Sunday, August 06, 2006

What is Hizbullah saying about the war?

In the US we're basically only being shown one side of the current Israeli war on Lebanon. Nothing new, US media and politicians have long been overtly one-sided on anything related to the Arab world for reasons explained at the start of the blog in the postings entitled Part 1: Arab-Israeli Violence 101 and Part 2: Arab-Israeli Violence 101. However, what is actually quite new in this war is the presence of both credible Arab news sources that Arab publics trust (Arab publics used to ignore their own state media reports and instead rely on things like BBC radio) such as Al-Jazeera, and in this unique war's case an "official" media organ of the Arab combatants that is actually unusually reliable. That would be Hizbullah's al-Manar television and web site.

Now, don't get me wrong, al-Manar is an official organ of Hizbullah and makes no attempt to pretend it is anything but. That said, Hizbullah knows how badly discredited official Arab state media (and Arab state structures in general) are and so part of their strategy is to only make credible statements. They want to show that they are reliable in providing information so that the Lebanese and broader Arab publics will actually trust them. This is a hallmark of Hizbullah generally, they try to set realistic goals and explanations which stand in stark contrast to the empty promises and rhetoric of the Arab regimes (including and perhaps especially those whom the US labels "moderates" such as the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Saudi governments). The classic example of this was the 1967 war where Arab publics came out bitterly disillusioned when it emerged that the reports were false which Radio Cairo and others had been airing of their troops supposedly marching on Tel Aviv when they were in reality devastated on the ground before they could even move. Hizbullah - perhaps as Baheyya puts it because they are actually a genuine grassroots movement of the Lebanese Shi'ite community and not merely a handful of elites trying to win popularity through this and that political move - in contrast I would say exaggerates no more than the Israeli and US militaries and governments do, possibly less.

They also actually like to quote from Israeli sources - almost as if to say "look, we're not making this stuff up, even our enemies admit it". Thus, if Hizbullah announces they've inflicted XYZ casualties on the Israeli army somewhere, usually what one sees in the Israeli press and military is a brief period of no response which indicates something really did happen (i.e., no formal denial) and then a little while later a report from the Israelis that the incident did occur but with a slightly smaller casualty count. Yes there are discrepancies that show Hizbullah is probably exaggerating (or perhaps just announcing the maximum possible casualty count viewed from their fighters' angle much as the US and Israel frequently do), but in reality they're exaggerating no more and possibly even less than the Israelis who keep claiming massive advances on the ground (X% of rockets destroyed, X numbers of fighters killed, etc.). In fact, Israel's attempts to exaggerate or at least their own over-estimation of gains gives Hizbullah statements that they are being honest in their admission of their own losses even more credibility among their domestic audience.

Hizbullah's television station Al-Manar actually used to be viewable from the US via satellite dish before the top Israeli propaganda group in Washington (WINEP - the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, these were the guys that the Clinton Administration basically sold US Mideast Policy to with disastrous results in the end) decided to launch a crusade against Al-Manar. A young guy by the name of Avi Jorisch (decent personally but blindly pro-Israel and anti-Arab nationalist to the point of ignoring facts he doesn't like rather than trying to properly figure out what they mean) who speaks pretty good Arabic had managed to even visit Al-Manar studios several years ago. He wrote a small book while a fellow at WINEP which they published called "Beacon of Hatred" and then successfully went about Washington trying to get Al-Manar banned as a terrorist organization. One argument he used (it's silly and false, but he successfully used it) was that al-Manar was responsible for making the Palestinian Intifada and the Iraqi resistance more violent. He inflated al-Manar's importance to the Congress and Washington crowd in order to get it banned. In reality it is essentially a small niche media organization with only a small slice of the regional media market. They are important in that niche and because they have reporters who frequently "embed" with Hizbullah fighters ala the way US and Israeli media embed with their own troops their footage is often unique and carried by other stations (plus they air the main interviews with Hizbullah leader Hasan Nasrallah which the regional and international media pick up on and rebroadcast). Now, don't get me wrong, there's some really distasteful stuff on al-Manar, some overtly racist. But to be fair, there is just as bad in Israeli and US media, some equally overtly racist just against Arabs instead of Jews that doesn't get banned. (For the record, I am staunchly against all racism towards all ethnic groups, and think all these TV stations in all these regions should be told to stop it.) However, rather than fix any of these problems, all Jorisch and WINEP's crusade accomplished was to score another partisan point while making it harder for serious analysts of the conflict to see what the other side was saying, making those trying to end the conflict that much blinder to what's really going on. But then WINEP and most of the pro-Israel and neocon organizations in the US are quite keen on seeing war continue rather than end in the erroneous belief that force rather than negotiation and genuine compromise are the solutions. In this regard, Hizbullah is remarkably moderate in comparison to Israel, having said from day one their goal is to negotiate a military-to-military exchange of prisoners and for the past decade having stuck assiduously to their agreement with Israel to only retaliate against Israel in proportion to the size of Israeli attacks. A fact which Israeli top military brass readily admit - though it was Hizbullah's very existence on their border which drove them batty enough to launch the current war regardless of any past proportionality. They didn't want *any* military organization to exist out there which could be an effective counter to them.

All this being just prelude to what I was planning to do when I started writing this: translate a few headlines from al-Manar's website so you can see the sort of language and headlines they run. The Israelis have been hacking the site during the current war so it's been spotty trying to get into it, but here's my rough and ready translation of the latest headlines on the site right now:
  • Breaking News: "The Israeli occupation announces the total number of Israeli soldiers killed since the beginning of the aggression has reached 58, in addition to 36 Israelis killed [they use a more "blank" Arabic term here but it is clear they are referring to civilians as opposed to the military count]"
  • Top headline: "13 Israeli soldiers killed and 18 others injured, 10 in critical condition in Hizbullah bombardment of northern regions."
  • Palestine/Military section top headline: "3 Israelis killed and 160 others wounded, some in critical condition, after more than 29 missiles fall on Haifa."
  • Lebanon/Military section top headline: "Confrontations continue all along the border villages, Islamic resistance fighters are giving the occupation army losses among its soldiers and military vehicles and preventing them from advancing"
  • Lebanon/Political section top headline: "President Berri: The Franco-American Resolution would sink Lebanon into domestic strife" [Berri is the secular Shi'ite head of the Lebanese parliament - he is from the Amal party/movement, not Hizbullah, but is acting as an informal go-between for Hizbullah and the outside world since western governments don't consider him tainted as a terrorist.]

So, as you can see, it's got it's jabs at the Israelis, but swap a couple labels and the headlines are remarkably similar in content to what one would find in much of the western press and certainly the mainstream Arab press. It is this very credibility which gives Hizbullah a leg up in this conflict which Israel hasn't figured out how to counter or even if it can. Indeed, the more the Israelis dismiss Hizbullah in their own rhetoric as plain old Qaeda-style terrorists (reading the Israeli media from left to right wing is quite surreal in these regards these days), while Hizbullah sounds to most of the Arab world like a very practical and realistic organization, the more Hizbullah gains support and credibility.

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