On February 8, at 12:45 am, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched a series of air strikes against Lebanon as revenge against recent Hizballah attacks in south Lebanon. Three power switching stations, the most vital electricity facilities in the country, were bombed — one in the Jamhour district of Beirut, one in Baalbek and one in Tripoli — effectively cutting off all electrical power in the country. These attacks on civilian targets are violations of the rules of war as well as a breach of the 1996 Grapes of Wrath Accord, which took effect after the Israeli massacre of 106 civilians sheltering in Qana, Lebanon at a UN headquarters. The Hizbullah attacks are, on the contrary, a legally sanctioned response to the 22-year occupation by Israel of south Lebanon. Reading the news reports in the United States, however, one would never know that Hizballah and the Lebanese people — not the state of Israel or Israeli citizens — are the victims of continuous aggression. Hizballah, remarked Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, are the “enemies of peace,” and headline after headline echoed her sentiments.
In addition to the attacks on the power stations, the IDF successfully struck two military (Hizballah) targets. Eighteen civilians were reported wounded. Eighty percent of the Lebanese people were directly affected by the power cuts and it will take until late April before some of it will be restored. Very little about these events made it into the US national papers that day, not surprising since the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported a day earlier that Washington approved an Israeli “action” in Lebanon. After the raids, the usual spokespeople mouthed the usual empty phrase about urging all sides to “exercise restraint.” Short blurbs appeared in which, for example, an Israeli army spokesman is quoted as saying that the air strikes were intended as a message to Hizballah and the Lebanese government to “stop the escalation and to live in a coexistence as neighbors in the Middle East.”
According to State Department spokesman James Rubin, “We can only interpret this action as a deliberate attempt by Hizballah to wreck the prospects for peace in the region. Hizballah’s action is particularly egregious in the context of Israel’s repeated commitment to withdraw from southern Lebanon by the middle of this year.” Israel was given no reproach for still being in Lebanon after all these years, fighting a war whose ostensible purpose (to protect Israel’s northern border from attacks) had long since ceased to be an issue, let alone a credible one. No Lebanese citizen was quoted on what it was like to wake up to bombing raids, to experience the terror that must have accompanied these raids, or to be suddenly (and for days to come) without any power. Immediately after the air strikes, US reporters were not anxiously awaiting comments from Hizballah spokesmen or members of the Lebanese government. Instead, Washington absolved the Israelis for their civilian attacks, reported Robert Fisk, because it was a reaction to the deaths of Israeli soldiers. Yes, 22 years and thousands upon thousands of dead Lebanese and Palestinian civilians later, the occupying Israeli soldier and the Israeli civilian still dominate the news reports from the region, still win the sympathy and the outrage of the American public.
Reporting on the war in southern Lebanon is indeed a thankless task: Any attempt to portray the situation in a more balanced way is met with censorship, criticism or simply a lack of interest. Giving the Lebanese a voice on the fate of their country often leads to dismissive and insensitive remarks, or in the worst cases, accusations of “biased” analyses and anti-Jewish sentiments. I discovered this for myself on returning from a trip to Lebanon last summer. People did not want to hear what I had to say or look at photographs that might otherwise elicit compassion or indignation. No one understood why anyone would want to travel to Lebanon and stay in Beirut. No one, that is, except those who once had homes there. In all fairness, many knew nothing whatsoever about this tiny, Mediterranean country and wouldn’t have been able to formulate an opinion on it one way or the other. Perhaps, I thought fleetingly, it’s just too small to merit attention when so much is happening elsewhere. Then I recall the size of Israel and the disproportionate media attention it gets: Barely a day goes by without some mention of this country or its people’s history in the papers. Even the most uninformed person has an opinion about this country.
Talk within Israel of a complete withdrawal from Lebanon has grown in recent years amid the deepening unpopularity of this war: Israeli parents are tired of worrying about their sons’ safety in a zone that has failed to provide “security” for Israel; they’re tired of the body bags that return the unluckiest of the soldiers. Some in Israel are even starting to wonder whether occupying south Lebanon isn’t something of an ethical dilemma, international laws prohibiting such occupation notwithstanding. Prime Minister Barak nevertheless vowed revenge after Hizbullah killed five Israeli soldiers in the nine-mile-wide occupied strip just before Israel’s strikes on the Lebanese infrastructure. Peace talks between Syria and Israel would not resume, Barak insisted, until Syria “reined in” Hizballah. No one in the US spoke of “reining in” the IDF. The irony here is unmistakable: UN Security Council Resolution 425 of 1978 declared Israel’s occupation of South Lebanon illegal. A 1987 General Assembly resolution on terrorism — effectively vetoed by the US–affirmed right of Hizballah to resist this occupation and to receive help from anyone they wanted. Still, Hizballah’s members are the ones depicted as “terrorists” in the Western press, not IDF or South Lebanese Army soldiers, while Israel’s unconscionable actions are continuously rationalized and defended.
True, Syria controls most of Lebanon. Syria also opportunistically uses Hizballah’s resistance activities against the Israeli occupation to further its own interests, and does indeed have a degree of control over Hizballah, largely as a function of its role in channeling money and arms to it from Iran. Ultimately, however, Hizballah is an autonomous Islamist organization indigenous to Lebanon, concerned with geostrategic and social justice issues in Lebanon. Its ideology is not particularly attractive to those in the region or in the West who would prefer a secular democracy. The fact that its fighters are the vanguard of Lebanon’s resistance movement, and indeed are the only group, besides the Lebanese armed forces, to carry arms legally in Lebanon, should sadden anyone who had hoped that Lebanon’s post-war reality would be free of any brand of sectarian, militia-based authoritarianism. How tragic, then, that Hizballah is the very symbol of Lebanese resistance. Indeed, Lebanon is the primary casualty of the cold war between Israel and Syria. Hizballah is the means by which this war is being fought and prolonged: Keep sending the group arms until all the Golan Heights are promised back to Syria. Keep bombing Lebanon until Hizballah stops resisting the occupation. Hizballah is thus able to maintain a life of its own separate from, and yet connected to, the frail substructure of Syrian-controlled Lebanese politics. Unless and until the occupation of the Golan and the occupation of south Lebanon by Israel end, Hizballah’s fighters will manifest the glorious wound of endless warfare. Lebanon will continue to bleed perpetually owing largely to the arrogant policies of a self-aggrandizing, fully subsidized and yet capricious US regional ally. Few understand that a terrible, incalculably costly war is being fought daily on Lebanese soil because the point of view presented most consistently in our press is that the aggressor is the victim and the victim is the terrorist.
Let us look at a small example of what rarely gets reported in the US: According to the Agence France Presse in Tyre, Lebanon, the day after five Israeli soldiers died, and two days after SLA second-in-command Akl Hashem was killed, Israeli warplanes launched heat-seeking missiles north of the occupied zone while Apache helicopters flew over both Sidon and Tyre (neither in the occupation zone) terrorizing the local civilians. The missiles were fired near the villages of Kafra, Qana and Jebel Botom, and at the Iqlim at-Tuffah hills near the central occupation zone. Helicopters flew over Tyre and Sidon for as long as two hours causing confusion on the highways, panic within these cities about the possibility of a major offensive while parents rushed to get their children out of school. This minor offensive was but a preview of what happened on February 8.
As I read this report I remembered seeing the bombed Awali Bridge outside of Sidon last July, and the shell of an automobile in which two civilians had been killed while driving across that bridge. I remembered the multiple blackouts every single day in Beirut during my visit — the result of a bombed power grid (yes, the same that was just destroyed again) hit by Israel in “retaliation” for Hizballah attacks. And I remembered the mass grave at Qana where the pictures of the murdered civilians now stand above their cement tombs. But mostly I remember the anger and the defiance expressed towards Israel for its constant, arrogant, military intimidation of Lebanon, and it was suddenly so easy to understand how even the most secular Lebanese would cheer every time Hizballah struck at the IDF/SLA targets in the south. Equally clear was how the quiet but pervasive presence of Syria in Lebanon cynically underpinned the outrage of the majority towards its belligerent southern neighbor, complicating the predicament of the Lebanese national battlefield.
In whose interest, I now ask myself, is it to continue to hide these facts? Support for Hizballah in Lebanon and elsewhere is not diminishing. Under the circumstances those who rally to its successes are at least superficially justified: It would be legally irresponsible to ban its resistance actions. This is perhaps the unavoidable irony of a victorious Hizballah: The laws created to permit the resistance to occupation are, by whomever they are carried out, intended to uphold justice. Whether that will be the outcome of their use is a separate issue. Failing to acknowledge the existence of these laws and this logic, as we do in the United States, may render us ignorant but not immune to their effects. One might therefore consider how one’s judgment of this crisis would be tempered were the truth of Lebanon’s plight made understandable in our media; were the brutality and self-interest of those managing this war exposed. One might at least be allowed to hope for a viable, independent and quiet Lebanon were the facts allowed to contest the ongoing fiction.