Say you’re a prominent US newspaper with a bureau in Beirut. You decide to run an article based on Israeli army claims that Hezbollah is wantonly militarizing villages in south Lebanon — to the extent that a single village of 4,000 people is said to contain “about 400 military sites and facilities.”
Do you: (a) Take their word for it, and allow Israeli officials to jabber on for eleven paragraphs before tacking on the disclaimer that “the Israeli claims could not be independently verified,” or (b) Send someone to take a look at one or two of the villages in question? (Or at least give Google Earth a whirl.)
If you’re today’s New York Times, the first option is the preferred one.
On May 12, the newspaper’s website ran the following article by Isabel Kershner in Tel Aviv: “Israel Says Hezbollah Positions Put Lebanese at Risk.” Specified at the end of the piece is that “Anne Barnard contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.” Not specified is why Barnard or some lesser colleague couldn’t make the two-hour drive from Beirut to southern Lebanon to assess whether civilian areas are in fact suddenly teeming with military sites.
Of course, even if the Times had undertaken this simple reconnaissance mission, they would still presumably need the Israel Defense Forces to explain to them what they were seeing.
In the intro to Kershner’s article, we learn that the south Lebanese village of Muhaybib — with its ninety or so houses and buildings, mosque, and surrounding fields — may look completely typical when viewed from above.
However, Israel knows better:
[W]hen the Israeli military trains its lens on that hilltop Shiite village close to the border, it sees nine arms depots, five rocket-launching sites, four infantry positions, signs of three underground tunnels, three antitank positions and, in the very center of the village, a Hezbollah command post.
Never mind that Israel has been known to mistake Lebanese milk factories for Hezbollah command posts and elementary schools for arms depots.
In addition to repeatedly referencing the general views of “Israel,” “Israelis,” and “Israeli military officials and experts,” Kershner offers five direct quotes from representatives of the state and military apparatus. Team Hezbollah, on the other hand, is permitted one solitary defender, an anonymous “Hezbollah sympathizer” who points out that Israel has killed civilians in Lebanon.
Perhaps due in part to Israel’s tradition of slaughtering its neighbors, the New York Times has found it difficult to keep track of casualty counts. Appended at the end of Kershner’s piece is this correction: “An earlier version of this article understated the number of Palestinians killed during the 50-day conflict in Gaza last summer. It was more than 2,100, not 1,200.”
It seems Gaza 2014 was confused with Lebanon 2006 — the majority of fatalities in both cases civilians, as usual.
More civilians will die in the next confrontation, as Kershner’s Israeli sources make quite clear. By bombarding the world with allegations concerning Hezbollah’s military build-up, Kershner surmises, “Israel also seems to be trying to pre-empt or deflect the inevitable international censure that comes with civilian casualties.”
Kershner apparently detects no ethical complications in lending her services to the preemptive war effort. Granted, this sort of militarized journalism is par for the course at the paper of record (see, for example, Jenin 2002 and Iraq 2003).
According to the IDF tale transmitted by Kershner, the blame for impending atrocities lies with Hezbollah for forcing civilians to “liv[e] in a military compound,” as a senior Israeli official described south Lebanon.
But were the Israelis to turn their “lens” inward for a moment, they would find that this description more aptly characterizes their own territory. Along with its thoroughly militarized landscape, Israel’s compulsory army service ensures the continued militarization of its society — a phenomenon with which Kershner herself is presumably familiar given her own son’s service in the IDF.
It’s meanwhile imperative, when assigning blame for things, to recall that Hezbollah’s very origin lies in the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which killed approximately 20,000 people in the country, most of them Lebanese and Palestinian civilians.
But enough with history. Civilians of south Lebanon, you’ve been warned.