Sep
01
1999

Retaliating in Advance

U.S. reports reverse chronology of Israeli airstrikes on Lebanon

On June 24, Israeli air raids on Lebanon killed at least nine Lebanese civilians and destroyed major bridges and power plants, plunging much of the country into darkness. In retaliatory strikes by the Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah against northern Israel, two Israeli civilians were also killed. This was by far the most intense violence between Israel and Lebanon since 1996. Coverage of these events in the American media avoided the main issues defining the conflict, distorted the facts and focused almost exclusively on the suffering and anxiety of Israelis.

Even the most minimal context for this extraordinary bout of violence was missing from most American press accounts. While the existence of an undefined conflict in southern Lebanon between Israeli troops and Hezbollah was generally referred to, most reports failed to make any mention of Israel's 21-year-long occupation of southern Lebanon. Not a single one referred to U.N. Security Council Resolution 425, which in 1978 demanded immediate and unconditional Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.

That 425 has been ignored with impunity for 21 years by Israel and disregarded by the U.S. is no excuse for the press to dismiss the single most important fact about the conflict in Lebanon. What is obscured is that the goal of Hezbollah (which is almost always referred to as "Iranian-backed")--to remove Israeli occupation forces in Lebanon (which are never described as "American-backed")--is by definition self-defensive and in furtherance of an order by the U.N. Security Council.

Swift rewriting

Most American media reports repeated Israel's assertion that its attack on Lebanon was in retaliation for Hezbollah attacks on northern Israel that violated terms of a 1966 cease-fire agreement. The Los Angeles Times (6/25/99), for example, reported that "the [Israeli] strikes came in retaliation for heavy rocket fire by Hezbollah guerrillas earlier Thursday against towns and farms in northern Israel." The New York Times (6/25/99) wrote that "the back and forth of retaliatory attacks began on Thursday afternoon, when Shiite Muslim guerillas from Hezbollah...showered northern Israel with Katyusha rockets." What was left out of these accounts was the events of the previous day, when Israeli-controlled forces attacked Lebanese civilian targets, the culmination of a long series of attacks on Lebanese civilians in violation of the 1996 agreement.

As Robert Fisk of the London Independent (6/26/99) explained:

As usual, the story of Lebanon's latest bombings and killings was rewritten--swiftly and carefully--within a short while after the attack. Israel explained that it was delivering an 'appropriate response' to rocket attacks by Hezbollah guerrillas. But this round of violence in fact began on Wednesday [June 23] when Israel's proxy 'South Lebanon Army' militia fired several mortar rounds into the Lebanese Shia Muslim village of Qabriqa, in violation of the 1996 cease-fire accords. Four civilians--including Fatima Yassin, a 45-year old housewife--were wounded.

Hezbollah's initial retaliation for these attacks, later on June 23, caused no deaths. It was only after the massive Israeli air raids on Lebanon on June 24, which caused the deaths of nine Lebanese, that Hezbollah's rocket retaliations took two Israeli lives. This accurate chronology was noted in early wire-service reports of the attacks.

Agence France Presse correctly reported on June 25, at 02:24 GMT, that

the [Israeli] raids were launched after several days of tit-for-tat shellings, in which four Lebanese villagers were injured, and a rocket attack by Hezbollah on northern Israel which slightly injured five Israelis. Hezbollah responded to the bombings by firing more rockets at towns in northern Israel, killing two people, badly wounding a third and injuring eight less seriously in the town of Kiryat Shemona in the Galilee panhandle.

Also on June 25, at 16:15 Eastern Time (11:15 GMT), AP reported that "nine Lebanese died and scores were wounded in the [Israeli] raids, which hit power stations and bridges late Thursday. Hezbollah responded with more rocket attacks on the border town of Kiryat Shemonah, killing two Israeli workers. They were the first civilian deaths from rocket attacks since 1995."

Inverted events

Most major American media outlets not only accepted the false Israel allegation that Hezbollah had launched unprovoked rocket attacks on northern Israel, but actually inverted the course of events, making it appear that Israel's massive air raids came only after the two Israelis were killed in Hezbollah rocket attacks. The San Diego Union-Tribune's headline (6/25/99) said it all: "Israeli Warplanes Bomb Lebanon; At Least 6 Killed; Response to Hezbollah Attacks That Killed 2." The Times-Picayune of New Orleans (6/25/99) reported that "the [Israeli] raids [on Lebanon] were in retaliation for guerrilla attacks on northern Israel that left two dead." The Chicago Tribune's June 25 headline read: "Israeli Warplanes Pound Lebanon; 7 Killed in Strikes after Deadly Attack by Hezbollah Rockets."

Time's on-line edition (6/25/99) also presented this reverse chronology, as did the European edition of Newsweek (7/5/99), which reported that "the Hezbollah attack killed two people and provoked Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's outgoing Prime Minister, to order the heaviest airstrikes on Lebanon in three years." By reversing the chronology of events and ignoring the context of a decades-long occupation, the strong impression was created that Israel had been the victim of an unprovoked attack which took Israeli lives, and that it had been forced to retaliate in self-defense.

NPR’s Steve McNally (6/25/99) made the absurd claim that Hezbollah had been attacking northern Israel "on an almost daily basis," prompting Israel’s retaliation. NPR added an interview on June 27 with an Israeli journalist, the introduction of which again suggested that Israelis were killed before the massive attack on Lebanon. According to NPR:

[Ze’ev] Schiff says the Hezbollah yesterday violated an agreement made in 1996 to not shell civilian targets. The shelling of the Israeli border town Kiryat Shemonah by a dozen Katyusha rockets, killing two civilians, prompted return fire by Israeli jets and helicopters. Israeli airstrikes on Beirut's City Hall, two electrical substations, and a mobile phone plant killed several people in Lebanon.

Schiff claimed that Hezbollah had been attacking Israel "without provocation," promoting the attacks on Lebanon. No Lebanese perspective on the violence was provided by NPR.

Similarly, on June 25, CNN implied that Hezbollah attacks had taken Israeli lives and that this prompted Israel’s massive attack on Lebanon. Anchor Jeanne Meserve told viewers that "as CNN’s Jerold Kessel reports, Israel says that the attacks are in retaliation for violence by Hezbollah." Kessel reported the anguish of the residents of Kiryat Shemona, which had "bore the brunt of the Hezbollah bombardment. Two civilians were killed when one rocket slammed directly into town hall.... Israel says it won’t tolerate any further attacks." Kessel reported that then "Israel struck hard and wide" at Lebanon, "causing heavy civilian casualties and major damage to infrastructure."

Who is mourned?

The New York Times (6/25/99) movingly recorded that for residents of northern Israel, "bomb shelters...have become like second homes," but the article ignored the plight of the Lebanese, who have suffered no less than 93 Israeli air raids this year, resulting in at least 20 deaths.

The Washington Post (6/25/99) also focused at length on Israeli suffering, and provided sensitive accounts of the funeral of one of the two Israeli dead. There were no similar accounts of mourning for the nine Lebanese who died on the same day, including five fire-fighters who were courageously trying to subdue the flames of earlier bombs. Not a single Lebanese civilian’s name was mentioned in the Post report, which included the perspectives of no less than 10 Israelis.

The Los Angeles Times on June 26 similarly covered mourning only for the two dead Israelis, providing their names and personal details. No information was included about the Lebanese victims. The effect of such biased reporting is to render the Lebanese, who have been victims of Israel’s occupation, invasions and air raids over the past 21 years, nameless, faceless figures whose losses are not to be taken seriously.

A few American newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal and Constitution (6/25/99) and the St. Petersburg Times (6/26/99), deserve commendation for their inclusion of Lebanese perspectives on these tragic events. Sadly, however, stories available on major wire services providing Lebanese perspectives proved to be of little interest to most editors.

Hussein Ibish is the national communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).

[Sidebar:]

Antidote on the Internet

The only way for most Americans to get a balanced, or even accurate, account of the Israeli airstrikes on Lebanon in late June would have been to either replace or supplement the woeful coverage of the U.S. media with international sources on the internet. The Daily Star newspaper of Lebanon (www.dailystar.com.lb) provided detailed reports of the bombing from a Lebanese perspective, including, for example, the names of the Lebanese victims and details of their deaths that were missing from U.S. media reports.

Graham Usher, writing in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram (www.ahram.org.eg/weekly/), drew a contrast not noted in the American press: "In reply to Hezbullah’s 60 Katyusha rockets in northern Galilee, the Israeli airplanes flew 34 sorties over Lebanon which, by their close on 25 June, had wrecked two power stations, a sports stadium, a communications center and three bridges on Lebanon's southern coastal road. The human toll was similarly asymmetrical."

In the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz (http://www.haaretz.com/), readers would have learned that, although almost all of the U.S. media emphasized his lack of involvement in the airstrikes, incoming Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was in fact "in the loop" and had no objection to the attack. Hezbollah’s perspective on the conflict with Israel is available in English in daily reports at www.moqawama.org/page2/f_report.htm.

A thorough index of reports on these events from international media, including American, Israeli, Arab, European and other English language news sources was provided on the Arab Daily Chronicle online at (www.adc.org/news), a daily index of news on Arab and Middle East affairs provided by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).