In launching an emergency appeal for aid on July 24, the United Nations estimated that the lives of 800,000 Lebanese civilians have been disrupted by Israeli bombing. Hundreds of bridges and virtually all road networks have been systematically destroyed across the country, making relief efforts almost impossible. BBC and other journalists report many civilians trapped in the rubble of villages in the south of Lebanon cut off from medical aid by air strikes. ReliefWeb comments:
“As the conflict continues, food stocks in many parts of Lebanon are running low. Shortages of water are already a reality in parts of southern Lebanon due to a lack of electricity and fuel. The possibility of shortages of medical supplies in health facilities in the coming weeks is of growing concern. While medical and food stocks are available delivery is almost impossible in many parts of the country.” (‘Flash appeal on the Lebanon crisis launched today,’ ReliefWeb, July 24, 2006; http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWB.NSF/db900SID/SODA-6S23GF?OpenDocument)
To date, some 377 Lebanese and 17 Israeli civilians have been killed in the conflict. (www.guardian.co.uk/israel/Story/0,,1828142,00.html)
Save The Children reports that 45% of the Lebanese dead are children, as are 200,000 of the 500,000 refugees forced to flee the bombing. (Save The Children, ‘Crisis in middle east – children hit hardest,’ July 21, 2006;
The Red Cross reported (July 23) that five of its volunteers and three patients were wounded when Israeli aircraft attacked two ambulances in successive missile strikes. The attacks took place near Qana when an ambulance arrived to evacuate three patients from the border town of Tibnin. The drivers said that two guided missiles were fired at each ambulance. Three injured patients – a woman, her son and grandson – were all injured again, the son losing his leg to a direct hit from one of the anti-tank missiles. (Ed O’Loughlin, ‘Ambulances fired on by Israel, says Red Cross,’ Sydney Morning Herald, July 25, 2006)
According to Human Rights Watch, Israel has used artillery-fired cluster munitions in populated areas of Lebanon. Researchers on the ground confirmed that a cluster munitions attack on the village of Blida on July 19 killed one and wounded at least 12 civilians, including seven children. Eyewitnesses and survivors described how the artillery shells dropped hundreds of cluster submunitions on the village. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, commented:
“Cluster munitions are unacceptably inaccurate and unreliable weapons when used around civilians. They should never be used in populated areas.” (‘Israeli cluster munitions hit civilians in Lebanon Israel Must Not Use Indiscriminate Weapons,’ HRW, July 24, 2006; www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900SID/EKOI-
Blair – We Must Act
The day before British and American bombers began attacking Serbia on March 24, 1999, Tony Blair told the House of Commons: “We must act to save thousands of innocent men, women and children from humanitarian catastrophe.”
“Let me give the House an indication of the scale of what is happening: a quarter of a million Kosovars, more than 10 per cent of the population, are now homeless as a result of repression by Serb forces. 65,000 people have been forced from their homes in the last month, and no less than 25,000 in the four days since peace talks broke down. Only yesterday, 5,000 people in the Srbica area were forcibly evicted from their villages.”
Blair also reported deaths:
“Since last summer 2000 people have died.” (Blair: ‘We must act – to save thousands of innocent men, women and children,’ The Guardian, March 23, 1999; www.guardian.co.uk/Kosovo/Story/0,,209876,00.html)
No one, of course, not even Blair, was suggesting that the killing was all on one side – the Kosovo Liberation Army had been responsible for hundreds of deaths. But journalists lined up to declare Serb actions ample justification for military intervention. On the day of his speech, a Guardian leader backed Blair all the way:
“The only honorable course for Europe and America is to use military force to try to protect the people of Kosovo… If we do not act at all, or if there is a limited bombing campaign which still fails to change Milosevic’s mind, what is likely to be Kosovo’s future? The Serbs would certainly try to wipe out the Kosovo Liberation Army completely. They might well go in for large-scale evacuation of villages, so as to control the population more effectively, and deny popular support to what KLA fighters might remain.” (Leader, ‘The sad need for force, Kosovo must be saved,’ The Guardian, March 23, 1999)
Warnings that resonate strongly in July 2006 as the media report, with minimal discernible outrage, Israel’s enforced “large-scale evacuation of villages“ in Lebanon. Thus the Independent on July 22:
“Israeli aircraft dropped leaflets over southern Lebanon yesterday warning civilians to leave border villages. The area is normally inhabited by about 300,000 people.” (Donald Macintyre, ‘Israel calls up 3,000 reservists to prepare for ground invasion,’ The Independent, July 22, 2006)
The Evening Standard reported in an article titled, ‘The “get out or die” text message’:
“Israel is waging war by text message as it steps up attacks on Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. Mobile phones are being bombarded with messages and voicemails telling civilians to leave areas earmarked for bombardment or risk being killed.” (Evening Standard, July 24, 2006)
In March 1999, the Guardian editors’ outrage at the suffering of displaced civilians was palpable:
“The Serbs are even now attacking in the Pagarusa valley, where 50,000 displaced Kosovars are sheltering behind makeshift Kosovo Liberation Army defences, and those people could, within a very short time, be fleeing, or being brutally herded, toward Albania. Among the many obligations the Nato countries owe these suffering folk is that of meticulously recording their stories, so that when they return to Kosovo full restitution can be made for their losses and full justice meted out to their persecutors. The Serbs have stripped them of their possessions and their documents and have tried to strip them of their dignity. All three must be restored, beginning with the last.” (Leader, ‘The human cost,’ The Guardian, March 31, 1999; www.guardian.co.uk/Kosovo/Story/0,,209737,00.html)
Compare and contrast to this recent, more matter of fact, Guardian editorial:
“For Israel, a ceasefire would mean respite from deadly rocket strikes, such as the one that struck a railway station in Haifa on Sunday, killing eight civilians. For Lebanon, it would have meant allowing its dysfunctional government to deal with the sudden population convulsions taking place as its citizens flee in panic at Israeli air attacks, and try to restrain the fanatics intent on provoking Israel further.”
The leader concluded:
“Israel has the right to defend itself, a task made harder by the hidden arsenal of Hizbullah, and it should object to any one-sided calls for restraint. But it cannot control its enemies’ responses: it can only control its own.” (Leader, ‘Middle East: On the brink of chaos,’ The Guardian, July 17, 2006; www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,1822165,00.html)
A week into the bombing of Serbia and the Independent was struck down by war fever:
“High-altitude hit-and-run bombing missions will have to be supplemented by lower- altitude attacks on infantry and vehicles… Second, Nato will need to decide how this campaign is to end. It has already gone on long enough without a focused picture of the status quo post bellum. Nato should send in ground troops to establish a protectorate over Kosovo.” (Leader, ‘NATO cannot delay in sending troops to protect Kosovo,’ The Independent, March 30, 1999)
John Sweeney wrote in the Guardian one day later:
“And still they come, a severed artery of human misery, spurting through the high mountain pass, beneath jagged peaks lost in sunlit clouds.
“And still they come, the sick, babies, women, rheumy-eyed old men and wild-eyed young boys, sardine-packed in rickety trailers pulled by clack-clacking tractors, some weeping, a few happy, but most just staring into the far distance.
“And still they come, past the concrete dragon’s teeth on the Serb side of the border, to the grotesque, pitiful but not murdering chaos of the poorest country in Europe.” (Sweeney, ‘Tide of misery flows into Albania,’ The Guardian, March 31, 1999)
How freely the tears flow when the compassion is government-approved. Last Sunday, the Observer made its position on the current conflict clear enough. Compare the moral outrage and impassioned literary flourishes above with this new-found ‘pragmatism‘:
“Ideally, Israel’s reflex action to any threat would not be to respond with such massive force that significant civilian casualties become inevitable. Ideally, Hizbollah would not want to provoke the Jewish state by firing missiles into Israeli territory that kill Israeli civilians, or by capturing its soldiers… But we do not live in an ideal world. And in the Middle East it is reality that counts.”
Ideally, half a million ordinary Lebanese civilians would not, in a matter of days, be transformed into refugees struggling to survive. Ideally, close to 400 Lebanese civilians would not be killed by indiscriminate bombing as an entire country’s infrastructure – roads, bridges, power stations, petrol dumps, sea ports, milk factories, TV transmission masts, mobile phone masts, and much else – is simply demolished.
The Observer continued:
“The only path is that of pragmatism. In other words, a compromise based not on rhetoric or ideals but on a realistic appraisal of our capabilities and influence. The immediate task is to try to ensure that Israel does not attempt to re-establish its occupation of southern Lebanon or trigger a full-scale escalation of a Middle Eastern war. We need to solve the problem, not pontificate.” (Leader, ‘Britain still has a role in our less than ideal world,’ The Observer, July 23, 2006)
Just four months ago this same newspaper claimed that, in response to conflict in the Balkans, “a new doctrine of humanitarian intervention emerged. It was led at first by President Clinton over Bosnia, and again in Kosovo. The rationale behind those interventions was then invoked for the invasion of Iraq…”
The “wisdom” of the latter had been questioned, the editors noted: “But the principle that a brutal regime does not have inalienable rights to do as it pleases within its borders… is a good one.” (Leader, ‘Let a dictator’s death remind us of the evil of unchecked nationalism,’ The Observer, March 12, 2006)
The Observer‘s hypocrisy makes sense – “ideals” and “principles” are useful when brutal realpolitik can be sold as ‘humanitarian intervention’. But not even the Observer could sell US-UK support for the demolition of Lebanon as a moral cause.
As in Kosovo, crimes are being committed on both sides. Unlike Kosovo, the “humanitarian interventionists” have little to say. The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland wrote in 1999:
“How did the British left get so lost? How have its leading lights ended up as the voices of isolationism? How did it come to this…? Why is it the hard left – rather than the isolationist right – who have become the champions of moral indifference? For, make no mistake, that’s what opposition to Nato’s attempt to Clobba Slobba (as the Sun puts it) amounts to… either the West could try to halt the greatest campaign of barbarism in Europe since 1945 – or it could do nothing.” (Jonathan Freedland, ‘The left needs to wake up to the real world. This war is a just one,’ The Guardian, March 26, 1999)
Last week, with the destruction of Lebanon well under way, Freedland’s tone had changed:
“Both Hamas and Hizbullah captured soldiers. To outsiders, that would seem to be fair play under the rules of guerrilla warfare. But soldiers carry an almost sacred status in the Israeli imagination. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) is a conscript army, so the rhetoric about ‘everyone’s son or daughter’ is literally true. Its personnel are not seen as professionals hired to kill or be killed, but as citizens.” (Freedland, ‘There is a way out of this crisis, but the legacy of hatred will endure,’ The Guardian, July 19, 2006)
Where once Freedland was resolute in his “Clobba Slobba” view of international relations, he now gropes for answers: “Israel pounds Lebanon out of all proportion to the original provocation and Hizbullah replies with rockets landing deep in the Israeli interior. What might make this storm pass?”
In reality, Palestinian and Lebanese civilian deaths are mildly troubling for our media, little more. As with the early days of the Iraq catastrophe, there is the overwhelming sense that ‘It will be over soon’, that bitter medicine sometimes just has to be swallowed – there’s nothing much anyone can do. Previously outspoken commentators have sought shelter in the bunker of ‘objective’ journalism. The BBC’s Paul Reynolds wrote from Washington in 1999 of the NATO assault:
“One often wonders why America bothers. Kosovo, after all, is a far away place of which they know little. And yet the crisis shows that there is room in this great land for a sense of justice and responsibility, just as there was in imperial Britain… Great powers are capable of great oppressions, but also of great gestures. The Balkans, it seems, have not lost their fascination for the West, though luckily, this time round, the powers are not pitching in against each other as they did in 1914.
“Some progress has been made in this violent century.” (Reynolds, ‘Kosovo: Clinton’s greatest foreign test,’ April 4, 1999; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/
Media innocents might be forgiven for shuddering at the thought of the fierce managerial censure that surely followed this outpouring of personal opinion – BBC journalists, after all, are supposed to keep their views to themselves. We asked Reynolds last week if he thought Israel’s attacks on Lebanese roads, bridges, petrol stations, milk factories, and other civilian infrastructure were illegitimate – something he had not stressed in his BBC online articles. We wondered if perhaps the United States should again “bother” with some kind of “great gesture” of “justice and responsibility”. Reynolds replied:
“My views are not relevant.” (Email to Media Lens, July 20, 2006)
The rules are clear but never discussed – corporate reporters are free and happy to declare their personal views insofar as they accord with state interests, but not when they conflict. To criticise the powerful is to be ‘biased’ and ‘crusading’. To support the case made by power is to be ‘measured‘, ‘objective’ and ‘balanced’. Journalists’ moral outrage is not relevant when the West does not give a damn about the men, women and children dying under its bombs.