I was working for an American network and I was on the coastal front during the first week. The battle of ‘Ayn al-Hilwa was still going and the Israelis were “mopping up” the resistance forces still there. Then we moved near Khalda, which became the new front. By the last day, I was already in east Beirut. The media teams just ran after the Israeli forces. The way the networks work is this: The correspondent, if he is brave, does a “standup” in the field. Otherwise, he does it in Tel Aviv. Usually the crews are sent independently, without a correspondent, to the field. Every major network has four or five crews covering the different fronts. So most of the work is done by the crews. Ninety percent of the crews inside Israel are Israelis working for American networks.
We did two interviews with the population, but I don’t think they even went into the story. The correspondent we were working with was much more interested in the advance of the Israeli troops. There was much more effort to get “bang-bang” footage, and the correspondents’ “standups.” We did one “human story,” at the hospital in Tyre. The doctor there spoke very good English. We also went to Rashidiyya, where refugees were camping in the orchard groves. But since we didn’t know Arabic we just did visuals, a “standup” of the correspondent in front of those refugees. Later, I saw in the network’s office some of the stories that had been compiled during the war. They were mainly interviews with Christians talking about PLO terrorism, or Israeli soldiers, or the “standups” in front of the Israeli soldiers.
This narrow focus is a combination of the correspondent’s personality and political biases, plus what the office in the US wants to show, plus censorship. At that early point, I think the censorship was much looser. Then, if you were a correspondent really trying to assess the damage and to talk to people, you could have done a lot. The restrictions seemed to be very specific. The second week that I was there, it was somewhat more defined.
On my second trip, I went mainly to the civilian population centers. We got a briefing from the censor about what he would not like to see, besides obvious military targets. He didn’t want “horror pictures” — wounded people, mutilated bodies, absolutely no corpses of civilians. That’s the way the censor puts it to you. To be honest, the censor did not really bother about scenes of destruction. There it’s much more the problem with the escort officers.
Censors and Escorts
It’s two different bureaucracies. The military escort is the IDF spokesman’s office. Censorship is strictly a professional wing that has to judge quickly on matters such as whether you violated military secrets. The military escorts, some of them, assume a much more active role of defending the Israeli image. The problem varies, depending on the individual escort officer. Most of them are reserve soldiers. They are human beings who have their own political opinions that they bring into it. The first day I had a really hard-core propagandist, to whom I had to explain why I took almost every shot. I had to interview all these Christians to impress upon him that I was trying to produce a pro-Israeli story. He has the power to limit what I can shoot and not shoot. More important, he can report back and label me a “negative.”
It’s a great privilege to get an escort officer solely for yourself. If you’re a print journalist, they put three or four together in a car — Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Times, Washington Post — with an escort officer for a convoy of three or four cars. Usually some of the journalists “got lost,” and the escort would come back only with his own car. Then came the decision that every car had to have a military escort. In the case of TV, it’s usually only one crew, because of all the equipment. If they report that you are “negative,” you have a lot of difficulty getting back in in. They can tell you, “You were already inside one day. Maybe next week we’ll have something.” There are ways of harassing you without openly refusing to cooperate with you.
When you go in, you can’t start off saying, “Look, I Would like to assess the real damages done to the civilian population.” You have to tell the escort officer you want to do a human interest story, you want to use Damour as a microcosm, that sort of thing. You map it out with him — some of them don’t even know the roads, others have been there with the reserves and they know exactly. The problem I’ve found is not so much this escort officer but you have self-appointed Israeli officers — captains and the like, anyone with minimal rank — who assume the role of protecting the Israeli image abroad. You constantly find yourself trying to explain to 60 people on the road what you’re doing and why you’re taking these shots. They don’t have the legal power to do anything, but they will tell the military escort officers, “Do you know that he’s shooting destruction? Why?” The military escort will have to make an apology for you: “Look, I know what he’s doing, he’s doing a good story for us. He’s also been talking to Christians in Damour, not just the destruction. Please let me handle it.” I found I had to give explanations almost constantly to everybody. The minute you point the camera anywhere besides at Lebanese Christians you’ve got to explain what you’re doing. And you might be stopped or you might not. It’s completely arbitary. Rashidiyya and ‘Ayn al-Hilwa are off limits completely. As a matter of fact, the Israelis threatened to court martial a military escort who let an American take two or three photographs of ‘Ayn al-Hilwa.
The IDF spokesman in Tyre told us that they’re trying to help the Lebanese population on whatever level, but there’s a conscious attempt not to deal with the Palestinian population. The Palestinians are left to fend for themselves. When we talked to people in al-Baz, they told us that nothing had been done. You could see that nothing had been done. One day UNRWA brought a big tank of water. Until then people were drinking water contaminated by sewage. In ‘Ayn al-Hilwa, refugees said the Israeli army distributed some bread from time to time, that’s all. Refugees of ‘Ayn al-Hilwa are squatting all over Sidon, in an area of abandoned garages. They told us they hadn’t received anything. There was a conscious policy not to help the Palestinians, with the idea that somehow they will disappear or assimilate.
Prison camps were also off limits. If you photograph an interrogation center, they can claim it’s a military installation. There’s one near Sidon, a big citrus processing plant which is now used as the initial interrogation center. The first week I was there, in front of the governor’s offices in both Sidon and Tyre, there were huge lines of men waiting for their ID cards to be stamped, and to be passed through this first screening of whether they were PLO supporters or not. You’re not allowed to photograph anything relating to the prisoners.
Any footage that you want to get out of the country has to be viewed by the censors in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. He wants to see everything that you want to get on the satellite. There are a lot of loopholes. All my footage that was not sent by satellite I cleared through censorship. Later, in the airport, I was never checked. You can sneak footage. But there’s a great risk that it will backfire, if you’re trying to work there on a more or less permanent basis.
There’s a whole process of negotiation with the censor. You have to prove your case. You have to say, “Look I didn’t only talk to that person, I talked to six people. I verified the story. I found cluster bombs in the general location that they talked about.” The official lines are relatively strict. Once you get inside it, there’s a lot of room to maneuver and to negotiate. The censor himself is a reserve soldier. But he might also sympathize with Peace Now. So it also depends on his personal integrity, his biases. Once I had this whole sequence from al-Baz, where people talked about hospitals being bombed and he says, “Fine, I don’t have any problem with that.” Another censor would say, “There’s no way we can mention bombing hospitals.”
If you work for NBC and you really want to get your story on the air, it’s very hard for censorship to mess around with you, except for ‘Ayn al-Hilwa or Rashidiyya, or the big “no-nos.” I’m sure you could get a horrific story from al-Baz and pass it through censorship, even if it’s very critical of Israel. It’s a question of whether the reporter is willing to take the initiative. So much of the day is consumed discussing where the “standup” is going to be.
I think the Europeans were trying to do more. One day we were in a convoy with some Italians. The convoy took us tor see PLO ammunition dumps, how they were placed among civilian populations. But the Italians were much more interested in running to the population to hear the stories. Every time, the Israelis had to ask, “Where are the Italians? Oh no, they’re already back there with that old lady.” They’d grab them and bring them back to the convoy. But none of us in that convoy, which had a representative from every major US network, were even attempting to do anything with the people.
It was surrealistic. You’d drive through these incredible scenes of destruction, with people sitting in rubble. It’s a big hell surrounding you, and your main focus is some little ammunition dump in the downstairs of a school named Dayr Yasin. You go to the bunker and get your shots, and you drive to Sidon where you see the next ammunition dump. I blame the reporters rather than the Israeli censors. So maybe they will cut one sentence here, one sentence there, but they will not destroy the spirit of the story if you really want to get a story out. It’s what the reporters want to hear and how hard they work to get the other side of the story which counts. Is the reporter satisfied that this was a PLO munitions dump? Is he going to talk with the local people? Did they know about it? If they knew, what did they think it was? Many reporters I talked with were convinced that this was a militarily brilliant campaign, and that the PLO was a bunch of murderers. If you start from that premise, why bother to ask questions?
Getting the People’s Stories
I also found it difficult talking with the people, because they are so distrustful to begin with. It’s hard to get a translator to drive with you. If you don’t know Arabic, you have to look for the local English-speaking people. They are everywhere, but it’s very hard for them to put their emotions into English. Besides, what is someone going to say to you when you have a representative of the IDF right beside you, in uniform? For two days, I had a liberal military escort. When I went to al-Baz the first time, he offered to stay outside. He didn’t ever say, but I think he had some criticism of the whole campaign. But for two days I had total right-wingers with whom I could not even negotiate. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll get the Christians, I’ll get everything. It’s within the context of the PLO destruction of Damour.” “I hope you’re going to mention that the PLO destroyed Damour,” he says.
It takes a lot of time. You can’t just come with a camera, shoot some footage and vanish after two minutes. The best thing would be to see them for a couple of hours, have a cup of coffee. Talk to one woman and then another woman will burst into tears in front of the camera and start talking, and people will open up. After several hours you have the beginning of some kind of rapport. The people begin to trust that you’re not coming to violate them, that you’re really there to see what’s happening. That takes time, especially among a population which has been so devastated. If you have to shoot wondering all the time who’s coming behind your back, it puts you under a degree of stress that is also responsible for the quality of material that you get. The refugees from ‘Ayn al-Hilwa — that was very painful. These women were so distraught. There were 16 people screaming at the same time, the kids were jumping up in front of the camera. In order to make some sense out of the chaos, you’ve got to stand there a long time, hoping the kids will get tired of jumping in front of the camera, hoping some of the women shouting into the camera will disappear, hoping the person you picked out will be willing to sit and talk.
If I had been in al-Baz camp for another three hours, I could have gotten much more powerful material. I came to this man’s house. The living room has no wall. It was blown open to the sea breeze. His wife brings coffee. He speaks English. You start talking about what it was like. Without discussing politics — this is forbidden — you try to show him that you are sympathetic. After a while, he understands. These people are very sensitive. He understands, and says, “Why don’t we walk around in the camp a little bit.” We go around and come upon some women sitting in tents. And after half a day you might have two or three cassettes which are very, very powerful. I would have loved to stay there for the entire day. I thought this was much more important than anything else. I wanted to see the hospital, I wanted to talk to the children. This man was opening the population up for me. He figured a little bit where I was at, probably because I was so nervous about the IDF. The big thing that you cannot talk about at all with the Palestinians is politics. You cannot talk to them about the PLO. They can be arrested for that.
I saw two cases of blowing up houses of PLO suspects, like in the West Bank. I have enough evidence on film of cluster bombs being used on the civilian population in the camps, but in Israel there’s a peculiar definition of what’s civilian and what isn’t. There were cluster bombs all over the place, so you had to be warned when you walked about. That was Damour. In Tyre, in the middle of the city, there is an Arabic poster put up by the Red Crescent with a picture warning kids to avoid picking up cluster bombs. There is plenty of evidence that cluster bombs were used against the civilian population.
Another thing, which is not highly publicized, is the emerging structure of occupation. The war against the PLO is continuing. You see the lines of men, the border police. Soldiers told me that they are picking up about 50 men in Tyre every night. By then it was clear that the border police were replacing the combatant army. You need passes to go from one place to another — Tyre to Sidon. There’s this huge line of people in front of the office of the military governor of Tyre waiting to get passes. They don’t call themselves military governor, “because Israel is not an occupying force.” He’s just administering the area, pending the political resolution. He’s the “consultant” of Tyre municipality, or the “consultant” of Sidon. The border police are managing the population. It’s the same structure as the West Bank. These are ways of controlling population.
One time I was joking with Israeli soldiers. “It could be boring here with the military government.” “You should have been here Friday night,” one soldier said. “What do you mean?” I asked, and another guy interrupts: “He’s an Israeli but he’s working for a network. Don’t talk to him.“ I’m sure there’s a lot of things going on that we don’t know about. From time to time jeeps pass with blindfolded people. The laissez-passez, the destruction of houses. This is south Lebanon after the invasion.