Robert Fisk: Once again, truth is the first casualty of war

The exchange rate for Lebanese vs Israeli deaths now stands at 10 to one

The Independent

Published: 22 July 2006

As many lies are now falling upon Lebanon as bombs. The explosions are easy to count – three on the southern suburbs of Beirut yesterday morning and many on the main highway to Syria, destroying more of the great viaduct at Mdeirej along with three passengers buses which were returning to Lebanon after carrying foreigners to Damascus. The lies were less obvious but just as powerful.

The first whopper came from Ehud Olmert. Hours after UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had asked for a ceasefire and appealed for "corridors" to allow the movement of humanitarian aid to civilians, the Israeli prime minister said he would allow just such a "humanitarian corridor" – between Cyprus and Lebanon. And that, of course, made the morning headlines. But there already is free sea passage between Cyprus and Beirut, What Mr Annan was asking for were "corridors" between Beirut and the heavily bombed villages of southern Lebanon – and only hours later, the Israeli army demanded the removal of all civilians within 20 miles of the Israeli border, an act regarded by the Lebanese as 'ethnic cleansing' but one of which Mr Olmert of course made no mention.

The Israelis were then reported to be planning the dispatch of a large ground force up to the Litani river in southern Lebanon, an offensive which would - if it were true – cost the Israelis heavy casualties and would anyway not prevent the Hizbollah from further long range missile attacks on Israeli territory. The generals in Israel's Northern Command were captains and majors during Israel's disastrous 1982 invasion and occupation of Lebanon and know the insanity of such an idea.

Then we had John Bolton, Washington's ambassador to the United Nations telling another lie. In order to avoid a ceasefire – an avoidance which will inevitably kill more civilians - and avoid a Security Council vote, he asked how a "democratically elected state" could have a ceasefire with a "gang of terrorists". It was impossible he said. Most Lebanese cabinet ministers – and at least one western reporter I can think of – regard Mr Bolton as a bit cracked. Either that or he is completely ignorant of Middle East history.

For in 1980, after Palestinian Katyushas were fired across the border, Israel – presumably Mr Bolton's "democratically elected state" - entered upon a ceasefire with Yassir Arafat's PLO guerrillas whom Israel certainly regarded as a "gang of terrorists". The truce was negotiated by Lieutenant General Bill Callaghan, the Irish commander of the United Nations force in southern Lebanon and guaranteed by the UN. The ceasefire was broken two years later by Israel when it bombarded the PLO because it claimed Arafat had ordered an attack on Israel's ambassador in London, Shlomo Argov. The Israelis were wrong; it was Arafat's ferocious critic Saddam Hussein who gave the order in the hope that Israel would falsely accuse Arafat of the crime and invade Lebanon. The Israelis obliged.

Yet still the lies continued yesterday. Reporters were busy yesterday saying that Israel was ready to lift its "naval blockade" on Lebanon for those 'humanitarian' supplies. But this is rubbish. Naval vessels evacuating foreigners from Lebanon have cravenly sought Israel's permission to do so – no-one has forgotten the 'accidental' Israeli air attack on the USS Liberty in 1967 – but in fact the Israelis withdrew all their warships from Lebanese waters after the Hizbollah struck a gunboat with an Iranian-made missile a week ago.

Although the Israelis failed to reveal this – and journalists allowed the story to die – it has now emerged that the Israeli naval vessel almost sank in the Mediterranean after the missile started fires in the engine room and killed four Israeli sailors. The conflagration burned for more than 15 hours as the crew desperately tried to save their ship.

Another lie – a smaller one this time – has crept into the narrative of how this latest dirty war in Lebanon began. On July 12th, Hizbollah members crossed into Israel, killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two others. Hours later, an Israeli tank crossed the border into Lebanon and blew up on a mine, killing its four-man crew. But now reports out of Jerusalem, and picked up by foreign governments, routinely speak of the Hizbollah attack which "killed nine soldiers". By conflating the two separate incidents, the Hizbollah's original assault, which was illegal, ruthless and deadly enough, more than doubles in savagery.

Again, we are still being told by Mr Olmert that there will be no prisoners swapped for Israel's two captured soldiers. But if this is true, why have the Israelis contacted the German security services who have negotiated every prisoner swap between Hizbollah and the Israelis for the past 20 years? It was the Germans, for example, who negotiated the swap of the remains of 123 mostly Hizbollah members and 45 prisoners from the notorious Khiam prison in southern Lebanon in return for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Rachamim Alsheikh and Jossi Fink, in July, 1996.

Oddly, although the names of the two Israelis held captive in Lebanon are now known, no interest has been shown in the names of the three principal Lebanese prisoners whose release has been demanded by Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader. The Hizbollah lie is that these men are hostages who were held only for their pro-Hizbollah sympathies. Untrue. The most important prisoner – for Nasrallah, that is – is Samir Kantar from the village of Abey in southern Lebanon. The Israelis convicted him for attacking the Israeli town of Nahariya in 1979, killing three Israelis, and sentenced him to a highly creative 542 years in prison. But in 1979, the Hizbollah did not exist.

Yahyia Skaff was captured by the Israelis in March, 1978, after an attack on the Israeli coast with Palestinian guerrillas which cost 35 Israeli lives and provoked Israel's 1978 invasion of Lebanon, another Israeli military disaster intended to "root out terrorism" in Lebanon. Reports said that Skaff was killed in the incident – but prisoners released from Israeli jails insisted they had met him in captivity. Again, Hizbollah did not exist in 1978. Nasim Nisr, a Lebanese-born Israeli wasimprisoned for having contact with the Hizbollah, although Nasrallah has not been advertising the fact that he is demanding the freedom of an Israeli citizen.

Equally, the Hizbollah have been inventing Israeli casualty figures –they claimed seven Israeli soldiers were killed on the border in the past three days when the real figure is four, and that they have destroyed four Israeli tanks. In fact, they have destroyed just one. The exchange rate for Lebanese versus Israeli deaths now stands at just over ten Lebanese for every Israeli. At least 327 Lebanese have been killed by Israel, including a handful of Hizbollah men, two of them yesterday; 34 Israelis have been killed by Hizbollah, including 19 soldiers and sailors. So what chance of a ceasefire? During Israel's 1996 bombardment of Lebanon, an Israeli spokesman referred to the Hizbollah as a "cancerous growth" inside Lebanon. A ceasefire began just over a week later. Israel's UN ambassador, Dan Gillerman referred on Thursday to the Hizbollah as a "cancerous growth" inside Lebanon. Plus ça change?