More than a little uncomfortably, I find myself with a bone to pick with one of our finest champions of humanitarian values and opponents of war. During Israel’s attack on Lebanon this summer, the distinguished British journalist Robert Fisk did sterling work — as might have been expected — debunking some of the main myths that littered the battlefield almost as dangerously as the tens of thousands of US-made cluster bombs that Israel dropped in the last days of the fighting.
He documented the violations of international law by Israel in Lebanon, offering a personal record of the nature and scale of war crimes as more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians died in Israel’s aerial bombardment of the country, hundreds of thousands more were made refugees, and most of the country’s infrastructure — its roads, bridges, power stations, oil refineries and factories — went up in flames. For this he deserves our thanks and praise.
But possibly in an attempt at even-handedness, Fisk has also muddied the picture in relation to the actions of Hizbullah and thereby contributed towards the very mythical narratives he seeks to undermine.
This was done — in a predictable hiatus in each of his stories that over time developed into a writer’s tic — by repeatedly accusing the Shiite militia of both provoking the war with Israel and intending Lebanon’s destruction. Uncharacteristically, Fisk failed to offer us the evidence on which these conclusions were based.
I take this failing — maybe small compared to the far grosser distortions presented by other mainstream commentators — seriously because of Fisk’s past achievements in countering the distortions in almost all Western reporting on the Middle East and the “war on terror”.
Hizbullah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, deserve the fairest hearing we can give them, especially as their voices are systematically excluded from a Western press that identifies with Israel.
I am in no position to challenge Fisk’s expertise and familiarity with Lebanese society and politics. If the Independent’s reporter tells us Hizbullah is no simple puppet of Tehran while noting that its weapons are supplied by Iran (and observing that Israel’s are supplied by the US) I assume he is right. I also accept his reports that on occasion he saw Hizbullah fighters taking shelter behind buildings in south Lebanon’s towns and villages, and his parallel observations that Israeli soldiers did the same as they struggled to invade the border areas.
The problem is in his constantly aired statement that “Hizbollah provoked this war by capturing two Israeli soldiers and killing three others on 12 July” (16 Aug 2006). Left as a simple statement of fact, it could be allowed to pass without comment. But Fisk repeatedly adds a series of further insinuations: that Hizbullah wanted Israel to attack, that it planned the war (not just that it planned for the war), that it knew precisely the scale of destruction Israel would unleash, that it was following Syria’s orders, and that by implication Syria — and possibly Hizbullah — wanted Lebanon’s destruction.
Here is a small selection of these regular interjections in his stories:
“No, let us not forget that the Hizbollah broke international law, crossed the Israeli border, killed three Israeli soldiers, captured two others and dragged them back through the border fence. It was an act of calculated ruthlessness that should never allow Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, to grin so broadly at his press conference. It has brought unparalleled tragedy to countless innocents in Lebanon … So Syria — which Israel rightly believes to be behind Wednesday’s Hizbollah attack — is not going to be bombed. It is Lebanon which must be punished.” (July 15, 2006)
“It now appears clear that the Hizbollah leadership — Nasrallah used to be the organisation’s military commander in southern Lebanon — thought carefully through the effects of their border crossing, relying on the cruelty of Israel’s response to quell any criticism of their action within Lebanon. They were right in their planning. The Israeli retaliation was even crueller than some Hizbollah leaders imagined, and the Lebanese quickly silenced all criticism of the guerrilla movement … Then came [Hizbullah’s] Haifa missiles and the attack on the [Israeli] gunboat. It is now clear that this successful military operation — so contemptuous of their enemy were the Israelis that although their warship was equipped with cannon and a Vulcan machine gun, they didn’t even provide the vessel with an anti-missile capability — was also planned months ago.” (July 16, 2006)
“Now to the Department of Home Truths. Mr Siniora [Lebanon’s prime minister] did not mention the Hizbollah. He did not say he had been powerless to stop its reckless attack on Israel last week. He didn’t want to criticise this powerful guerrilla army in his midst which had proved that Syria still controls events in this beautiful, damaged country.” (July 21, 2006)
“Of course, the Hizbollah have brought catastrophe to their coreligionists.” (July 26, 2006)
“The Hizbollah has been waiting and training and dreaming of this new war for years, however ruthless we may regard the actions.” (July 27, 2006)
“So fierce has been Hizbollah’s resistance — and so determined its attacks on Israeli ground troops in Lebanon — that many people here no longer recall that it was Hizbollah which provoked this latest war by crossing the border on 12 July, killing three Israeli soldiers and capturing two others … And do the Israelis realise that they are legitimising Hizbollah, that a rag-tag army of guerrillas is winning its spurs against an Israeli army.” (Aug 5, 2006)
“The Hizbollah have, for years, prayed and longed and waited for the moment when they could attack the Israeli army on the ground." (Aug 14, 2006)
“It was Nasrallah’s men who crossed the Israeli border on 12 July, captured two Israeli soldiers, killed three others and thus unleashed the entirely predictable savagery of the Israeli air force and army against the largely civilian population of Lebanon.” (Sept 2, 2006)
The implications of these comments are serious, and deserve to be set out clearly and transparently by a reporter who consistently makes them. And yet Fisk has not produced any evidence, let alone reasoned argument, to suggest that Syria, through Hizbullah, planned a war that would offer Israel the chance to destroy Lebanon. I am not saying Fisk is wrong, but I would like to know the basis for his grave claims.
What makes his comments all the more strange is that Fisk seems to be at least aware that, quite unrelated to the capture of the two Israeli soldiers, Israel had planned its assault on Lebanon for some time:
“Israel itself, according to reports from Washington and New York, had long planned its current campaign against Lebanon — provoked by Hizbollah’s crossing of the Israeli frontier, its killing of three soldiers and seizure of two others on 12 July.” (Aug 14, 2006).
“According to Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, Israel’s attack had also been carefully planned — and given the ‘green light’ by the Bush administration as part of its campaign to humble Iran. I think Hersh is right.” ( Sept 2, 2006)
So who then is really to blame for “starting” this war?
After hearing an address by Nasrallah on Lebanese TV, Fisk is particularly incensed by Nasrallah’s “hypocritical” comments that he would never have launched his operation to capture the Israeli soldiers had he predicted Israel’s brutal reponse. Fisk’s outrage seems overstated — and stands in opposition to his observation (cited above) that Israel’s attack “was even crueller than some Hizbollah leaders imagined”.
The reason for Nasrallah’s comments are not difficult to divine. After the destruction inflicted by Israel, doubtless he feels under pressure to distance himself from the catastrophe that has befallen his nation. Isn’t that what politicians — everywhere and at all times — do?
But Fisk is equally enraged by Nasrallah’s other, more serious (and partially inconsistent) claim about the war: that Hizbullah knew Israel and the US were looking for an excuse to attack Lebanon and believed it was better to catch them off guard so that Hizbullah could fight at a time of its own choosing.
Even though, as we saw above, Fisk appears to agree with this interpretation of events, he again lambasts the Hizbullah leader for hypocrisy: “I think both sides planned this, and a hint came in another part of Nasrallah’s breathtakingly hypocritical address. ‘In any case,’ he said, ‘Israel was going to launch a war at the start of this autumn and the degree of destruction then would have been even greater.’ Well, thanks for telling me, Hassan.” (Sept 2, 2006)
Surely, after the apparent inconsistencies in Fisk’s own commentaries over more than a month of reporting, his readers deserve a profounder summation of his views than this. How and why did two hostile sides — Syria, and Israel and the US — both plan a war, much at the same time, whose outcome was the certain destruction of Lebanon?
We can speculate about Israel’s interests in doing this. It may have hoped to provoke a civil war in Lebanon, much as it is trying to do in Gaza, to weaken its neighbor. It may have believed that by terrifying the general Lebanese population from the south, it could permanently reoccupy the area. It may also have hoped that, if it were winning such a war, it could drag in Syria and Iran.
But why would Syria want Lebanon destroyed? A fit of pique at being expelled from Lebanon last year according to US designs for a Cedar Revolution? Is that Fisk’s conclusion?
And how does Hizbullah fit into this picture? Is Fisk telling us that Hizbullah is the simple puppet of Syria — much as pro-war commentators say Hizbullah is controlled by Iran? Did Hizbullah will the destruction of Lebanon too?
Most noticeable is that, in constantly castigating Hizbullah for “starting” the war, Fisk entirely ignores the background to the confrontation: that Israeli war planes and spy drones were almost daily violating Lebanese air space and sovereignty, as well, of course, as the issues of Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails, Israel’s refusal to hand over the maps of the minefields it laid during its two-decade occupation, and its continuing refusal to negotiate over the land corridor known as the Shebaa Farms.
These central issues — taken together with the persuasive accounts that Israel and the Pentagon had been planning an attack on Lebanon for at least a year — make Fisk’s implied claims that Syria and Hizbullah started the war to provoke Israel into destroying Lebanon look misleading at best.
A separate factor may help to explain how Fisk’s judgment may have been clouded. He often mentions in passing his close relations with the family of the late Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed by a car bomb more than a year ago that was widely blamed on Syria. Hariri, a millionaire Sunni businessman, was responsible for much of the private investment in Lebanon that led to its reconstruction and which Israel has now destroyed.
Fisk, rightly, lays the main blame for the damage to Lebanon’s national infrastructure — and the deaths of more than 1,000 civilians — at Israel’s door. But he owes it to his readers to be much clearer about how and why he thinks Syria and Hizbullah conspired to offer Israel the chance to wreak such destruction. It’s time for Fisk to tell us the whole story.