Israelis See One Side of War

As Lebanese civilian casualties mount, media coverage may change

A GULF-war-style media campaign by the Israeli military in its offensive against Hizbullah guerrillas in Lebanon has provided Prime Minister Shimon Peres with a much-needed image makeover before May 29 elections here.

But the Israeli public - largely supportive of Israel's nine-day campaign to force a Hizbullah cease-fire - is beginning to question the increasing number of Lebanese civilian casualties.

Yesterday, Israeli forces attacked the headquarters of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), killing about 70 Lebanese refugees and wounding more than 120 others, a UN spokesman said. Earlier, Israeli planes rocketed a house near Nabatiyeh, killing 11 people including a woman, her four-day-old daughter, and six other children.

Just prior to the Israeli attacks, Hizbullah guerrillas had launched rockets at Israel from about 400 yards away from the UN headquarters, a UN spokesman said.

Israel's deputy defense minister, Ori Orr, said details were sketchy, but said, "if innocent people were killed, we are very sorry, and it is a very grave error."

Like American coverage of the Gulf war, the omnipresent coverage here of Israel's military offensive on the two main state-owned television channels has juxtaposed military target maps with video replays of Israeli planes and artillery precision in hitting their targets.

"This is the Gulf war, plus five years of technology," says Alon Liel, a senior aide in Peres's office. "The combination of unbelievable intelligence and pinpoint high-tech accuracy has enabled the Israeli military to destroy one floor of a 10-story building and then it is backed up with a film showing the hit."

The media have stressed that the artillery fire and bombing is not directed at Lebanese civilians and that they have been repeatedly warned to leave the south.

But Israeli viewers have seen little coverage of the hundreds of thousands of fleeing Lebanese civilians.

Amnon Barkai, a producer at Israel's Channel 1 television - one of the two state-owned channels - says the network had received agency coverage of the attack on Nabatiyeh and would be using it in its news broadcast last night.

But Mr. Barkai's channel did not use graphic coverage shown internationally last week of Israeli planes rocketing an ambulance carrying women and children in southern Lebanon.

Just like 'Desert Storm'

"We didn't show it because we don't put such awful things on television in Israel," Barkai says. But the station frequently shows gruesome details of Israeli victims of Islamic suicide bombings.

Many here are comparing the Israeli media blitz to US coverage of Operation Desert Storm. Some commentators have even dubbed the military-media campaign "Weisskopf" - a play on the commander of Gulf war forces, US Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf - and the gray hair, weiss (white) and schwarz (black), of Israeli Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Air Force Chief Herzl.

According to military and media analysts, Israel has never seen such a high-powered military effort to give the public a blow-by-blow account of the daily bombardment of Lebanese villages and Hizbullah targets.

Daily television coverage shows Israeli soldiers, sometimes bleary-eyed and exhausted, pounding southern Lebanese villages with heavy artillery.

These images are interspersed with a confident Peres, wearing military garb and flanked by generals, addressing press conferences or visiting the front.

The largely uncritical television coverage is more or less matched by radio and populist newspapers like Yediot Ahranot.

The daily Haaretz has been more critical in its coverage, raising the problems that lie ahead if a diplomatic solution is not soon achieved. It even suggested in a front-page commentary yesterday that Syria - which has the ability to rein in the Hizbullah - was winning points by remaining silent.

Good campaign footage

Although the Israeli media has had little commentary linking the offensive to the building of Peres's pre-election image as "Mr. Security," some Israeli newspapers have played back foreign coverage that makes the connection.

"The Israeli offensive is playing very well for Peres ... this has reinforced his image as an experienced statesman who can be fully trusted with the country's security," says Jerusalem Report editor Hirsh Goodman.

"The war has been fought as much according to how it will be perceived by the Israeli public as how it will affect the Hizbullah," Mr. Goodman says. "But ... Peres has also done all the right things from a military point of view.

Israel's media blitz might start running into difficulties soon.

"What I see is an increasingly desperate effort by the Israeli military and media to show they are making progress against the Hizbullah when, in fact, there is very little real progress," says Martin van Creveld, a military historian at Hebrew University .

"I have no doubt that Peres's immediate objective ... is to win the elections, but he has to emerge with some kind of diplomatic achievement," Mr. van Creveld adds.

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