(Originally published in the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung as Legenden im Libanon-Krieg, 14 August, 2006)
BEIRUT: The old adage ‘the first casualty of war is the truth’ is as applicable to the Israel-Hizbullah conflict as any other war.
Disinformation has abounded from the get-go, with spurious statements made by officials, photographs doctored by the media, and web blogs full of claims and counter claims.
Israel’s justification for the war, and bombardment of civilian areas, has also rested on what now appear to be dubious claims.
The first claim is that the action that sparked the conflict, the seizure of two Israeli soldiers by Hizbullah on July 12, was carried out on Israeli territory. But according to Amin Hoteit, the retired Lebanese army Brigadier-General responsible for demarcating the Blue Line between Lebanon and Israel in conjunction with the United Nations in 2000, the Israeli soldiers were attacked and captured on Lebanese territory.
“They were taken on a road 120 meters inside Lebanon near Aitaa el Chaab,” Hoteit said on Friday. “There is no fence, no sign, and they [Hizbullah] did not cross any demarcation of Israeli territory. It is an uninhabited forest area only used by the resistance [Hizbullah]. We blocked the road after demarcation.”
Hoteit’s claim tallies with statements issued by Hizbullah and the Lebanese police following the incident that were not picked up by the mainstream media.
“Implementing our promise to free Arab prisoners in Israeli jails, our strugglers have captured two Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon,” Hizbullah stated on July 12. Hizbullah had warned the Israelis several times in the past that the group would capture and detain Israeli soldiers if they entered Lebanon and would use them in an exchange of prisoners.
The Lebanese police said the two soldiers were captured as they “infiltrated” the town of Aitaa al-Chaab inside Lebanon.
Israel’s second claim involves the targeting of civilian areas in Lebanon, which Israel justifies by claiming Hizbullah fighters are hiding among civilians and using residential areas to store arms. But the evidence on the ground seems to point the other way, according to analysts, NGOs, villagers and the party itself.
Israel claims its bombardments are aimed at destroying Hizbullah facilities and incapacitating infrastructure used to transport armaments and supplies to the guerrilla force. However, the attacks have not prevented Hizbullah from firing thousands of rockets into Northern Israel but have left over 1,000 Lebanese civilians dead, a million displaced and caused an estimated $2.5 billion in infrastructure damage.
“Hiding behind civilians is the only reason the Israelis can come up with, even if they are hitting a kindergarten or a school. In general 90% of their targets are against civilian targets, and in some cases hit the residences of Hizbullah leaders,” said Abass Awali, who has worked with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) for over 20 years.
Little is known about Hizbullah’s military tactics but as analysts point out, the group does not engage in conventional warfare and uses guerrilla tactics.
Fighters are known to operate from their hometown regions, with locals not knowing whether a neighbour is a Hizbullah fighter or not.
“Hizbullah operates clandestinely as the area is strewn with informers,” said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a professor at the Lebanese American University and expert on Hizbullah.
She said fighters carry their own supplies to avoid detection or interaction with villagers, and use a simple but effective way of communicating by telephone or walkie-talkie. “‘Meet me by my uncle’s shop’, or ‘next to my girlfriend’s house’.” No names, and no addresses.”
Villagers that had fled the village of Safaa, 20 kilometers south-east of Tyre near the Israeli border, a week ago said they saw no sign of Hizbullah fighters in the area.
“My neighbours may be Hizbullah, but I never saw any weapons. They are invisible warriors, we know nothing about them,” said Abass Ayoub, now living in a school in the Christian village of Safra, north of Beirut, where he has taken refuge with his family.
Ayoub said his only encounter with a Hizbullah fighter was when he was trapped for two days along with 20 others in a kitchen when the building was bombed.
“The fighter called to us that he had brought food and water, and left the supplies under a tree. He told us to come and get it, then left, but we were stuck,” said Ayoub.
Ghorayeb conceded there was “no way to be sure” that Hizbullah were not operating in and around villages. “But from sound reasoning, would they operate that openly? There are too many collaborators [with Israel].”
Awali said Hizbullah had altered its strategy from the 1982-2000 fight against Israel in the South.
“Their strategy is completely different from the last occupation. They would bring the rockets to a position and fire it from there, but this is not the story at all now. They have their own bases in the valleys and not in the villages,” he said. “This also explains how they are able to keep firing rockets at Israel.”
Hizbullah adamantly denies that it uses civilian areas to launch rockets and store heavy weapons.
“Military experts have said Katuysha rockets cannot be fired from buildings, it should be done from an open field,” said Ibrahim Moussawi, political spokesman for the Hizbullah-backed TV channel Al Manar. “The Israelis have also not given us any evidence of hitting arms caches. There would be sizeable explosions if they did.”
However, in the battle for the southern town of Bint Jbeil, Israeli Defence Force Captain Doron Spielman claimed residents were “trapped” inside the town by Hizbullah fighters, BBC News Online reported.
“Hezbollah blockaded the city before the battle began, and we now know at gunpoint forced the Lebanese residents to stay inside the city,” Spielman said.
Saad-Ghorayeb said the claim was “ridiculous,” as Hizbullah would not alienate members of its support base and logically would not need to threaten residents to stay in Bint Jbeil.
“How could villagers leave anyway? Vehicles could not leave the area and there is a curfew, why would they need to be held at gunpoint?”
The greatest condemnation of Israel’s military tactics have centred around the bombing on July 30 of a four-story residential building in the southern town of Qana that killed 28 civilians, mainly women and children.
Reporters at the scene said they had not seen any Hizbullah fighters in the area at the time, none of the bodies recovered from the rubble were those of militants, and rescue workers had found no weapons in the building that was targeted.
In a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on the attack, the group said, “Israel has not presented any evidence to show that Hezbollah was present in or around the building that was struck at the time of the attack.”
Kenneth Roth, HRW’s executive director, has blamed Israel for targeting civilians in Lebanon. “The pattern of attacks shows the Israeli military’s disturbing disregard for the lives of Lebanese civilians. Our research shows that Israel’s claim that Hezbollah fighters are hiding among civilians does not explain, let along justify, Israel’s indiscriminate warfare…In the many cases of civilian deaths examined by HRW, the location of Hezbollah troops and arms had nothing to do with the deaths because there was no Hezbollah around.”
However, with journalists, NGOs and independent observers not able to access villages in the south due to the conflict, and both sides providing disinformation, there is no definite proof Hizbullah has not resorted to using ‘human shields.’
Former General Hoteit’s claim, on the other hand, needs to be further investigated by the international community.