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The Winograd Report v. The New York Times

Howard Friel

The government-appointed Winograd Commission in Israel was charged with investigating how Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his top officials made the decision to attack Lebanon on July 12, 2006, in response to an armed incursion earlier that day by Hezbollah, which killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two others. The five-person commission of inquiry, chaired by Eliyahu Winograd, a retired judge, harshly criticized Olmert for his decision to respond with "an immediate, intensive military strike."

The Hezbollah raid into northern Israel on July 12 occurred in Israel at approximately 9 a.m. (2 a.m. in New York). Later in the day on July 12, and into the morning of July 13, Israeli news organizations and the Associated Press reported the following actions by Israel:

· "IDF responded to the [Hezbollah] attacks from Lebanon with heavy artillery and tank fire"; "Israeli Air Force jets struck roads, bridges and Hezbollah guerrilla positions in southern Lebanon." (Ha'aretz, July 12, 2006) · "Israeli warplanes pounded more than 30 targets in southern Lebanon and Israeli leaders promised Lebanon a painful response for the capture of the soldiers." (Associated Press, July 12, 2006) · "The Israeli Air Force on Wednesday night [July 12] struck at least 40 targets in different places across Lebanon, including bridges and infrastructure along the Litani and Wazzani rivers." (Yediot Ahronot, July 13, 2006) · "[Israeli] Air Force Gen. Amir Eshel said the [bombing] campaign was likely Israel's largest ever in Lebanon 'if you measure it in number of targets hit in one night, the complexity of the strikes.' " (Associated Press, July 13, 2006)

In response to these events, Hezbollah fired its first missiles into Israel, as reported by Ha'aretz: "The [Hezbollah] rocket fire began in the early morning hours of Thursday [July 13], after Israel Air Force jets struck targets across Lebanon following cross-border attacks by Hezbollah." (Ha'aretz, July 13, 2006)

The Winograd Commission rebuked Israel's top leaders for reacting to the Hezbollah raid with immediate armed reprisals: "The [Israeli] decision to respond with an immediate, intensive military strike was not based on a detailed, comprehensive and authorized military plan, based on careful study of the complex characteristics of the Lebanon arena."

The Commission then criticized the Israeli government for not knowing or anticipating that Hezbollah would respond to Israel's military reprisals with missiles fired on northern Israel: "A meticulous examination of these characteristics would have revealed the following: the ability to achieve military gains having significant political-international weight was limited; an Israeli military strike would inevitably lead to missiles fired at the Israeli civilian north; there was no other effective military response to such missile attacks than an extensive and prolonged ground operation to capture the areas from which the missiles were fired."

About Olmert's decision to attack Lebanon within hours of the Hezbollah raid, the commission wrote:

The Prime Minister made up his mind hastily, despite the fact that no detailed military plan was submitted to him and without asking for one.... In addition, he did not adequately consider political and professional reservations presented to him before the fateful decisions of July 12.

About Israel's defense minister, Amir Peretz, who also hastily agreed to use force, the commission concluded:

The Minister of Defense did not have knowledge or experience in military, political or governmental matters. He also did not have good knowledge of the basic principles of using military force to achieve political goals. Despite these serious gaps, he made his decisions during this period without systematic consultations with experienced political and professional experts, including outside the security establishment.

About the chief of staff at the time, Dan Halutz, Israel's top military commander, the commission decided:

The army and the COS [chief of staff] were not prepared for the event of the abduction despite recurring alerts. When the abduction happened, he responded impulsively.

These accounts of events on July 12, 2006, conflict with what the New York Times published on July 13, and thereafter, about the start of the Lebanon war. For example, a July 13 editorial in the Times situated both the Hezbollah raid and Hezbollah's missiles fired into Israel as occurring before Israel's airstrikes in Lebanon:

Kidnapping Israeli soldiers to use as bargaining chips for the release of Arab prisoners is horrible behavior for groups that claim international recognition and political legitimacy, as Hamas and Hezbollah do. The same applies to lobbing rockets over Israel's borders in the hope that they might kill unsuspecting civilians. In response to such unacceptable provocations, Israeli forces are now engaged in major military operations in Gaza, to the south, and in Lebanon, to the north.

While the Hezbollah raid into northern Israel was reckless and deplorable, and while the Israeli soldiers who were attacked had a right to defend themselves, the raid did not threaten Israel's survival, and did not constitute an "armed attack" under international law, when, in Daniel Webster's widely accepted formulation, "the necessity for action" is "instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation." The Winograd Commission's criticism of Israel's leadership is grounded precisely in the fact that Israel had another "choice of means" to respond to the Hezbollah incursion, with time for "deliberation" about such means. Thus, Israel's decision to resort to force on July 12 (only hours after the Hezbollah raid) violated the cardinal rule of international law-the UN Charter's prohibition against the use of force (the exception being a response to an "armed attack"). Israel's numerous airstrikes against Lebanon, then, were not "justifiable," as the Times' July 13 editorial also claimed.

Furthermore, due to the time difference between Israel and New York, reports that Israel had responded to the Hezbollah raid with artillery and tank fire, and that its air force had struck roads and bridges in Lebanon, were posted on the Ha'aretz web site at 4:28 p.m. in Israel-that is, 9:28 a.m. in New York on July 12. The report from the Associated Press that Israeli war planes had hit at least 30 targets in southern Lebanon was also available in New York on July 12. Yet, the Times' editorial page not only supported Israel's illegal military reprisals against Lebanon as "justifiable," it misidentified a key sequence of events by reporting on July 13 that Hezbollah's missile attacks on Israel came before Israel's airstrikes in Lebanon.

Also on July 13, a press release from Amnesty International condemned the attacks against civilians by both Hezbollah and Israel as "a blatant breach of international humanitarian law and amount to war crimes." It also stated: "Israel must put an end to attacks against civilian infrastructure in Lebanon, which constitute collective punishment." In contrast, on July 15, the Times editorial page suggested that Israel's bombing of Lebanon was "legally and morally justified."

In addition, the Times' July 13 editorial, while critical of the Hezbollah raid, neglected to mention the Israeli bombing of a house in Gaza on July 12-the very same day as the Hezbollah raid-that killed nine members of a Palestinian family, including seven children, and wounded another thirty-seven Palestinians, three critically. While the Hezbollah raid was reported on the front page with a four-column headline, the Times reported the story of the massacred Palestinian family at the bottom of page 14.

Despite Israel's illegal bombardment of Lebanon that killed over a thousand Lebanese civilians, including massacres at Marwaheen, Qana, and Srifa in southern Lebanon, and while appropriately condemning Hezbollah's missile attacks on civilian targets in Israel, the Times published no editorials that were critical of Israel's military operations throughout the 34-day campaign in Lebanon.

Finally, in its editorial on May 2, 2007, the day after the release of the Winograd Commission report, the Times' editorial page repeated the false claim that Israel's airstrikes in Lebanon were initiated after Hezbollah fired its missiles into Israel: "Initially, Israelis applauded Mr. Olmert's decision to conduct sustained airstrikes in Lebanon. They saw it as a firm and justified response to provocative cross-border Hezbollah raids and rocket attacks." By repeating this claim, and finessing praise for the Winograd report while still declining to criticize Israel for its Lebanon campaign, the Times' editorial page continued to misrepresent an important fact about the Lebanon war. The Times thus neglected to convey the key point of that report-that Israel initiated deadly and destructive airstrikes against Lebanon "hastily" and "impulsively" in response to the Hezbollah raid without consideration of diplomatic options.

Howard Friel is coauthor with Richard Falk of Israel-Palestine on Record: How The New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East (Verso, June 1), and with Falk of The Record of the Paper: How The New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy (Verso, 2004).

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