Aug 1 2006

Mid-East Blame Game

Leading papers ignore Israeli contribution to conflict

In the wake of the most serious outbreak of Israeli/Arab violence in years, three leading U.S. papers—the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times—have strongly editorialized that Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon were solely responsible for sparking violence, and that the Israeli military response was predictable and unavoidable. These editorials ignored recent events that indicate a more complicated situation.

Beginning with the Israeli attack on Gaza, a New York Times editorial (6/29/06), “Hamas Provokes a Fight,” declared that “the responsibility for this latest escalation rests squarely with Hamas,” and that “an Israeli military response was inevitable.” The paper (7/15/06) was similarly sure who was to blame after the fighting spread to Lebanon: “It is important to be clear about not only who is responsible for the latest outbreak, but who stands to gain most from its continued escalation . . . Hamas and Hezbollah.”

The Washington Post (7/14/06) agreed: “Hezbollah and its backers have instigated the current fighting and should be held responsible for the consequences.” According to the L.A. Times (7/14/06), “in both cases Israel was provoked.” Three days and scores of civilian deaths later, the L.A. Times (7/17/06) was more direct: “Responsibility for the escalating carnage in Lebanon and northern Israel lies with one side . . . and that is Hezbollah.”

As FAIR noted in an Action Alert (7/19/06), Israel’s portrayal as the innocent victim in the Gaza conflict is hard to square with the death toll in the months prior to the crisis; between September 2005, when Israel withdrew ground troops from Gaza, and June 2006, 144 Palestinians in Gaza were killed

“by Israeli forces, according to a list compiled by the Israeli human rights group B’tselem; 29 of those killed were children. (See CounterPunch, 7/21/06.) During the same period, no Israelis were killed as a result of violence from Gaza.”

On June 24, the day before a Hamas raid captured a soldier, Israel made an incursion of its own, capturing two Palestinians it said were members of Hamas (something Hamas denied—L.A. Times, 6/25/06). This incident received far less coverage in U.S. media than Hamas’ subsequent seizure; the few papers that covered it mostly dismissed it in a one-paragraph brief (e.g., Chicago Tribune, 6/25/06). The Israeli prisoner got front-page headlines.

The situation in Lebanon is also more complicated than its portrayal in U.S. media, beginning well before the July 12 capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah. Since the Israeli withdrawal of ground troops from Lebanon in 2000, Israel’s air force has continuously violated Lebanon’s air space, at times on “an almost daily basis,” according to U.N. observers. Israel has also retained 15 prisoners of war captured during the conflict (London Guardian, 8/8/06).

A major incident fueling the latest violence was a May 26, 2006 car bombing in Sidon, Lebanon, that killed a senior official of Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian group allied with Hezbollah. Lebanon later arrested a suspect, Mahmoud Rafeh, whom Lebanese authorities claimed had confessed to working on behalf of Mossad, the Israeli secret service (London Times, 6/17/06).

Israel denied involvement, but even some Israelis were skeptical. “If it turns out this operation was effectively carried out by Mossad or another Israeli secret service,” wrote Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s top-selling daily (6/16/06; cited in AFP, 6/16/06), “an outsider from the intelligence world should be appointed to know whether it was worth it and whether it lays groups open to risk.”

Speaking of the incident, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a professor at Beirut’s Lebanese American University, told the New York Times (5/29/06), “The Israelis, in hitting Islamic Jihad, knew they would get Hezbollah involved too. The Israelis had to be aware that if they assassinated this guy they would get a response.”

Two days after the car bombing, Lebanese militants in Hezbollah-controlled territory fired Katyusha rockets at a military vehicle and base inside Israel, and Israel in turn bombed targets in Lebanon. Gen. Udi Adam, the commander of Israel’s northern forces, boasted that “our response was the harshest and most severe since the withdrawal” of Israeli troops from Lebanon in 2000 (Chicago Tribune, 5/29/06).

This intense fighting was the prelude to the all-out warfare portrayed in U.S. media as beginning with an unprovoked attack by Hezbollah on July 12. The Israeli air campaign, however, was a well-planned operation that was years in the making.

“Of all of Israel’s wars since 1948, this was the one for which Israel was most prepared,” Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, told the San Francisco Chronicle (7/21/06). “By 2004, the military campaign scheduled to last about three weeks that we’re seeing now had already been blocked out and, in the last year or two, it’s been simulated and rehearsed across the board.” The Chronicle reported that a “senior Israeli army officer” has been giving PowerPoint presentations for more than a year to “U.S. and other diplomats, journalists and think tanks” outlining the coming war with Lebanon, explaining that a combination of air and ground forces would target Hezbollah and “transportation and communication arteries.”

Which raises a question: If journalists have been told by Israel for more than a year that a war was coming, why are they pretending that it all started on July 12?