Lebanon, the media, and personal risk

THE deaths of a two-man CBS news camera crew by shellfire from an Israeli tank on the outskirts of Kfar Milki, Lebanon, on March 22 is a sad event made sadder by the acrimonious finger-pointing which has followed in its wake. On the basis of evidence far from conclusive, CBS news virtually accused the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) of intentionally killing the two men, an allegation later retracted.

The initial IDF response did not even bother to express condolences for the two professional journalists killed in the process of doing their jobs, let alone offer a satisfactory explanation for the occurrence.

Israeli President Chaim Herzog, in a rare lapse of good judgment, seemed to dismiss the incident as one of those hazards that come with the game, like getting conked on the head with a golf ball.

And Ze'ev Chafets, whose propagandistic book, ``Double Vision,'' accuses the Western media of a pro-Arab bias, has been running from audience to audience wailing that it is unfair for CBS to demand higher standards of behavior from Israel than from Syria or the PLO.

To understand why the incident is so disturbing to foreign journalists here, a brief review of the facts and surrounding circumstances is in order.

According to IDF officers, the tank in question was occupying a commanding, slightly elevated position above a road running between Kfar Milki and Humein Tachta, one of the towns raided by the IDF that morning. Its mission was to prevent escape on foot or by vehicle from the target area.

The CBS car, clearly marked ``press,'' had traveled from Beirut, but was not in an area currently under Israeli occupation and was thus defying no Israeli ban. It had stopped near a car previously raked by machine-gun fire to film the damaged vehicle.

IDF officers told me on the night of the incident that the tank was between one and 1.5 kilometers from the CBS team when the shell was fired. Journalist eyewitnesses have put the distance at 500 meters.

The IDF says the camera crew was amid armed men ready to fire. Journalist eyewitnesses say no armed individuals were in the immediate vicinity.

The IDF indicates all procedures designed to protect innocent civilians were strictly observed. Journalist eyewitnesses claim anyone in the tank with a pair of field glasses could readily have identified the civilian press entourage.

It strains credulity to suggest that the tank crew commanding the strategic high ground could have considered itself in very much danger. To the best of my knowledge, Israel has yet to lose its first tank in nearly three years of operations in Lebanon, including battles with Syrian-operated T-72s early in the war.

Moreover, the raids on Shiite guerrilla concentrations, exploiting intelligence, surveillance, and surprise, have proven low-risk operations for Israeli troops. In a raid the previous week, for example, the IDF killed 34 Shiites without suffering a single casualty. In the March 22 operations, at least 21 Shiites were killed with one IDF soldier slightly wounded.

The gnawing question then is not whether the IDF tank stalked and murdered a CBS camera crew. Rather it is whether those responsible executed their self-asserted right to interdict anything moving along the road in a manner either disdainful of the fact that noncombatant journalists were in the target area or so indifferent to the human consequences of their action as to make not even a cursory effort to ascertain the identity of the individuals at which they were shooting. That question begs something more than the IDF's haughty demurrer.

Strange defenses have been offered for the incident, but none stranger than the fact that an Israeli television team (with an IDF escort) was also fired upon the same day, or even that several IDF soldiers have been killed in similar ``accidents.'' To me this suggests either that the troops involved are following safety procedures less scrupulously than is claimed or that the procedures themselves may be badly in need of reevaluation. It also makes one wonder how many innocent Shiite civilians have earned the IDF epitaph ``terrorist'' simply by having been killed.

The incident occurred at a moment when relations between the IDF and the Israel-based foreign press corps are strained. Having personally traveled into Lebanon on at least 15 occasions since my posting here last July, three recent incidents come to mind.

On March 4, the morning a bomb at the Maarake Mosque killed 12, a sizable convoy of journalists was being escorted through Tyre when we heard the commotion of a large gathering outside the city's main hospital. We were not permitted to make the 200 meter detour needed to cover part of the biggest story of the day -- the agony of friends and relatives of blast victims -- our hosts claiming their decision was for our own safety.

One week later, I entered Lebanon accompanied by three ABC news colleagues, all guests of UNIFIL. We hired our own taxi in Tyre and were driven to the Shiite villages of Bidias and Maarake. Between those stops, we were halted at gunpoint at an IDF checkpoint and detained for 40 minutes while our ``hosts'' demanded surrender of our cassette tapes. The legal gobbledygook aside, one soldier made plain IDF's interest in the matter when he said, ``Why should we let you show Americans pictures of poor oppressed Shiite villagers?'' After intervention by UNIFIL and calls to the IDF spokesman's office in Tel Aviv, we and our cassettes were released intact.

Two days later, we were at IDF headquarters in Tyre when word came that a patrol near the A-kasnyiya bridge, two kilometers to the north, had been ambushed -- two soldiers killed. Hours later we were still not permitted near the bridge, again for our own ``safety.''

All these problems have occurred during the trying period of the Phase 1 and 2 Lebanon withdrawals. They reflect the increased danger to Israeli troops and the tension they are under, as well as their sensitivity to reports describing the devastating punishment inflicted on Shiite villages cooperating with the guerrillas. By now hatred of the Israeli presence is so intense throughout south Lebanon that the occupiers themselves feel under seige.

Unfortunately, this is part of the story which must be told before the last chapter in Israel's Lebanon campaign is written. And tell it we will despite the dangers, the dissembling, and the impediments -- both natural and artificial. While telling it, from the civilized and decent men at whose mercy we must occassionally work, we have the right to expect not only that they will refrain from intentionally inflicting harm upon us, but also from acting in so wanton and reckless a fashion as to blur the lines between accident, negligence, and intent.

C. Robert Zelnick is the ABC News chief correspondent in Tel Aviv.

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