Recent talk of a new international force to police a proposed buffer zone in South Lebanon prompted a flurry of media reports purporting to explain Israel’s reluctance to have the mission overseen by the United Nations. The coverage was accurate in portraying Israeli officialdom as mistrustful of the world body, but it failed completely to objectively describe the history behind the bad blood. As bad luck would have it, the Jewish state helped put things in perspective on Tuesday when its air force destroyed a UN observation post in the South Lebanon village of Khiam, killing four peacekeepers in the process.
Tuesday’s attack was just the latest in a long line of incidents that have poisoned relations between Israel and the UN since the very beginning of their relationship. And Western media coverage of the incident has mimicked the misleading versions they provided of previous troubles, consistently insinuating that the UN has largely been to blame. A fitting example was Wednesday night’s broadcast of “Insight” on CNN International. Host Jonathan Mann discussed the Khiam attack with Jonathan Paris, an academic from Oxford University who for some inexplicable reason was treated as an “expert” on the subject.
The host and the “expert” demonstrated their ignorance from the start, repeatedly describing the peacekeepers killed more than 24 hours earlier as having been assigned to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which was created in 1978 after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in March of that year. In actual fact, the four officers were members of Observer Group-Lebanon, a force set up way back in 1948 to monitor the armistice that ended the first Arab-Israeli war.
The embarrassment got even worse for Paris when Mann noted that this was not the first time there had been problems between Israel and the UN. The “expert” traced the troubled relationship back to 1967, when a UN envoy proposed the first “land for peace” plan. Paris explained that the Israeli government of the day saw this as an attempt to “impose” a solution. In actual fact, the first UN envoy to draw Israel’s ire was Count Folke Bernadotte, and that was long before 1967. Despite having been asked to refrain from declaring independence until UN mediators could convince neighboring Arab countries to accept the 1947 partition plan (that really was an imposed solution), Zionist leaders went ahead and did so in May 1948. Ill-prepared Arab armies attacked, and the Israelis took full advantage by using their better-equipped forces to occupy far more land than the partition envisioned. When it looked like Bernadotte might be able to mediate a peace treaty, he was assassinated by the Stern Gang in an attack approved by none other than future Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. The murder was particularly egregious because during World War II, Bernadotte had been instrumental in saving thousands of Jews from the Nazis. Understandably, successive generations of UN personnel have accordingly been less than trusting of Israeli intentions.
Paris also mentioned the massacre of more than 100 civilians seeking refuge at a UNIFIL position in Qana during Israel’s “Grapes of Wrath” offensive in 1996, but his description was again fatally flawed by bias and/or ignorance. First he claimed that that the attack was partially due to “an incident in North Lebanon,” a theory upon which his failure to expound was fortunate because it has no basis in fact. Then he added that there had been a number of suicide bombings in Israel at the time, and the country was in the midst of an election campaign, putting the government under pressure to prove its mettle. On their own, these assertions are true. But Paris failed conspicuously to mention that the bombings in question had been conducted by Hamas, a Palestinian group. In actual fact, “Grapes of Wrath” happened because Hizbullah responded to the killing of a Lebanese teenager by an Israeli bomb with a salvo of rockets into northern Israel. The Jewish state then launched “Grapes of Wrath,” with many observers speculating that it had simply been waiting for a pretext.
CNN’s performance in terms of objectivity in reporting the facts of the current conflict has improved markedly over the past few days, but it began in such an ignominiously subterranean manner that it had nowhere to go but up. Wednesday’s episode of “Insight” shows how easy it is for even a seemingly well-meaning sort like Mann to enable the spreading of misinformation by relying on an “expert” who either isn’t very well informed or knowingly lies (on this occasion, the former seemed more likely).
The crux of the problem is that the Jewish state resents the United Nations because it has failed to accept repeated humiliations - and worse - with sufficient obsequiousness. In the Israeli view, international organizations should follow the example of the United States, which has frequently betrayed both the safety and the reputation of its own military and diplomatic personnel by meekly accepting Israeli atrocities and provocations.
The crux of the problem is that the Jewish state resents the United Nations because it has failed to accept repeated humiliations - and worse - with sufficient obsequiousness. In the Israeli view, international organizations should follow the example of the United States, which has frequently betrayed both the safety and the reputation of its own military and diplomatic personnel by meekly accepting Israeli atrocities and provocations. The US government forced the US Navy to help cover up the nature of Israel’s deliberate 1967 attack on the USS Liberty, which killed dozens of American servicemen, and to deny proper decorations to victims and survivors alike. There was no outcry from the US government when Israeli armored units bullied lightly armed US Marines who were part of an international stabilization force sent to Lebanon in 1982. Even when Israeli warplanes repeatedly endangered the safety of State Department envoy Philip Habib by buzzing his helicopter in the same year, even when Israeli commanders invited Palestinian shelling of his quarters by firing their own guns from next-door, there was no real cost to the Jewish state for having bit the hand that fed it.
Members of other international agencies have faced similar acts of intimidation from Israeli forces. A typical example is the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH), established in 1994. TIPH came into being as a result of a massacre at a Hebron mosque by settler Baruch Goldstein, an American-born physician. After Goldstein gunned down 29 worshippers before being overpowered and beaten to death, Palestinian negotiators broke off peace talks until international observers were sent to the city. Israeli contempt for the resultant TIPH mission can be gauged by a popular play on the acronym, “Two Idiots Patrolling Hebron.” Similarly, officials from the International Committee for the Red Cross have been bitterly criticized for complaining that various Israeli actions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip violate international humanitarian law. Such charges typically prompt a mix of smearing Red Cross representatives as “anti-Semites” and arguments that the Jewish state is not bound by the Geneva Conventions’ protections for civilians because it never signed them.
It is likely that some UN personnel have been derelict in their duties vis-a-vis the conflict in South Lebanon. Given the context, however, it should not surprise that some peacekeepers are loathe to help the Israeli military: They have seen and experienced firsthand a consistent pattern of wrongdoing by that same force. They have watched it wipe out civilians by the hundreds; they have watched it endanger and even kill their own comrades, starting with the heroic and quintessentially honorable Bernadotte; they have watched it refuse to hand over maps of minefields left behind when it withdrew from most of South Lebanon in 2000; in short, they have watched it make barren the very ground in which seeds of good will might have been planted.
Now that ground has been stained with the blood of four innocent men who repeatedly warned the Israelis that their bombs and shells were landing perilously close to a long-established UN monitoring post. The gutless government currently in power in Canada seems not to care that one of its military officers assigned to Observer Group-Lebanon has been the victim of Israeli fire, but the governments of Austria, China and Finland are taking their losses very seriously - as is the United Nations, an organization that created Israel in the first place and has had good reason to regret it ever since.
Marc J. Sirois is managing editor of The Daily Star, where this article was originally published.