Lies, Damned Lies and Footage

Posted By July 6, 2006 No Comments

The April 2006 newsletter offered a quote from the British writer Terry Pratchett:

A lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on.

More evidence of this proposition has been coming in during recent months from both Hamas and Hizbollah.

One of the more disturbing – or cynical – characteristics of Islamic Fundamentalists is the insistence that everyone who dies for the cause is a ‘Shaheed’ or martyr. However, they have long made a leap to the conclusion that someone who becomes a Shaheed doesn’t need to have volunteered for the honor. The status of a martyr being so attractive – or, more accurately, having been marketed as being such a spiritual privilege – it was natural that all who fell in combat were so described. Then, to avoid criticism from, other Palestinians when the Israelis dropped a smart bomb through the roof of a terrorist’s hideout and killed the women and children he was hiding behind, why, they became Shaheed too.

Perhaps the most cynical use of this honor arouse out of the suicide bomber campaign when the suicidal or the mentally challenged where pressed into service; but Hamas and the Palestinian Authority could get even lower than this. – murdering their own as a symbol for a media event, and then depicting the dead as Shaheed because they were now victims of the Israelis. Doing this is perfectly acceptable, of course, because the dead are now blessed martyrs to the cause, and they must surely appreciate that status. How could anyone possibly have wanted to live instead?

Bosnian Markets and Mortar Attacks

To be perfectly fair, the Palestinians might not have been the first to arrive at this point: It seems to have been the Bosnian Muslims. There were plenty of atrocities in the civil wars that attended the break-up of Yugoslavia and cruelty was in abundance – particularly from the Serbs and later the Croats. The Bosnian Muslims, however, were in a tight spot, having only a fraction of the heavy weaponry that the Serbs (and later the Croats) possessed, and one of the few assets they did own was the World’s sympathy. They played to it.

On May 27th, 1992, a ‘mortar’ attack occurred in the Bosnian Muslim-controlled Vase Maskina market in Sarajevo; killing 16 people who were lined up for bread. The television footage was gory indeed, and led to wide dismay and calls (not least from the Bosnians) for an outside intervention in the war. However, UN troops (including Canadians) in Sarajevo weren’t so sure the attack was either committed by the Serbs or was done with mortars. The evidence seemed to suggest a command detonated bomb and not a mortar attack and the investigating officers concluded that the Bosnian government had staged the atrocity in a bid for enough sympathy to trigger a NATO intervention. [1] Sure enough, new restrictions were soon placed on the rump of Yugoslavia.

The attack seems tailored for television – shocked wounded civilians sitting in pools of blood are a powerful visual. But very few journalists are capable of doing bomb damage assessments, or telling the difference between a mortar bomb crater and one that results from a bomb placed inside a steel container. The UN troops were also not going to endanger their mission by publicly sharing their assessment of the situation. So, inevitably, the tactic would be repeated.

On February 5th, 1994, what was alleged to be a single 120mm Serbian mortar bomb exploded in another Sarajevo market with spectacular accuracy, killing 68 people and wounding 200 more. Again, the press was allowed in to view a scene of appalling carnage – but UNPROFOR personnel weren’t allowed at the scene. There are, however, a number of suspicions about the attack and many UN personnel believe the mortar bomb may have been fired by the Bosnian government forces. Again, the press contains few people who can look at a crater and deduce the approximate direction from which the projectile arrived.

The third time a Saravejo market got hit proved to be the charm and NATO air-strikes against Serbian artillery positions were unleashed after 37 people were killed and 80 injured by another mortar strike on 28th August 1995. Some of the UN officers (including Russians who were admittedly more partial towards the Serbs than the British and French investigators) were artillery experts and concluded that the Serbian mortars could not have hit this target. [2] Still, the damage was done.

Outside observers, including many Canadians, noticed that the Bosnians were not above positioning attractive targets close to UN facilities or taking potshots at UN troops and hoping that the Serbs would get blamed for it.

Questionable Palestinian Conduct

It seems to have been the Palestinians who took the lessons of Sarajevo market bombings to new heights. When the press has short attention spans, is already partly biased, has no ability or interest in reconstructing incidents, and is willing to be closely shepherded, then one can do as they will with them. It is hard to be a neutral observer on the West Bank. (The author was able to do this, having a very professional Palestinian driver-translator, but saw a few reporters accompanied by very attentive ‘minders’ and watched some of the Palestinian Authority PR types and much of the international press corps hanging about in the same bar).

Under such circumstances, much can be attempted. Over the decade, there have been plenty of questionable incidents by Israeli police and military when on the West Bank, but nothing that has been graphically captured on film. Indeed, it is the Israelis who often have better footage of Palestinian outrages – including film from the day two Israeli Reservists were literally torn to pieces by a Palestinian mob. While there was much international sympathy for the Palestinians, like the Bosnians it appears they decided to ‘over-egg the pudding’.

 [insert photo 1]

Remains of Israeli reservists torn apart by a Palestinian Mob – October 12th, 2000.

Mohammed el Dorra was a 12 year-old boy who had been out on the streets of Netzarim Junction in Gaza when Israeli troops engaged in a 45 minute gunfight with Palestinian snipers two days after Arafat unleashed the second Intifada on September 28th, 2000. Television footage carried graphic shots of the terrified boy and his father sheltering behind a concrete barrier as Israeli and Palestinian bullets flicked down the street in front of them. One can also see bullets striking the wall around them (a fact that considerably assisted in dissecting what actually happened later). Mohammed was hit four times and died, his father survived.

[insert photo 2]

The dramatic footage flashed around the world and provided instant strong sympathy for the Palestinians. However, there were some anomalies. When the incident was reconstructed it turns out that Mohammed was probably deliberately shot by Palestinian gunmen as the Israelis (who have shot children from time to time) were not situated in a position to have actually hit either – but some Palestinian gunmen certainly were. [3] By that time, however, the damage had been done.

The Palestinians – Palestinian Authorities and Hamas alike – have since demonstrated a long history of posing for the cameras. Ambulances have obligingly turned up to retrieve non-existent casualties, and there is the famous ‘Walking Corpse’ from one of the fabricated funerals for the supposed massacre victims of Jenin. Once after the Israelis accidentally shelled a hospital in Bethlehem, Palestinians disinterred bodies from a nearby cemetery, smuggled them into the site in ambulances and scattered them in the rubble. Add in hundreds of dramatic photographs of Palestinians bravely throwing rocks and firing Kalashnikovs in their best imitations of Rambo at absent enemies (conducive to letting bullet whistle all over the neighborhood a’la Crip ‘Gangstah’), and the cynical “Pallywood” nickname from once-deceived journalists for PA news services becomes understandable.

The saga continues. On June 9th 2006, seven Palestinian Arabs were killed on a beach on Gaza. Naturally, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority’s propaganda organs blamed the Israelis – even to the extent of knitting together footage of the dead and wounded from the event with spliced footage from coverage of the Israeli Navy. The next story was that Israeli artillery was responsible for the deaths. Hamas had secured the scene of the deaths and injuries but, contrary to usual practice when Israeli bombs or shells are involved, didn’t brandish bomb fragments for the cameras. However, some of the wounded were evacuated to Israeli hospitals and the fragments pulled out from them suggest that a booby trap/mine of non-Israeli manufacture was responsible. The film footage of the site, to military eyes, shows no evidence of gunfire or an artillery shell.

The Israeli Defence Force is a modern military: They keep logbooks and mission reports for aircraft, logs and diaries for artillery batteries, and they chart out the minefields they lay (after all, you might have to dig them up some day). Military staff investigates incidents in order to avoid mistakes in future. Guerrillas don’t bother with these formalities. One can guess what probably happened in Gaza – Israeli warships appeared offshore; Hamas guerrillas believed this meant a landing was likely, larded the nearby beach with mines, didn’t bother to mark the site, and a family intent on a day at the beach got shredded. Ooops. Okay, blame Israel, everyone will buy that and the people we killed by accident become Shaheed, so that’s okay too.

On to Lebanon

Over the past 24 years, Hizbollah has clung to every traditional advantage of the guerrilla: Every cellar could be an arms dump, every rooftop or back yard could be used to launch rockets, and every ‘non-combatant’ (which in a circumstance like this means everyone who isn’t a healthy male of fighting edge) can be used as a human shield. Hizbollah also learned to seldom waste a body, or an occasion for a public funeral for the latest Shaheed. Israeli counter-fire, particularly under these circumstances, has given the guerrillas plenty of bodies of women and children.

Hizbollah might have learned the human shield tactic from the PLO when Arafat was running his state within a state in Lebanon from 1971-1982. Hospital roofs made excellent launching platforms for multiple rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns and mortar baseplates; just as sports stadiums made excellent ammunition dumps. Not that these measures stopped the Israelis from firing back in their 1982 invasion, they just had to be much more careful in returning fire.

In the past couple of decades, Hizbollah has learned to hug UN posts; to provide ‘minders’ for photojournalists and cameramen – letting them film only what Hizbollah wants them to see. They also appear to have learned the worth of fabricating the occasional incident.

The recent tragedy in Qana where a building collapsed as a result of an aircraft bomb caused much censure. The initial report was that 28 people, 16 of whom were children, were killed – yet 57 bodies were pulled from the wreckage. The IDF has even admitted that the bomb was theirs, as they had struck the building (having observed a salvo of rockets being launched from its immediate vicinity). However, the IDF says that they hit the building at 4:00 AM and the explosion seems to have occurred much later… bit of a mystery here, no? The results of close proximity to high explosive are horrific. Yet some of the bodies pulled from the wreckage seem surprisingly intact but in a curiously advanced state of decay. One wonders if Hizbollah has adopted the old practice of salting a bomb site with extra corpses.

Again, few reporters know much about bomb damage assessment, and even for those who do, there is no guarantee that their editors at home know anything at all. Recent footage of an evacuation from Tyre provides a case in point: The Israelis agreed to let noncombatants leave in carefully marked vehicles without being molested by aircraft or artillery. Sure enough, as the convoy set out, an explosion occurred near its head… obviously, Israel reneged! Except that anybody who ever worked as a forward observer can tell the difference between the explosion caused by a mortar shell and that caused by an aerial bomb or artillery shell. The explosion was not from a 155mm shell or an aerial bomb and no Israeli troops were in mortar range. So, just who fired the bomb?

But, as has long been noticed, a lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on. It is too much to expect the modern consumer of news to be conversant with modern weaponry and the effects these can have; but it is not too much to ask them to question everything that they see. Just because it is on television, it doesn’t mean that it is real.