Coverage of Israel's entirely justified strike against Hezbollah in Lebanon has emphasised the sinister way that war as reality television distorts the reality of war. Within a week or so of the start of fighting, the idea was being canvassed that this was a public relations war, and Israel was losing it. The main basis for the proposition was the depiction on TV of destruction wrought by Israeli bombs and artillery fire on villages and towns near the Lebanon-Israel border and, especially, the killing of civilians.
The deaths of 16 children in a building probably bombed by mistake (although it is also possible Hezbollah rockets had been fired from it) in Qana, 19 days into the war, was said to have put the kybosh on Israel's chances of having its cause perceived as just. Some commentators, doggedly pursuing implausible analogies between the Vietnam War - a defeat for the West and the US - and the war against Islamist aggression, compared the impact on public opinion of TV reports from Qana with the footage of Saigon's police chief drawing his pistol and shooting a cringing Vietcong prisoner dead.
Commenting on the Qana bombing on July31, the ABC's PM program reported that "the massacre appears to have united the Lebanese people and their Government in grief, anger and support for Hezbollah". Massacre? To kill indiscriminately? The violent death of one child is a tragic horror. Loaded hyperbole in news reporting on serious issues is an insult. Maybe the ABC drew on an estimate by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that set the death toll in Qana at nearly twice the actual number and included 37 children. Annan's earlier claim that Israeli soldiers had "deliberately" killed four UN employees may also have influenced ABC expectations of Israeli conduct.
Violence by the US and its allies in Vietnam predominated in TV images because network cameras had relatively easy access to it. On the other side they had none. The situation was reversed in Lebanon. Israel kept the cameras at bay so as not to help Hezbollah aim its rockets or gain encouragement from watching its hits on Fox News. Hezbollah opened its arms to correspondents filming grieving friends and relatives amid the ruins of bombed and shelled border towns.
Civilian deaths in Lebanon appear to have been at least 10 times higher than in Israel, although the Israelis made systematic leaflet drops urging evacuation of targets about to be attacked. One reason for the damage was Israel's heavier weaponry. But the principal cause of the disparity in casualties was that many Israeli civilians moved out of range of Hezbollah's indiscriminate rocket firing. Those physically impaired or without access to vehicles received public assistance to evacuate. Temporary accommodation and meals were provided for the displaced. On the other side of the border, thousands of Lebanese stayed put, some undoubtedly acting in brave defiance. Staying put was encouraged, one way or another, by Hezbollah, which needed human shields to inhibit Israeli attacks or to display to the cameras as victims of Israeli brutality. Hezbollah certainly paid rent for private premises from which to launch rockets.
Viewed as a TV program, the past six weeks' fighting has seen Israel portrayed as a rampaging villain. This grossly distorts the reality of a free and democratic society (with a fully participating Arab population of almost one million) robustly defending itself against a specific attempt to destroy it that had been in the planning for nearly six years.
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