By Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts
When the Israelis bombed Lebanon, trying to neutralize the Hezbollah guerrillas, one of their first targets was a complex of towers that transmitted television and cell phone signals.
“It’s important to understand why the attack was carried out,” explained Capt. Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman. “This will disrupt their ability to communicate.” Cell phones, he added, were a “key communication link” for Hezbollah.
The Israeli assault vividly demonstrates how modern communications have made the battle against terrorism immeasurably more difficult. Cell phones are easy to hide and hard to trace. They are as important to Hezbollah’s military success as any grenade or land mine.
But there was another, largely unspoken reason for Israel’s focus on the transmission towers. Propaganda is also a critical weapon on the Lebanese battlefield, and Israel wanted to limit the images of civilian casualties rocketing around the world. One way of doing that: destroy Al-Manar, Hezbollah’s TV station, which has been banned in the United States and Europe as an agent of terrorism.
Israel has made plenty of mistakes. Rockets have misfired. Pilots have attacked the wrong targets, including two ambulances. But let’s be clear: the main blame for civilian deaths in Lebanon rests squarely with Hezbollah.
The guerrillas have deliberately hidden their weapons and command posts right in the middle of occupied areas, and for a very cynical reason: they want the Israelis to kill civilians. They know that images of grieving widows and orphaned children will only generate sympathy for their cause and animosity toward Israel.
Jan Egeland, the United Nations’ emergency relief coordinator – and no friend of Israel – condemned the Hezbollah strategy as “cowardly.” Speaking to reporters in Cyprus he said: “I heard they were proud because they lost very few fighters and that it was the civilians bearing the brunt of this. I don’t think anyone should be proud of having many more women and children dead than armed men.”
But if Hezbollah was following a “cowardly” course, they still left Israel with a dismal choice: allow the guerrillas to operate unimpeded, or attack their strongholds, knowing that civilian deaths would result. That’s why Israeli planes flooded southern Lebanon with leaflets, urging civilians to flee the area. And that’s why they bombed the TV towers, hoping to minimize the propaganda damage.
But Israel is learning what the United States has already learned – at great cost – in Iraq. In this hard-wired world, there is no way to control the images of devastation caused by military campaigns. There are too many cell phones, too many digital cameras, too many satellites and laptops and Blackberries. Destroying a TV tower is a futile, 20th century gesture in a 21st century world.
Al-Manar’s terrestrial signal was briefly disrupted, but satellite service stayed on the air. As Nizar Hamzeh, an expert on Hezbollah, told the Toronto Star: “They were obviously well-prepared for this war and had alternative plans to keep broadcasting.”
Hezbollah’s approach presents responsible journalists with a devilish problem. They cannot and should not sanitize the impact of Israeli attacks, but particularly on television, putting those images of suffering in any perspective is almost impossible.
Reporters can repeat a long litany of incontrovertible facts: that Hezbollah ignited the latest conflict; that they deliberately use civilians as shields; that they are violating a clear U.N. resolution calling for their disarmament; that their rockets are threatening Israeli cities.
And still: the power of pictures overwhelms those words. Explanations and excuses get drowned out. And that’s exactly how the guerrillas planned it.
In the right hands, new technologies have an enormous potential for good. The ability of tyrannical governments to control their people and keep them ignorant of the outside world has been severely undermined.
In China, courageous Webmasters risk arrest and prosecution to break the information chokehold of government censors. During Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, students used the Internet to mobilize protests against fraudulent elections.
Even in North Korea, dissidents use smuggled cell phones and Chinese transmission towers to contact journalists in South Korea. The New York Times reports that these dissidents evade detection by making “calls from their private garden plots in the hills, burying the cell phones in the ground after each call.”
In Lebanon, however, technology is fueling the forces of chaos and disorder. There is no obvious solution, but journalists have to keep unmasking the “cowardly” tactics of Hezbollah and keep explaining to their viewers that the horrifying pictures of civilian victims they see on their TV screens are just what the guerrillas want them to see.
Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2006, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.