towns and villages had previously been hit. Some Arab citizens may have hoped that the arrival of the minority’s own moment of grief would help remedy the popular image of it as “a fifth column” inside the Jewish state.

Israel has opened “windows” for the foreign powers to evacuate their terrified nationals from Lebanon. Obligingly, the foreign media have turned these “windows” into an opportunity to avert their gaze further from the death and destruction in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank. On BBC World, for example, we have been following the progress of one 12-year-old British boy fleeing Beirut. When he observed that he was worried for the Lebanese family members he was leaving behind, reporter Clive Myrie noted his was a “very mature attitude”. If only the BBC was demonstrating such maturity. I have to keep reminding myself that this is BBC World, not its domestic news service. You would hardly know it watching the coverage of the past couple of days.

Nazareth hit the international headlines for the first time in this vicious war being waged by Israel mostly on Lebanese civilians. Reporter Matthew Price, corseted in a blue flak jacket in Haifa, told BBC viewers that for the first time Hezbollah had targeted Nazareth late on Sunday. “Nazareth is a mostly Christian town,” he added, managing to cram into a single sentence of a few words two factual mistakes and a disturbing hint of incitement. Whatever the precision of its rockets (and Nazareth’s residents are certainly worried enough about that), Hezbollah struck not at Nazareth but at a site some distance from Nazareth – a site of strategic significance to Israel, though I cannot say more than that as we are now officially under martial law in the country’s north.

Here we go again – another “serious escalation” has begun in the Middle East, or so BBC World was telling audiences throughout Sunday. So what prompted the BBC’s judgment that the crisis was escalating once more? You can be sure it had nothing to do with the more than 130 Lebanese dead after five days of savage aerial bombardment from at least 2,000 sorties by Israeli war planes that are making the country’s south a disaster zone and turning Beirut into a crumbling ghost town. Those dead, most civilians and many of them women and children, hardly get a mention, their lives apparently empty of meaning or significance in this confrontation.

The parallels between Israel’s military assaults on Lebanon and Gaza are striking. It is not so much the unconvincing claim by Israel that both attacks were triggered by the capture of its soldiers as the similarities in the nature and goals of each response. What is presented as righteous Israeli indignation on two fronts is more truthfully war-mongering according to a prepared script. The first point to note is that Israel has preferred “shock and awe” tactics in Gaza and Lebanon familiar from the United States’ assault on Iraq. It is in the nature of these kind of bombing campaigns that they inflict their heaviest toll on civilians.

Covering up Gaza

13 July 2006

One early and easy victory for Israel in Gaza has been in its battle to manage the news. Israel’s invasion is a very private war against Gaza’s population, to which only invited guests — the representatives of our major media outlets — are being given access. In the last Iraq war, America set a precedent by requiring Western reporters to “embed” with its forces before they were let near the battlefield. Israel is following suit, adopting similar measures to control the flow of bad news from Gaza. The restrictions on who can report and what they can tell us explain in part why more than a fortnight after an Israeli soldier was captured, almost every Western reporter is still referring to him as “kidnapped”; why the destruction of vital civilian infrastructure such as Gaza’s only power plant is described as “pressure” rather than what it is ……..

The same malign intent from Israel towards the Palestinians is stamped through its history like the lettering in a children’s stick of seaside rock. But despite the consistent aim of Israeli policy, generation after generation of Western politicians, diplomats and journalists has shown a repeated inability to grasp what is happening before its very eyes.
 The Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi once noted that the first goal of Israel’s founders as they prepared to establish their Jewish state on a large swath of the Palestinian homeland in 1948 was to empty Palestine’s urban heartlands of their educated elites.

One needed only to watch the interview on British television this week with Israel’s ambassador to the UK to realise that the Israeli army’s tightening of the siege on Gaza, its invasion of the northern parts of the Strip today, and the looming humanitarian crisis across the territory, have nothing to do with the recent capture of an Israeli soldier — or even the feeble home-made Qassam rockets fired, usually ineffectually, into Israel by Palestinian militants. Under questioning from presenter Jon Snow of Channel Four news on the reasons behind Israel’s bombing of Gaza’s only power station — thereby cutting off electricity to more than half of the Strip’s 1.3 million inhabitants for many months ahead, as well as threatening the water supply — Zvi Ravner denied this action amounted to collective punishment of the civilian population.