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 each 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 much more complicated situation.
Beginning with the Israeli attack on Gaza, a New York Times editorial (6/29/06) headlined "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 in its assignment of 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. Both questions have the same answer: Hamas and Hezbollah."
The Washington Post (7/14/06) agreed, writing that "Hezbollah and its backers have instigated the current fighting and should be held responsible for the consequences." The L.A. Times (7/14/06) likewise wrote that "in both cases Israel was provoked." Three days and scores of civilian deaths later, the Times (7/17/06) was even more direct: "Make no mistake about it: Responsibility for the escalating carnage in Lebanon and northern Israel lies with one side...and that is Hezbollah."
As FAIR noted in a recent Action Alert (7/19/06), the portrayal of Israel as the innocent victim in the Gaza conflict is hard to square with the death toll in the months leading up to the current crisis; between September 2005 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. During the same period, no Israelis were killed as a result of violence from Gaza.
In a July 21 CounterPunch column, Alexander Cockburn highlighted some of the violent incidents that have dropped out of the media’s collective memory:
Back we go again to June 13, 2006. Israeli aircraft fired missiles at a van in another attempted extrajudicial assassination. The successive barrages killed nine innocent Palestinians.
Now we're really in the dark ages, reaching far, far back to June 9, 2006, when Israel shelled a beach in Beit Lahiya killing eight civilians and injuring 32.
That's just a brief trip down Memory Lane, and we trip over the bodies of twenty dead and forty-seven wounded, all of them Palestinians, most of them women and children.
On June 24, the day before Hamas' cross-border raid, Israel made an incursion of its own, capturing two Palestinians that 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 the subsequent seizure of the Israeli soldier; the few papers that covered it mostly dismissed it in a one-paragraph brief (e.g., Chicago Tribune, 6/25/06), while the Israeli taken prisoner got front-page headlines all over the world. It's likely that most Gazans don’t share U.S. news outlets' apparent sense that captured Israelis are far more interesting or important than captured Palestinians.
The situation in Lebanon is also more complicated than its portrayal in U.S. media, with the roots of the current crisis extending well before the July 12 capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah. A major incident fueling the latest cycle of 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 carrying out the assassination on behalf of Mossad (London Times, 6/17/06).
Israel denied involvement with the bombing, but even some Israelis are 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."
In Lebanon, Israel's culpability was taken as a given. "The Israelis, in hitting Islamic Jihad, knew they would get Hezbollah involved too," Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a professor at Beirut’s Lebanese American University, told the New York Times (5/29/06). "The Israelis had to be aware that if they assassinated this guy they would get a response."
And, indeed, on May 28, Lebanese militants in Hezbollah-controlled territory fired Katyusha rockets at a military vehicle and a military base inside Israel. Israel responded with airstrikes against Palestinian camps deep inside Lebanon, which in turn were met by Hezbollah rocket and mortar attacks on more Israeli military bases, which prompted further Israeli airstrikes and "a steady artillery barrage at suspected Hezbollah positions" (New York Times, 5/29/06). 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 that began on July 12, portrayed in U.S. media as beginning with an attack out of the blue by Hezbollah. While Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers may have reignited the smoldering conflict, the Israeli air campaign that followed was not a spontaneous reaction to aggression but 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 (7/21/05). "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? By truncating the cause-and-effect timelines of both the Gaza and Lebanon conflicts, editorial boards at major U.S. dailies gravely oversimplify the decidedly more complex nature of the facts on the ground.