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Musings on Media Coverage Of The Middle East

By Prof. Barry Rubin
Global Politician

When is the media or non-governmental organizations fair or unfair in discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict? Critical here is how they present each side's motivations and actions. Below are some examples in both categories to give a sense of what is right, and wrong, with coverage.

First is a case study in one AP dispatch by Albert Aji of September 7, 2007, discussing Israel's recent air operation in Syria. Here are the key paragraphs:

"Israel has demanded that Syria stop its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, which have been holding captured Israeli soldiers for more than a year.Syria, in turn, has increasingly pushed its demands for the return of the Israeli-held Golan Heights and is concerned that it is being left out of a U.S.-brokered Mideast peace conference due to be held in November."

Not too bad. But this also leaves out what might well be the central issue here: Syrian arms smuggling to Hizballah which was perhaps the motive for the attack, after all. It also doesn't mention Syria's goal of regaining control of Lebanon or its relationship to Iran. Well, one cannot expect everything in a short, news-oriented story.

Another paragraph does supply more information:

"The United States, Israel, and some of their allies fear Tehran is using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to produce atomic weapons. Iran denies the accusation, saying its program is solely geared toward generating electricity. Both Israel and the United States have not ruled out air strikes should the program expand."

Mr. Aji did his duty, no easy task for someone reporting from Damascus. But, of course, the need is for other stories to fill in some important missing analytical points.

There are some interesting points, aside from reporting the event itself, in "Rocket Wounds Dozens of Israeli Soldiers" by Josef Federman, AP and also of September 7. He begins:

"The Israeli government came under increasing pressure Tuesday to respond harshly to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip after a barrage wounded dozens of soldiers as they slept in their tents at an Israeli army base."

Why "harshly" which has nasty implications? How about: decisively, effectively, or quickly, among many other choices.

"After Tuesday's attack, along with a rocket last week that exploded near a nursery school in the southern town of Sderot, many Israelis are growing impatient."

"The question is not whether to create deterrence, but when," Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, a member of Olmert's ruling Kadima party, told Israel Radio."

This does give a motivation for Israel to respond so it meets that test.

"Some Israeli leaders have urged Israel to consider non-military steps, such as cutting off fuel and power to Gaza. `I think we have tools to do this, tools that are not only military,' Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told reporters."

The idea of doing so is not reported pejoratively, though one could point out that Livni and others have rejected this option so far. The Israeli position is countered by fair quoting of U.S. officials who warn not to take action that might jeopardize peace negotiations. (I disagree with the U.S. officials but reporting what they say is certainly appropriate.)

The article also appropriately quotes Livni as saying: "It doesn't matter which terror group took responsibility. Gaza is totally controlled by Hamas, and it has the ability to stop this and decided not to." This is a key point regarding the extremism of Hamas. And the article goes on to note, "Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum praised Tuesday's attack as a `victory from God.' In Gaza City and in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, youths in Islamic Jihad scarves and T-shirts handed out sweets to motorists in celebration."

Even though I doubt that it is true the article also reports, without prejudice, "Palestinian officials said Tuesday that Abbas has hinted of progress on two of the most contentious issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: which territories that Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war will become part of a future Palestinian state and how the disputed holy city of Jerusalem will be shared, the officials said." This is how reporting should be in terms of fairness (though I doubt there is any real progress, as does another Palestinian negotiator quoted later in the article), not pre-judging the issues.

Far more problematic is the Middle East Watch report on the Israel-Hizballah war which would be laughable if it was not so dangerously slanderous. The report, based apparently on Hizballah and Lebanese government sources, claims that there was no basis to the Israeli assertion that civilian casualties resulted from Hezbollah guerrillas' use of civilians as shields. It rejects the Israeli view that it only attacked civilian areas because Hezbollah set up rocket launchers in villages and towns.

Let's consider this a moment. The report would have you believe that Israel dropped bombs at random, with no relationship to the location of Hizballah fighters. This is not a very effective military tactic and the Israeli military and government would not be so stupid. There are a limited number of plane missions and bombs. Each flight risks the live of the pilot and the equipment. Israel has "smart" munitions capable of tremendous accuracy. Moreover, Israel is known for having good intelligence.

So why just bomb at random? The only explanation, though the report does not say this, is Israel just wanted to kill people and terrorize Lebanese civilians. In other words, if this report is to be taken seriously, Israel is no different from the terrorists, which is of course what many of its more rabid critics say. This is what historically was known as a blood libel.

But let's assume Israel is evil. Does that mean its leaders were totally indifferent to being effective? That it was more important to just hurt innocent Lebanese than win the war, defeat Hizballah, or protect Israeli civilians? In other words, is Israel's policy based merely on sadism?

The answer is: of course not. Israel used intelligence, highly skilled pilots, and smart munitions to hit specific targets effectively. I have been told by Lebanese on the scene that they were amazed at how specific buildings in south Beirut were destroyed while those next door were virtually untouched. Of course, mistakes are made and misses occur. Yet that is in no way "indiscriminate" but things that happen despite tremendous attempt to avoid civilian casualties.

When I was interviewed on Sky News during the war, my fellow panellist was a Sky reporter not known for any friendliness to Israel. He recounted how in 1982 he had harshly criticized Israel for an attack on a specific apartment building in Beirut. He was then invited to Israeli military headquarters where he was shown aerial reconnaissance of the building in which the barrel of a large PLO artillery piece was clearly shown extending out of the open door of the building's garage. That reporter had the honesty and good grace to admit he had been wrong.

The AP article covering the report was far fairer, summarizing the events in these words:

"More than 1,000 Lebanese were killed in the 34-day conflict last summer, which began after Hezbollah staged a cross-border raid, killing three Israeli soldiers and capturing two others who are still being held. Israeli warplanes targeted Lebanese infrastructure, including bridges and the Beirut airport, and heavily damaged a neighborhood in Beirut known as a Hezbollah stronghold, as well as attacking Hezbollah centers in villages near the border. Hezbollah fired nearly 4,000 rockets at northern Israel, killing 119 soldiers. In the fighting, 40 Israeli civilians were killed."

First, how do we know, a statistic used in the report, that 1,000 Lebanese were killed? Well, that's what the Lebanese government says and it might well not be true. There is no independent verification of this figure.

But let's say, for the moment, that it is true. The Israeli military claims that about 600 to 650 Hizballah soldiers were killed during the war. So if 1,000 Lebanese were killed, about two-thirds of them were likely combatants, members of a terrorist group.

Note that the report--and plenty of those in the media--never even question the figure. Why are they so quick to assume--even if we accept the figure--that "1,000 Lebanese" means 1,000 Lebanese civilians? The report makes that leap, which is a clear indication of bias.

And why are they more likely to leap on the idea that Israel deliberately killed civilians rather than terrorists who support dictatorship (and have deployed murderous violence against their own fellow citizens) are going to hide among civilians for two reasons: first, to protect themselves; second, to force Israel to choose between doing nothing or attacking so that they can blame it for targeting civilians?

A clue to how blind this bias is comes from a statement by Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth. Read his words carefully:

"Israel wrongfully acted as if all civilians had heeded its warnings to evacuate southern Lebanon when it knew they had not, disregarding its continuing legal duty to distinguish between military targets and civilians....Issuing warnings doesn't make indiscriminate attacks lawful."

Now think about what that means. Israel's "indiscriminate" attacks means here that Israel attacked places even though it knew civilians might be present. Yet realize how this unravels the whole Human Rights Watch claim. After all, if Hizballah had not been using civilians as shields--hiding in homes for example--then why would there have been civilian casualties? Not many civilians who had not evacuated, after all, were living in the middle of Hizballah military bases.

In other words, the Human Rights' Watch argument works like this: Hizballah deliberately based itself in civilian homes and areas. There were some Lebanese civilians there. Israel attacked Hizballah. Therefore, Israel's attacks were indiscriminate because it attacked areas where there were civilians. But Hizballah was not using these places in order to hide behind civilians. Only Alice in Wonderland faced such twisted logic.

The report also neglects the numerous accounts by journalists and Lebanese about how Hizballah took over people's homes and used civilian areas as bases.

In other words, it is not just shamefully biased against Israel but deliberately and consciously so.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev rejected the report's findings with a dose of reality:

"Hezbollah adopted a deliberate strategy of shielding itself behind the civilian population and turning the civilians in Lebanon into a human shield," so that Hezbollah "broke the first fundamental rule of war in that they deliberately exploited the civilian population of Lebanon as a human shield."

This is not only true it should be ridiculously obvious. Of course, the main fault here lies with Human Rights Watch. But that such a group or such a report be given any credibility at all--and not ridiculed on its face--is one more sign of the sad times we are in regarding intellectual integrity and methods.

Prof. Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary university. His new book is The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan).

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