By Sharmine Narwani
You would think Rupert Murdoch had enough troubles on his hands. You might even imagine that the evidence of illegal doings hemorrhaging from his now-defunct News of the World tabloid would urge him – at least temporarily – to slam the brakes on journalistic hackery throughout his media empire.
Instead, last Friday, Murdoch’s UK flagship paper, The Times of London, published a highly implausible piece alleging that Syria has transferred Scuds to Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah – and quoting only the anonymous and increasingly ubiquitous “western sources,” “intelligence sources” and “Israeli sources” that seem to accompany all Middle East news items guaranteed to eventually be debunked by history.
This story is already dead in the water, attesting to its fundamental lack of credibility. The United Nations Security Council would be passing a resolution right about now if the article had any legs to it – especially in light of its trigger-happy readiness to churn out resolutions on Syria and Lebanon in recent years.
But the question remains – why do Murdoch and others with editorial agendas manage to get away with planting propaganda pieces disguised as news?
I have not linked to the Times article because it is behind a pay wall, but these are the highlights of the piece by Richard Beeston, Nicholas Blanford and Sheera Frenkel entitled “Assad Builds Secret “Missile City” As He Arms Hezbollah With Long-Range Scuds:”
With the help of experts from Iran and North Korea, Damascus is pressing ahead with its development of sophisticated missiles at a secret site nicknamed “missile city” built into Jebel Taqsis, a mountain near the opposition stronghold of Hama…The missile programme is allegedly run by the Scientific Studies and Research Centre in Damascus, an organisation that is already on a US sanctions list….The Times reported last year that Hezbollah had taken delivery of two advanced Scud-D surface-to-surface missiles with a range of 700km (430 miles). Since then the Syrians have handed over eight more of the ballistic weapons, which have been assembled with the help of North Korean experts…
The article then goes on to claim:
Sources close to Hezbollah told The Times that the flow of weapons entering the Bekaa Valley from Syria accelerated in March when protests erupted against the Assad regime. One Hezbollah fighter joked that the scale of the arms shipments into Lebanon was so great that “we don’t know where to put it all”. Another said it was only a contingency measure. “We can send it all back when things calm down in Syria” he said.
Sources, Sources, Sources
I can tell you with near certainty that an actual “Hezbollah fighter” would not be caught dead talking about the group’s alleged weapons with a reporter. In the course of my research, I have met at length with an array of Hezbollah officials, including their former southern chief Sheikh Nabil Kaouk. The group never provides information about their military capabilities, weapons systems, troop numbers or whereabouts unless publically stated by their officials, and that, usually, as a pre-emptive decision to further a deterrence stance.
Information about Hezbollah’s military capabilities are on a need to know basis only, and it is doubtful that even the organization’s most prominent public figures in Lebanon – the non-military faces of the group – know anything of value about weapons caches or positions, let alone a mere “fighter” or “sources close to Hezbollah.”
One of the article’s authors Nicholas Blanford – Beirut correspondent for The Times – in his well-received 2009 book Killing Mr. Lebanon doesn’t even manage to get past the first few pages without referring to Hezbollah’s legendary “veil of secrecy.”
In this, Blanford is spot on. The idea that a Hezbollah fighter – whose very life depends on the element of surprise in any battle with Israel – would reveal information about weapons to a journalist, of all people, is akin to suggesting that a veteran Navy Seal soused to the gills in a bar in Faluja would wax poetic about the “secret” location of a sophisticated new cache of American arms to a bunch of bearded strangers.
What galls most, however, is that the Times article provides not a single on-the-record source on news of this significance. I understand fully that journalists are sometimes faced with publishing pieces with no source on record – that is the nature of the information business, where many sources will not risk jobs, careers and lives to lend their names to a story. But usually the rule of thumb is to use anonymous information when it is not evidently self-serving.
To publish a piece that maligns Western foes Syria and Hezbollah using exclusively Western and Israeli diplomatic and intelligence sources cannot reasonably be viewed as much more than propaganda. The quotes by a “Hezbollah fighter” and “sources close to Hezbollah” excepted, of course. Those strain credulity for anyone with more than a passing knowledge of the highly-disciplined and tight-lipped organization.
As a consequence, the Times article reads like an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) press release, and there have been plenty of those detailing unprovable or patently false Hezbollah-weapons stories over the years.Hunting For Scuds in Lebanon – Some Background
I have been looking for weapons in Lebanon since Israeli President Shimon Peres told us in April 2010 that Syria was sending long-range Scud missiles to Hezbollah. Problem is that I can’t find them anywhere and neither can anyone else.
While Peres’ claims were reported widely in the international media, Syria rejected all charges and Hezbollah played the Israeli game of refusing to confirm or deny anything. Then came a slow but steady stream of denials from an array of international observers – albeit, quietly.
First up was UN Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) Commander General Alberto Asarta Cuevas:
“We have around 12,000 soldiers and three Lebanese army brigades in a small area. We haven’t seen a thing,” said Asarta Cuevas. “Scud missiles are big. I’m sure there are no Scuds because it is very difficult to hide them,” he added.
A NATO-nation diplomat opined in private that accusations of Hezbollah arming itself with Scuds seemed a tad opportunistic and was likely meant to inflame passions: “The use of the term ‘Scud’ is misleading. The word makes you think of Saddam Hussein 20 years ago lobbing missiles into Tel Aviv. It’s a juicy visual. This is wrong.”
Noting that Scuds are “three generations” old missile technology, the diplomat responded to my queries about whether Israel had ever served up any evidence of this alleged weapons transfer by saying point-blank:
“Nobody has seen any Scuds. There is no evidence of any Scuds. Has Israel ever shown any satellite pictures of Scuds to us? No. Has anyone ever seen a picture of a Scud being transported to Lebanon? No.”
Then, earlier this year, France’s ex-Defense Minister Herve Morin dropped an on-the-record bombshell when he questioned Israel’s Scud claims during a trip to the Jewish state:
“I asked a number of times to receive evidence to back up Israel’s claims,” said Morin, who left his post in November 2010. “They never presented proof, which raises question marks about the claims to begin with.”
This cannot be. Tel Aviv has been super-efficient in stepping up to help. They are being wonderfully open about this stuff – I have found Scud references in every single major US paper – and in Europe too. The Jewish state has even provided maps – down to the exact house – that indicate where Lebanese women-and-children-commandos have stashed these weapons. Kudos go to the IDF too for creating user-friendly video games – or, as they like to call it, “3D animated clips” – that “illustrate how Hezbollah has turned over 100 villages in South Lebanon into military bases.”
Eyes on The Ground
The 12,000-troop-strong UNIFIL assists the Lebanese Army – which has primary responsibility for law and security – in keeping the area between the Litani River and the UN-designated “Blue Line” free of unauthorized weapons. These UN forces conduct approximately 350 patrols of the area every day.
UNIFIL’s Senior Political Advisor Milos Strugar admitted to me last year: “There is no evidence of Scuds in the south,” but noted that UNIFIL “do not search private homes or properties unless there is credible evidence of a violation of UN Resolution 1701.” He refers, of course, to the UN Security Council resolution that put an end to Israel’s 2006 attack on Lebanon which killed around 1,200 Lebanese civilians – mostly women and children – and left about one million cluster bombs behind to ostensibly kill some more.
So I asked an ex-Lebanese Army General what he thought about the Israeli maps and “3-D animated” footage of Hezbollah’s top-secret arms caches marked with terribly convenient “X”s.
The General rolled his eyes when he saw my IDF print outs from Google and YouTube.
“This is a joke and it’s not a funny joke at all,” he said quite somberly. “If these maps were real, they would be very precious information – you wouldn’t publish it on the internet and television like this…the IDF would keep it for the right moment. To surprise Hezbollah and bomb them.”
Then he made a very good point. “If the IDF was serious, they should have given these maps to UNIFIL. And if they had told UNIFIL, then Ban-Ki Moon would have gone on TV and declared that Hezbollah violated the rules and we found weapons between people’s homes.”
“Look,” continued the General: “based on the 2006 war experience, Hezbollah did not place weapons among civilians – they were outside the towns and went undetected by the Israelis,” he said directing me to the Winograd Commission as he wrapped things up.
Well, you just have to Google the Winograd Commission – Israel’s own investigation into the failings of their 2006 Lebanon invasion – to see what he meant. It turns out that Israel initiated a full-scale war without amassing any decent information about its enemy, their weapons and tactics. (Helpful hint: Every time the Commission mentions “lack of preparedness” you can assume a gross deficiency in military intelligence.)
Is that why Israel was so keen to share ALL its top-secret information about its enemy with us now? To show us that they are finally “in the know?” That they are Top Dog in The Levant again?
Nobody has seen any sign of any Scuds in Lebanon – then or now – this much is clear. And except for a few incidents of weapons and explosives found in the south by UNIFIL since 2006 – most dating from before the last war – there is thus far no evidence of any unauthorized weaponry there.
Furthermore, “western diplomats” in Beirut today “remain skeptical about any movements in the absence of any evidence backing up these allegations,” giving credence to the fact that foreign nations have little actual knowledge of Hezbollah’s alleged weapons, let alone the massive transfers of hard-to-hide large weaponry ferreted out of a desperate Syria as suggested by the Times article. One diplomat notes, “it remains true that no one has seen anything, but we are unlikely to.”
The only consistent finding is a relentless narrative by Israel that Hezbollah is armed to the teeth, using civilians as “human shields,” and is on the verge of attacking the Jewish state.
Hebrew-language newspaper Maariv last summer reported that Israeli finance officials were using Hezbollah to justify exhorbitant defense budget demands. Ben Caspit wrote on July 11, 2010:
“It’s interesting how every time the military budget is on the table, they release from the stocks Hezbollah’s missile array and expose sensitive classified material.”
There are other reasons to keep these narratives going as well. Israel has to justify $3 billion in mainly military assistance from the United States at a time when the US is burdened by its biggest federal deficit in history, with no apparent way to make it up. Bogeymen are de rigeur in such circumstances.
Planting Fake Weapons Stories to Justify Carnage
I had the privilege of joining The Independent’s Lebanon-based veteran reporter Robert Fisk for lunch overlooking the Beirut seafront last summer. Fisk, who has spent more than 30 years covering conflicts in this remarkably resilient country, has stories up his sleeve that make your eyes pop.
I asked him about Scuds, weapons and why Israel would publish internet maps of Hezbollah armaments hidden among civilian populations.
“The Israelis are making excuses for the next war crimes,” he said without missing a beat. “The Scuds don’t exist, they’re not here. I’ve seen the (IDF) pictures – garbage. There’s nothing in those houses.”
Human Rights Watch’s extensive report on Israel’s 2006 attack on Lebanon entitled Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon, covers at length the Jewish state’s unproven allegations that Hezbollah stashes weapons among civilian populations – charges that Israel continues to repeat despite evidence to the contrary.
The group’s Executive Director Kenneth Roth concludes: “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 alone justify, Israel’s indiscriminate warfare…In the many cases of civilian deaths examined by Human Rights Watch, the location of Hezbollah troops and arms had nothing to do with the deaths because there was no Hezbollah around.”
Instead the Report clearly states:
“Human Rights Watch did not find evidence that the deployment of Hezbollah forces in Lebanon routinely or widely violated the laws of war, as repeatedly alleged by Israel. We did not find, for example, that Hezbollah routinely located its rockets inside or near civilian homes. Rather, we found strong evidence that Hezbollah had stored most of its rockets in bunkers and weapon storage facilities located in uninhabited fields and valleys. Similarly, while we found that Hezbollah fighters launched rockets from villages on some occasions, and may have committed shielding, a war crime, when it purposefully and repeatedly fired rockets from the vicinity of UN observer posts with the possible intent of deterring Israeli counterfire, we did not find evidence that Hezbollah otherwise fired its rockets from populated areas. The available evidence indicates that in the vast majority of cases Hezbollah fighters left populated civilian areas as soon as the fighting started and fired the majority of their rockets from pre-prepared positions in largely unpopulated valleys and fields outside villages.”
So what does all this have to do with Rupert Murdoch, other than the fact that he owns the newspaper that printed this drivel? Fisk’s prescient, recent column explains his own decision to exit The Times because Murdoch had “turned The Times into a tame, pro-Tory, pro-Israeli paper shorn of all editorial independence” that often parroted official Israeli policy.
Says Andrew Neil, former editor of the Sunday Times: “He (Murdoch) picks the editors that will take the kind of view of these things that he has and these editors know what is expected of them when the big issues come and they fall into line.”
At a time when the Middle East is reeling from destabilizing forces – for better or for worse – reporters and politicians both inside and outside the region need to check their every utterance. Murdoch’s media empire has displayed a startling disregard for journalistic integrity that has rocked the British political establishment and threatens to impact his operations across the Atlantic too.
But wiretapping members of the British royal family does not come close to agitating for conflict in a highly volatile region at a delicate moment in its history.
News-as-entertainment needs to call it a day. There are real lives at stake here.