Seconds after the air raid siren fell silent, it came. A deep rumble shook windows and doors and made the earth tremble. This was nothing like the familiar crump of a Katyusha rocket. At the weekend Hizbullah fired for the first time what it calls a Khaibar missile into Israel, creating a deep crater and setting fire to woodland outside Nazareth. According to reports in the Israeli media, the shell was packed with 100 kilogrammes of explosives. The missile can apparently reach up to 90 kilometres; given that Nazareth is only a third of that distance from the border, it was probably fired from deep inside Lebanon.
The problem is that Israel has been abusing very successfully its military censorship rules governing both its domestic media and visiting foreign journalists to prevent meaningful discussion of what Hizbullah has been trying to hit inside Israel.
Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens have largely lined up on opposite sides. Polls show as many as 90 per cent of the country’s Jews back further attacks on Lebanon to crush the Shiite militia Hizbullah. There have been no equivalent surveys of Arab opinion inside Israel, but straw polls by Arab radio stations reveal that 70 per cent of listeners favour Hizbullah, or the very least believe Israel is waging a war of aggression. The first cracks in the Jewish consensus over the war have been visible in the past few days too, with a spate of protests across Israel — still small at this stage but attended by both Jews and Arabs — to oppose the fighting.
If Israel wanted to the expand the Lebanon war, it could not have chosen a better way than by sending war planes back to the village of Qana 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.
I had the pleasure to appear on American radio pitted against David Horowitz, leader of Campus Watch, a McCarthyite organisation targeting American professors sympathetic to the Palestinians. It was a revealing experience for a British journalist rarely exposed to the depths of ignorance and prejudice in the US on Middle East matters.
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. The second is that Israel’s current bombardment was triggered by an unprovoked barrage of rockets on Israeli towns.
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.
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 died.
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.
Reporter Matthew Price 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.
Here we go again – another “serious escalation” has begun in the Middle East, or so BBC World was telling audiences. 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.
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. It is that Israel has preferred “shock and awe” tactics in Gaza and Lebanon familiar from the US assault on Iraq.
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.
According to the Independent, Corporal Gilad Shalit was “kidnapped”. The Guardian referred to him as a “hostage”. And BBC online believed him “abducted” and “kidnapped”. It was a revealing choice of terminology. Soldiers who are seized by an enemy are usually considered to have been captured. But Britain’s liberal media preferred to use words that misleadingly suggested Cpl Shalit was a victim, an innocent whose status as a soldier was not relevant to his fate.
In a recent skirmish with leading members of the American Jewish activist community, the prize-winning Israeli novelist A B Yehoshua claimed that secular Jewish identity was meaningless outside Israel. Upsetting his audience in Washington, he argued that Jewishness in the Diaspora was impermanent: if China ever became the world’s foremost superpower, he warned, American Jews would migrate there to assimilate rather than in the US. “For me there is no alternative… I cannot keep my identity outside Israel. Israeli is my skin, not my jacket. You [Jews in the Diaspora] are changing jackets… you are changing countries like changing jackets,” he told the leaders of the American Jewish Committee. Delegates called his comments “impertinent”, “foolish”, “tasteless” and “impolite”.
The killing of two Israeli soldiers and the capture of a third from an army post close to the Gaza Strip set the scene for Israeli “reprisals” and “retaliation”, according to BBC reports. The attack by Palestinians who sneaked through tunnels under the electronic fence surrounding Gaza marked a “major escalation in cross-border tension”.