Thursday, July 12, 2007

Mostly, a divine victory for disinformation

Mostly, a divine victory for disinformation
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, July 12, 2007

It says something that one year after the summer 2006 war, we're not sure whether to celebrate Hizbullah's "divine victory" or bemoan Israel's destruction of our country and its economy. That disconnect reflects the larger disconnect between Hizbullah and the rest of Lebanese society. But then the war was such a fount of falsehoods that its conflicting interpretations are not surprising. Two of the more enduring myths from last year merit revisiting, as well as a more recent addition.

The first myth was that of Lebanese unanimity in the face of Israel. Soon after the war began, a spectacular bit of disinformation surfaced when the Beirut Center for Research published a poll that allegedly showed overwhelming support for "the Resistance" - shorthand for Hizbullah. The head of the center is Abdo Saad, and his daughter, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, summarized the poll's results in an interview with the American radio and television program Democracy Now:

"Basically, 87 percent of all Lebanese support Hezbollah's resistance against Israel today. And that includes 80 percent of all Christian respondents, 80 percent of all Druze respondents, and 89 percent of all Sunnis. And this, of course, is non-Shiite groups, so those which have supported the March 14 pro-American - the March 14, sorry, alliance, which is seen as being pro-American, pro-French, anti-Syrian."

These numbers were truly remarkable; so remarkable indeed that rare were the foreign media outlets that did not, early in the war, diligently cite them. Unfortunately, rare, too, were the correspondents who could read Arabic and the question the Beirut Center for Research had put to its respondents. It was a simple one, to the point: "Do you support the Resistance's opposition to the Israeli aggression against Lebanon?"

More loaded a question would have required a firearms license, its answer obvious in advance, particularly when Lebanon was being bombed. Naturally, most of those asked said they approved opposing Israel, but what those preparing the poll got across, intentionally or unintentionally, was that this could be read as support for Hizbullah per se. The jump was unjustified, but it was one many journalists, who missed the artfulness of the question, happened to make. Under the circumstances, it was astonishing that 13 percent of people said they did not support resisting Israel.

Ironically, the person most responsible for discrediting the poll's results was Hizbullah's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. In an interview with Al-Jazeera a week after the war began, he declared, rather chillingly: "If we succeed in achieving the victory ... we will never forget all those who supported us at this stage ... As for those who sinned against us ... those who made mistakes, those who let us down and those who conspired against us ... this will be left for a day to settle accounts. We might be tolerant with them, and we might not.''

If Nasrallah had retribution on his mind only days after the start of the conflict, this hardly squared with an 87 percent approval rating for Hizbullah among the Lebanese public.

By the same token, the language of unity against Israel was equally insincere in the mouths of members of the parliamentary majority - the "pro-American" March 14 alliance, to borrow from Saad-Ghorayeb's verbal slip. While no one could deny there was humanitarian solidarity at the local level between Lebanese, one that transcended politics, the majority's fear was that Hizbullah would either win the war or lose it so badly that it would turn its anger against the interior once the fighting had ended.

There never was any unanimity behind Hizbullah. This seems so obvious today in the shadow of the current political crisis, that we forget how risky and controversial it was to say such a thing in the midst of the fighting, when no voice was entitled to rise above the voice of battle.

A second myth, peddled most forcefully by American journalist Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, but whose implications were picked up by many critics of the Siniora government, was that the Lebanese war was a practice run for a US military campaign against Iran's nuclear facilities. This appraisal served several purposes, most importantly that it situated the Lebanese conflict in the context of a larger American and Israeli plot to change power relations in the region. There was some truth there: once the war kicked off, Washington saw a golden opportunity to weaken Hizbullah, and by extension Iran and Syria. However, there was little evidence then, or today, to indicate that Israel had launched a pre-planned attack.

If anything, Israeli press reports soon after the war, but also the first release of the Winograd commission's findings, emphasized that Israel's government was guilty of a confused response that seemed to belie a pre-planned attack. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert accused his military of not having provided him with adequate contingency plans, and the military accused the prime minister of failing to provide political guidance. In light of this, it is increasingly difficult to interpret Israeli actions as part of a systematic military project directed against Iran, prepared in close collaboration with Washington.

Even during the fighting it seemed apparent to those inside Lebanon that the Israelis didn't know very well what they were doing. Their air force seemed to be engaged in a mindless, brutal, persistent process of devastation, but with no specific or clear political aims underlining it.

Nasrallah, again, helped discredit this particular myth, if only by affirming its general tropes and then stepping back and contradicting himself. The secretary general first injected determinism into the Israeli attack by affirming that Hizbullah, by kidnapping Israeli soldiers, had pre-empted an Israeli assault planned for October 2006. Yet this jarred with his statement made on New TV in late August, when he admitted: "We did not think, even with one percent likelihood, that the capture would lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude. You ask me, had I known on July 11 ... that the operation would lead to such a war, would I have done it? I would say 'no, absolutely not.'"

If the war was coming anyway and Hizbullah did well to pre-empt the Israelis, then why did Nasrallah need to apologize for capturing the Israeli soldiers? And if the war was part of a US-Israeli conspiracy to eliminate Hizbullah and prepare for the bombing of Iran, then surely Nasrallah should have guessed that the violence would reach the magnitude it did.

One might add a third myth, this one recent and more a topic of divination than a case of mendacity. It is the statement that because Israel cannot accept defeat in Lebanon, it is bound to attack the country again in the future. The Lebanese war was not one that Israel's generals will soon forget. However, such a statement is disturbing not only because it suggests that war is inevitable, though one can be avoided if border issues are managed through negotiations; but also because it gives Hizbullah an excuse to retain its weaponry. Will Israel attack Lebanon again or won't it? Who knows; but the chances of that happening are likely to increase if South Lebanon is again turned into an armed redoubt by Hizbullah.

However, we won't need to worry if Israel does decide to resume the killing. The polls will be there to show that almost 90 percent of Lebanese are on Hizbullah's side. It will be just divine.

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