Israel’s propagandists target Hezbollah, and Britain’s broadsheets toe the line

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Much was made in the British media on May 23 of the alleged Israeli capture of a Hezbollah boat, supposedly laden with weapons, weapons-making material and instructions, and supposedly destined for the occupied Palestinian territories. However, an analysis of the reports point to sloppy, highly selective journalism in the face of Israeli propaganda.

Of the national newspapers that covered the story (the Times, Independent, Daily Telegraph and Financial Times), not a single one reported Hezbollah’s denial. A statement by the Lebanese group, carried by newswires the day before the newspaper reports, said it had “no knowledge” of the incident, and that “no member has been arrested in the past several days.”

Inclusion of this statement would have been particularly important because it is obvious from the newspaper reports that none of the journalists had personally seen any supporting “evidence,” but were merely quoting Israeli sources. Nonetheless, the journalists reported the claim as fact. The headline in the Times read: “Hezbollah instructor caught on bomb boat.”

One is reminded of Israel’s apocalyptic allegation last year that Iranian Revolutionary Guards were pouring into Lebanon, and that Hezbollah had massed 10,000 missiles on the border with Israel. While this was blindly reported by the media, the Independent’s Robert Fisk, the only reporter to have bothered to investigate on the ground, found it to be “the invention of Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister” (Where Israel’s ‘Guns of Navarone’ lie silent – February 7, 2002).

“In reality, there hasn’t been an Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Lebanon since 1984 é Mr. Peres is just 18 years late with his facts. As for the missiles, the Hezbollah would like to know where they are,” Fisk added.

Back to the present, the FT’s Harvey Morris was the only journalist to have reported that an Israeli military statement “did not specify whether the vesselé had been bound for Palestinian territory.”

Ohad Gozani of the Telegraph, unequivocally and without sourcing, said in the lead paragraph of his article that the boat was “bound for the Gaza Strip.”

Eric Silver of the Independent quoted “a military spokesman” as saying the boat was sailing “from Lebanon to Gaza.”

However, Roland Watson and Robert Tait of the Times quoted “the Israelis” as saying that the boat was sailing from Lebanon to Egypt, from where a Hezbollah operative, named as Hamad Muslam Moussa Abu Amra, planned to cross into the Gaza Strip.

Besides confusion over the boat’s destination, it was also unclear how many people were captured. Morris said two, Gozani said at least one, Tait, Watson and Silver said one.

With so many differing accounts, all gleaned from Israeli military sources, how can one not treat this incident with the utmost scepticism, not least because it coincides with an increase in US pressure on Lebanon, Syria and Iran to end their support of militant resistance groups, in particular Hezbollah?

Watson and Tait wrote that “the incident echoed the capture in January last year of the Karine A, which had 50 tonnes of banned weapons on board, bound for the Palestinian Authority when she was stopped in the Red Sea. That discovery signalled the breakdown in relations between Israel and Yassir Arafat.” No mention of the vigorous PA denial or the reported absence of Israeli evidence.

“The Israeli charge that points most directly towards Mr Arafat is that the ship is owned by the Palestinian Authority. Israeli officials have made this claim repeatedly, from the very first day, but have produced no evidence to support it,” the Guardian’s Middle East editor Brian Whitaker wrote on January 14, 2002.

Silver claimed that Hezbollah “has given material and ideological support to the Palestinian intifada,” and “has particularly close ties with the radical Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups.”

While it is not clear what is meant by “ideological support,” Hezbollah has indeed given moral support to Palestinians fighting Israeli occupation. However, there is no concrete evidence that it has provided material support, or that it has “close ties” with Palestinian militant groups. Such claims are highly dubious considering Israel’s tight control over the external borders of the Palestinian territories, a fact without mention in this incident.

Silver went on to claim that Hezbollah “has continued to harass the Galilee border since Israel withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon three years ago.” In fact most of the group’s military operations, which have decreased markedly since the withdrawal, have taken place in the Shebaa Farms – an occupied Arab territory over which the UN says Israel has no legal sovereignty.

“The border hasn’t been so quiet in 25 years,” Fisk, who lives in Lebanon (so is in a good position to know), wrote last year.

Gozani said: “Israeli military officials accused senior Palestinian officials of arranging the shipment. In particular, they pointed the finger at Fathi Ghazem, deputy commander of the naval police in the Gaza Strip, who is close to Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat.

Israel’s foreign minister, Sylvan Shalom, said the capture of the boat underscored Mr. Arafat’s personal link to terrorist activities.”

“Mr. Arafat is up to his neck in terror,” Gozani quoted Shalom as saying. “He was involved in the latest suicide bombings and encouraged activists to carry out attacks.”

It seems from his article that there was no attempt to get a response from Ghazem, Arafat or the PA, leaving the Israeli claim completely unchallenged.

Also absent from every report in these broadsheets were the Israeli military’s violations of Lebanese airspace in May. In an eight-day period alone, there were three such incidents (May 14, 18 and 22). Sadly, these are regular occurrences, as are the UN’s ineffectual condemnations, but this does not mean that they should not be newsworthy. One can imagine the media’s attention had Lebanese warplanes flown over Israel. Given the time proximity of these violations to Israel’s claims over the alleged Hezbollah boat, and given their coverage by newswire organisations (Reuters, Agence France Presse etc.), there is simply no excuse for their exclusion in the broadsheets.

Israel’s claim was also given prominence over other important events on May 22. Only Tait and Watson of the Times mentioned the murder by Israeli troops of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy near the West Bank city of Jenin, albeit in one sentence tucked away in the second half of the article, and with no mention that this took place in Palestinian territory illegally occupied by Israel. How worthless the life of a Palestinian child seems to be.

Completely absent from these broadsheets was the news that the US ambassador in Israel, Dan Kurtzer, reiterated the US view that settlements should be dismantled. “It is in Israel’s interest to abide by the law,” he said.

Also absent was the Israeli Defence Ministry statement that the country is now the world’s fifth largest arms exporter. The news here lies in the major buyers, such as Turkey and India, both of whom have long-lasting and dangerous territorial disputes with their neighbours, as well as internal strife.

But back to the main topic of this article, let us assume for a moment that Hezbollah indeed planned to send a boat containing weapons material to the Palestinian territories. Why the unqualified use of the words “terrorist” and “terrorism” by the FT’s Morris and the Telegraph’s Gozani (whose eight-paragraph article contains those words three times)? At least the Independent’s Silver used them in quote marks.

How is it a terrorist act to resist an illegal, brutal, immoral 36-year military occupation? Forget suicide bombings or weapons of mass destruction, we are talking here about relatively small-scale military equipment and instructions.

Has the media swallowed so readily Israel’s terminology that it cannot recognise an occupied, oppressed people’s right of resistance under international law? And how long must we accept the unchallenged reporting of Israeli claims, the denigration of Arab lives and the omission and distortion of crucial facts?

This incident is but one of many wake-up calls – if we are not treated to the objectivity, scrutiny and accuracy required by the fundamental tenets of journalism, we must hold reporters and news organisations accountable and always be prepared to uncover and point out their errors. Through silence comes injustice – let us not be accomplices.

Sharif Hikmat Nashashibi is the chairman of Arab Media Watch, an organisation dedicated to objective British coverage of Arab issues.

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