Lebanon: the (censored) price of war

By , Trudy Rubin is a free-lance writer on the Middle East.

During the first week of Israel's invasion of Lebanon there was astonishingly little mention of Lebanese civilian casualties by either American media or the US government.

Television lenses focused on clashing airplanes and rolling Israeli tanks. Columnists talked of Israel dictating the ''restructuring of Lebanon'' minus the Palestine Liberation Organization. Except for the anguished on-camera plaint of Lebanon's United Nations Ambassador Ghassan Tueni about ''thousands'' of Lebanese civilian casualties, an average American might have thought that the Israelis were targeting neatly defined enclaves of armed Palestinian guerrillas.

Not until June 10 -- the fifth day of the invasion - did TV finally show, in ABC correspondent Hilary Brown's shocking report from the devastated Lebanese port city of Sidon, that in destroying PLO infrastructure the Israelis had ''destroyed in the process the infrastructure of all civilian life in cities where the PLO was based.''

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If graphic scenes of civilian carnage and bomb-leveled Lebanese cities had immediately reached Americans, public opinion almost certainly would have questioned the extent of Israel's attack and pressure mounted on the US administration to press for Israeli withdrawal. Back in July 1981 Israeli bombing of PLO headquarters in a crowded Beirut neighborhood, causing an estimated 100-300 civilian casualties and portrayed in grisly news coverage, sparked an uproar in the US and created shock waves inside Israel.

During the past week this same neighborhood was bombed repeatedly, as were many other Beirut neighborhoods, in addition to devastating bombing and shelling of Sidon, Tyre, Nabatieh, and other towns and Palestinian refugee camps. According to unofficial estimates this left thousands of civilian casualties. US State Department officials say that more than 10,000 civilians may have been killed or injured in Beirut alone. In Sidon, the Lebanese Red Cross said at least a thousand people were killed and 3,000 wounded, a figure disputed by Israeli officials. In southern Lebanon, 600,000 people have been made homeless by military activities, according to Francesco Noseda, an official of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Why have the media told so little of the civilian story? The answer - Israeli censorship and the nature of the war. Israel totally dominated the fighting and swiftly moved into control of most of south Lebanon up to Beirut's outskirts. The Israelis have refused journalists access to populated areas conquered in the invasion. One small group selected and escorted by Israeli soldiers did visit Tyre and reported the town to be a bombed-out shell. (Large numbers of civilians ordered by Israeli loudspeaker to gather on the town beach before Israel commenced shelling were left for two days and nights without food, water, or shelter, according to a report by UN personnel in Lebanon.)

When Israel invaded south Lebanon in 1978, a much more limited operation, foreign journalists were allowed to travel relatively freely in south Lebanon by the Israelis (who remained there four months). At that time, journalists from Beirut were able to move freely on the roads south. The scenes of devastation and fleeing refugees contributed to the Carter administration's decision to press for Israeli withdrawal. This time roads north to Beirut were blocked to refugees and press alike by Israeli troops and heavy fighting.

News coverage in 1978 also had an impact inside Israel. Israeli television initially gave no coverage to the Lebanese civilian toll, but Israelis could watch Western news footage on newscasts from neighboring Jordan. This created a public debate within Israel which increased intensely once Israel TV finally portrayed the Lebanese civilian tragedy.

Israel claims it did all it could to avoid civilian casualties. But it censors the facts needed to assess this question. When queried on the issue, Israeli Ambassador to the US Moshe Arens refers to past murderous shelling of Lebanese Christian enclaves by the Syrians and to thousands killed in the Lebanese civil war.

This is all true but it begs the question. Israel's stated goal was to create a 25-mile deep buffer zone in south Lebanon free of PLO bases so as to protect its northern towns from the threat of lethal PLO shelling (silenced over the previous 11 months by a US-arranged cease-fire). Yet Sidon and Beirut, north of that zone, were bombed and shelled with immense accompanying civilian suffering. Beirut airport was shelled continuously, making impossible the airlift of desperately needed relief supplies. These attacks fit Israeli Gen. Ariel Sharon's larger plan to wipe out PLO infrastructure and to try to reshape Lebanese politics devoid of PLO and Syrian influence.

The prospects of resurrecting the shattered central Lebanese government have heretofore appeared so dismal that some concerned parties, including US officials, are ready to grasp at any dramatic change in Lebanon's circumstances, even one imposed militarily by Israel. But the citizens of Lebanon have paid a terrible price in the service of Israel's needs -- whatever the eventual political outcome -- just as they did in the service of PLO and Syrian goals. Had this price been publicized rather than censored during this past week of fighting it would at least have put Israel's dramatic sweep into perspective.

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