The story is now coming out that the media coverage, especially on TV, did a real hatchet job on Israel's counteractions against the PLO infrastructure in Lebanon. There is much to tell. I say this on the basis of a recent visit to south Lebanon which I spent at the ex-PLO stronghold of Nabatiya, Sidon, as well as having visited several villages and the captured fortress of Beaufort. I have also sharply questioned Israeli officials, in addition to speaking in Hebrew and getting reactions from a random sample of Israelis-in-the-street.
The following points of information should interest the objective observer:
Israel has tried to separate the PLO problems from Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, albeit with mixed results and with some tragic errors which the media and ideological anti-Zionists have been quick to magnify. This effort, together with confronting the Syrians, has made its strategy complicated and its casualties high.
Israeli pilots were ordered not to strike at churches and mosques, even though the interiors of such were more than occasionally taken over by the PLO and used as training quarters, etc. In cases where bombing a legitimate target might damage a mosque, Israeli pilots radioed back and returned to base without completing their mission.
There are any number of tragic instances, as witnessed by returning comrades, where Israeli soldiers died in ambush, or when they let their guard down, because they were in a ''civilian'' area and wanted to avoid harming civilians. The PLO has no such compunctions. I went to the Shabb hospital in Sidon, which had been taken by the Israelis after they learned that the PLO ran in, chased the patients from their beds, and hid there. However, the Western media showed images of Israeli soldiers, bombed hospitals, and sick people walking in a daze. The conclusion that the TV viewer, Jew or Gentile, gets in the United States and Europe is that the Israelis are barbarians indulging in an orgy of overkill.
Ironically, many Lebanese know the true stories without having watched American TV. Their information is more solidly based on many years of the PLO's mafia-like intimidation, rape, and confiscation. Even today, the PLO has used Lebanese and Palestinian hostages, including children, in their showdown with Israel in west Beirut. And because the Lebanese know what too many sanctimonious Western TV viewers do not know and too many biased media people do not want to know, they have largely welcomed Israel's battle against the PLO in the sense of relief, freedom, and opportunity it portends.
Nabatiya, once a town of 50,000, was down to about 5,000 because of the PLO's takeover. Today it is bustling with over 70,000 people, I was told, with lots of food and goods for sale in the markets, while arching the main streets are strings of paper flags with the cedar of Lebanon between red stripes, the symbol of a Christian and free Lebanon. The roads to Nabatiya and to other towns and villages are clogged with Lebanese pickup trucks and mini-buses from Beirut and elsewhere. These are filled with bedding and clothing, as families return to build their homes now that the PLO, as people say with a smile, ''is finished.''
Item: the Palestinian Red Crescent released gargantuan casualty figures to German and international Red Cross agencies. Both later denied the veracity of these figures, but meantime the public relations damage was done, as the figures were widely disseminated and attributed to the well-regarded Red Cross.
Item: there are two traffic circles in a short section in Sidon where much recent destruction was done to adjacent buildings by Israeli forces. The rest of the city - while messy and grimy and of course with examples of previously destroyed buildings going back to Lebanon's various internecine wars - is mostly intact. Nonetheless, when Westerners think of Sidon today, they think only of that limited strip of destruction, which they assume typifies the entire city. The reason is that the media have sought out that single area time and again and have neglected the rest.
The Western media have rarely shown pictures of Israeli ambulances, relief trucks, people from Sidon swimming on the beach, and the life of people returning to normal. After all, TV crews, besides their frequent fixations that Israel is the aggressor, that the Lebanese Christians are ''rightists,'' and that the PLO are ''freedom fighters,'' want a good, hot, sensational war story. Stories and footage of low casualty counts, of life returning to normal, with smiling mothers instead of weeping mothers, won't sell.
For example, recently on French TV in one piece of footage a Lebanese is describing the horrors of war but adds that Israel's action was welcome and helped to free Lebanon. But shown again on prime time TV in France, the horrors of war part was kept, but the man's comment on Israel was removed.
The negative public perceptions implanted by too many reckless ideological Western media people are hard to undo, but the effort must be made.