Today, the NY Times published what was essentially an unexpurgated series of IDF intelligence reports claiming Hezbollah had taken over a southern Lebanese town and turned it into a fortress bristling with fortifications. The story, written by Isabel Kershner, features photos and descriptions of intelligence data received directly from the army intelligence unit, AMAN.
At no point in the story does Kershner offer any skepticism about the substance of the material or its origins. Nor does she entertain any thoughts about the ultimate purpose of releasing the material to her. As I read the story, the biggest nagging question was: how did she vet this before publication? Did she get someone to visit the village to confirm details? Did she ask a military analyst or consultant to authenticate the documents proffered her? In response to a tweet to bureau chief, Jodi Rudoren, she says she thinks this happened but doesn’t know the details.
The only indication in the report that these issues may’ve been considered is a statement that none of the information “could be independently verified.” You’re damn straight they couldn’t be verified. But how hard did you try?
There is an interview conducted by the Times’ Lebanon correspondent Anne Barnard with a figure representing Hezbollah. He refuses to address the specifics of the intelligence information and only affirms the Islamist movement’s determination to protect Lebanese sovereignty from Israeli attack.
I tweeted these questions to Jodi Rudoren, the paper’s Israel bureau chief, and she replied that since it was not her story I should contact Kershner directly. Given that she’s Kershner’s boss, I found the response odd.
UPDATE: I sent a series of questions via e mail to Kershner using the address Rudoren gave me. Here was my e mail:
Given that it’s not often AMAN offers journalists a Powerpoint presentation with secret documents confirming alleged Hezbollah military activity, I wonder what you did to confirm their authenticity.
Did you attempt to have a Lebanese source visit the village? Or take any other steps to examine things on the ground than having Anne Barnard contact a Hezbollah representative? Did you engage a consultant or intelligence analyst to examine the photographs & other documentation to confirm their origin and authenticity? If so, why isn’t that noted in the article? If not, why not?
What exactly is the IDF claiming the pictures displayed represented?
How did AMAN approach you with this information? Did you approach them? Were any other media outlets approached? What conditions or limitations were placed upon you in exchange for giving the documents to you?
Why didn’t you connect this article to Yaalon’s speech last week (see below) in which he promised mass annihilation against Lebanese civilians and launched a pre-emptive strike against war crimes charges that would result? “Avoiding international censure” as you wrote, is one thing. But pre-empting war crimes charges is quite stronger language and precisely what the IDF is doing.
That message bounced. Rudoren gave me the correct address, before I could send it, Rudoren decided there would no further comment:
I saw the email, and I think we’re going to let the story speak for itself. attack as you wish. Jodi Rudoren
I responded by reminding her she’d asked me to contact Kershner. In the meantime, she’d changed her mind and closed off any response. Seemed unfair. Here’s her reply:
Yes, well, in the passage of time and upon seeing your Tweets and questions, that’s where we are.
I’ll make sure Isabel sees your email tomorrow, and if we change our minds will let you know,
She followed this tweet with another in which she explained she would not address my questions because:
Imagine that, a NY Times bureau chief unnerved by skeptical, challenging questions. It makes you wonder what the standards are at the Times for getting the job. Ethan Bronner, her predecessor, was another one who displayed his thin-skinned nature when he moaned about the leftists who were so unfair to him. Excuse me, but I was under the impression that journalists both asked and answered tough, even uncomfortable questions. I guess not in the Times Israel bureau.
We should also remember that Kershner’s husband is former Jerusalem Post IDF correspondent Hirsh Goodman. He is a researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank deeply connected to the Israeli military and intelligence apparatus.
I should make clear that I’m not taking any position on the accuracy of the report or the IDF documents. Instead, I’m most disturbed by the process used in putting this story together. The IDF and Israeli intelligence in general is well-known for putting forth false or fraudulent claims. Any Israeli journalist who is half-way honest knows this and would freely concede it. It is incumbent on any self-respecting journalist to authenticate such data before accepting it at face value. I don’t see any indication from the story itself that any of this was done.
Another critical aspect of this story you won’t find mentioned by Kershner is that Hezbollah is a Lebanese resistance movement whose goal, at least concerning Israel, is to defend the nation’s sovereignty. Yes, we can argue about its involvement in Syria diverging from this agenda, but aside from a few skirmishes Hezbollah is not fighting Israel in the Syrian Golan. Not to mention, that the IDF is complaining about Hezbollah fortifying a Lebanese village from attack by Israel. In other words, Hezbollah’s purpose is to defend Lebanese territory. How it does this is not something Israel has a right to complain about.
As a reader noted in a comment below, Kershner quotes the AMAN source saying:
” ‘The civilians are living in a military compound,’ a senior Israeli military official said at military headquarters in Tel Aviv.”
IDF headquarters is located in the Kirya, the heart of Tel Aviv. It is surrounded by residential and office towers and a commercial district. In other words, he was speaking from a “military compound” in the heart of civilian Tel Aviv. If the IDF was truly concerned about its own civilians’ welfare, it would move the headquarters out of Tel Aviv. As the reader wrote, the IDF operates in an “irony-free zone.”
In the article itself, the IDF sources make crystal clear that their military strategy features an invasion of Lebanon. In other words, the Israeli army is conceding that it intends to violate Lebanese sovereignty. Yet on the other hand it denies Lebanese the right to defend against such an invasion. The army also makes clear Israel’s intent to kill civilians, as it has in numerous invasions and occupation over the decades. The difference this time around is that the IDF is warning beforehand that it intends to do this. It is telling the world that we will do to Lebanon what we did to Gaza. There will be no mercy. No punches pulled. It will unleash the full fury of its arsenal. Civilians will be treated no different than combatants.
In the midst of the massive civilian death toll it will trot out Kershner’s stenography and say: See, we told you so. We warned you that Hezbollah was using civilians as human shields. We warned you in no less a venue than the NY Times that we would have no choice but to decimate the militants along with the civilians. Now, you have no right to complain that we did precisely what we told you we would do.
The reporter quotes her intelligence source making yet another mendacious claim about the history of guerrilla warfare:
“Historically, armed forces have separated themselves from the population, in uniform,” the senior Israeli military official said. “This is not the case here or in Gaza.” He accused Hezbollah of cynically using civilians.
This is not only utterly false in general historical terms (remember the 250,000 dead in Leningrad or the two Warsaw Ghetto uprisings?), it’s false in terms of Israel’s own history. The Palmach and other Jewish resistance groups made extensive use of civilian infrastructure, including synagogues, to hide weapons caches. Military forces use whatever advantage they can muster which benefit their strategic position. If the IDF was in the position of Hezbollah it would do nothing different. In such a case, no one could argue Israel didn’t have the right to do so as long as it was defending its territory from invasion, as Hezbollah is doing.
Let’s also not forget the only way to stop this mayhem on both sides is for Israel to agree to return to 1967 borders, return the Golan and Shebaa Farms and any prisoners it holds, in return for peace and recognition from the Syrians and Lebanese. Anything short of this is utter failure.
Nor is this the only time recently such claims have been made. Just this past week, Asa Winstanley reported defense minister Bogie Yaalon’s truculent speech to the Israeli lawfare NGO, Shurat HaDin, in which he offered precisely the same argument: Hezbollah and Hamas hide among children, so don’t blame us for those we killed last summer or those we’ll kill the next time around–whether it be Gaza or Lebanon. Curiously, in his speech he offered no evidence to support his claims that residential homes were turned into rocket launching platforms with families still living inside them. Kershner’s story answers that question.
Further, Yaalon made another strange aside in answering an audience question. He implied that in certain strategic circumstances in which the IDF “did not have the answer through surgical operations” against an enemy (presumably Iran), it might use WMD (around 18:00). Though he added “we’re not there yet.” Lunatics like Sheldon Adelson, John Hagee, and even Benny Morris, have advocated nuking Iran, but I’ve never before heard this officially discussed by such a senior Israeli figure. It indicates another red-line has been crossed; and that this government is by far the most reckless and dangerous in Israeli history.
The general purpose of this hasbara offensive seems to be a pre-emptive strike in world media which seeks to permit Israel to set the agenda around questions of culpability for war crimes in the past or future. Israeli generals seem to believe that if they put out an aggressive defense that this will dent the initiative of the ICC and other human rights forces when their time comes to accuse Israel. Needless to say, this is a fraudulent enterprise.
There is no provision in international law allowing a state to justify deliberately killing civilians if they are in the vicinity of military personnel. Even if IDF claims are true (and I do not concede they are), there is no exemption saying militants who deliberately hide themselves within a civilian population may be attacked along with these civilians.
Haaretz published an interview with the ICC’s chief prosecutor in which she emphasized the importance of both Israeli and Palestinian sources cooperating with her investigation in providing evidence. She also warned that she might bring cases against officers from the highest to the lowest ranks in order to make her case:
Fatou Bensouda, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, told Haaretz that if she decides to open an investigation of war crimes committed in the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli soldiers of low- and middle-rank potentially could be investigated for the purpose of “bringing stronger cases against those most responsible.”
My first reaction when I read Asa’s report was, Yaalon ought to buy a condo in the Hague because he will be spending a great deal of time there. But he won’t be alone. He’ll have the company of all the IDF senior command and his prime minister as well.
I note that the ICC often fails in its prosecutions. Take the example of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. By refusing to cooperate, he stared down the Court and won. No doubt, Israel will do the same. It may win too. But just seeing these murderers (and a few Palestinians will be among them too) in the dock facing justice will suffice, as the seder song says.
This would be one of the best ways to bring the Israeli public to its senses; since those in the world who can act to stop Israel, refuse to do so. Right now, Israel believes it can act with impunity. That no one will intervene on behalf of civilians Israel kills in its ceaseless attacks against frontline states. Someone finally must stand up and say: enough. Either it will be the UN recognizing Palestine, or half the world putting Israel in BDS quarantine, or hauling a few prime ministers and generals before the ICC. Drastic measures must be taken or the message will never get through.
In the meantime, expect thousands more dead in a certain upcoming war between Israel and Hezbollah.