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Fact Sheets: Beware of Disinformation from Lebanon

(Updated August 2006)

CNN’s Nic Robertson was taken to an area of Beirut and told that the rubble of buildings is a result of Israeli air strikes on civilian targets. The reporter repeated the allegation as fact. He had no way of knowing what was in the buildings, whether it was a rocket workshop, a hiding place for katyushas, the home of a Hizballah leader, or a command center. In fact, he didn’t even know if Israel was responsible for the destruction that he was shown. Later, he admitted that his report had been shaped by his Hizballah minder who only let him go to certain areas and photograph what the Hizballah “press officer” would allow.

In waging their propaganda war, Israel’s enemies count on journalists to report first and research later, if at all, and CNN and other media outlets have fallen into their trap.

Israel’s adversaries learned a long time ago that they can attract publicity and sympathy by fabricating statistics and screaming “massacre.” This was the case in April 2002 when Palestinians claimed that 500 people were “massacred” in Jenin. They could not produce any evidence to support the scurrilous charge, and their own review committee reported a death toll of 56, of whom 34 were combatants. By the time the truth was reported, the story had been repeated throughout the world media and Israel’s image was tarnished.

During the last war in Lebanon, disinformation was the norm. Perhaps the most dramatic example occurred when the Washington Post published a photograph (August 2, 1982) of a baby that appeared to have lost both its arms. The UPI caption said that the seven-month-old had been severely burned when an Israeli jet accidentally hit a Christian residential area. The photo disgusted President Reagan and was one reason he subsequently called for Israel to halt its attacks. The photo and the caption, however, were inaccurate. The baby, in fact, did not lose its arms, and the burns the child suffered were the result of a PLO attack on East Beirut.

The media also reported that Israel’s operation to end the PLO threats to northern Israel resulted in 10,000 deaths and 600,000 homeless in south Lebanon. The 600,000 homeless figure originated in mid-June 1982 with the Palestine Red Crescent, headed by Yasser Arafat’s brother Fathi. Francesco Noseda of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who had originally used the bogus number, later repudiated it. By then, however, it was too late and the perception had been created that Israel was responsible for the mass killing of civilians and the creation of a humanitarian disaster.

The Lebanese Prime Minister is trying this tactic again in 2006 by claiming that Israel has perpetrated massacres and has made 500,000 people homeless. No effort is made to confirm these claims, they are simply repeated by the media, thereby reinforcing the incentive for Arab propagandists to spread disinformation. In August, he declared that Israel had perpetrated a “massacre” and killed 40 people in the town of Houla. Later, he was forced to admit that only one person had died.

In the earlier war in Lebanon, there would have been zero dead or homeless if the PLO hadn’t used south Lebanon as a base from which to menace Israel. This same point can be made today, but is being ignored by the media in its obsession with casualty figures and its desire to find evidence of Israel attacking innocents. Not a single Lebanese civilian would be in danger, however, if Hizballah was not controlling southern Lebanon and attacking Israel. This fact appears lost on most journalists covering the current conflict.

The press is also spending a great deal of time talking to Lebanese civilians and their relatives in the United States and highlighting the difficult conditions they are enduring. This is no doubt the case since they are living in a war zone; however, the media has spent almost no time talking to the Israelis living under the constant threat of rocket attacks. Few reporters have gone into the bomb shelters to interview the frightened Israeli families. No one seems interested in how the relatives of Israelis in the United States feel about their loved ones being under siege.

Similarly, every report has focused on the Americans living in Lebanon while no one seems interested in the thousands of Americans living in Israel. It is terrible that tourists and students are having to be evacuated from Lebanon, but what about those same groups in Israel? What about the hundreds of students on summer tours and programs in Israel, many of whom were in the north when the violence escalated? While the complications of leaving the country may not be as severe as in Lebanon, it is still very difficult to arrange a quick exit from Israel, and many American parents are in a state of panic worrying about their children in Israel.

Wars are never easy to cover, and each side of a conflict wants to make its case through the media. A responsible press, however, does not repeat whatever it hears, it first makes every effort to insure the accuracy of its reporting. That is the standard expected of journalists covering the war between Israel and Hizballah.