Friday, July 28, 2006
Ancient hatreds hardening in Middle East
In the first days of fighting in the Middle East, some Arab leaders found themselves in the unusual position of criticizing an attack on Israel; suggesting that Hezbollah's kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, the event that started this latest bloodshed, was ill-conceived, risky and wrong.
At that time, the loudest complaints about Israel's actions were coming from Syria and Iran, countries that have backed Hezbollah for years.
But look at how a little more than two weeks can change things.
The Israeli military has been battling Hezbollah nonstop and hammering Lebanon. And now, Middle East watchers say public complaints about Israel's actions are growing noticeably louder throughout the Arab world. The images of Lebanese killed, wounded and fleeing; the pictures of Hezbollah neighborhoods reduced to rubble; the mere thought of Israel attacking on the soil of an Arab country -- these things have triggered many deep-seated and long-lived hatreds.
Some of the Middle East experts I have talked to say this should not be mistaken for the beginning of a massive, pro-Hezbollah movement. Many Arabs, they say, especially those who must live alongside Hezbollah in Lebanon, do not like the group's radical politics and despise its militant methods. But few Arabs say that publicly.
It was explained to me this way: Ask any Arab if he or she supports Hezbollah right now and that person is likely to say "yes," but what they mean is that they are not about to be heard supporting Israel.
Some Arabs have always hated Israel and probably always will. Some Israelis, no doubt, would be happy to be rid of many Arabs. So my question is this: Does it make any difference, with the guns of war pounding, that their hatreds may be hardening even more?
What do you hear in these sounds?
Everyone's playing a strange guessing game in northern Israel these days. There are so many explosions in the air -- blasts from Israeli 155mm artillary guns and booms from exploding Hezbollah Katyusha rockets -- we all spend our days and nights trying to guess if the weapons are going out or coming in.
Our local translator and friend Alon has lived in the town of Kiryat Shmona most of his life. He has years of practice playing the game.
"Drive with the windows down so you can listen close," he says. "Outgoing sounds like a pop and incoming sounds more like a sucking sound."
I try, but can't tell the difference. Anderson says he can, but I'm not sure I believe him.
To spend any time here is to be used to the sound. A lot of the journalists covering the conflict here are staying at a local kibbutz that's literally surrounded by artillery batteries.
When we first arrived four days ago, we'd pause mid-sentence when the guns would fire; they're so frequent today that even though the windows rattle with each bang, no one even seems to notice. We're hoping it's all outgoing.
The game gets real when you see the damage these things inflict. We were driving to scout locations yesterday when we noticed black smoke rising from a building we passed, an emergency vehicle racing towards it. We followed and found two Katyusha rockets had just struck a laundry detergent manufacturing plant. We watched as the smoke turned to fire and as that fire consumed nearly half the building. There were no casualites, but don't tell that to the company's owner; he arrived on the scene, threw up his hands and literally screamed at the flames.
We're on the Israeli side of the border, so we don't see the damage Israel's 155mm rounds dish out, but they appear no less destructive, as shown in reports from CNN correspondents in southern Lebanon. These are large, powerful, sophisticated weapons with pinpoint accuracy. You feel it in your stomach if you're standing next to one when it fires. They are weapons designed to destroy.
Yesterday, this part of northern Israel saw some of its most intense fighting. It seems today is starting the same way. The sun was rising as we finished the show and the air cracked with artillery bangs. We think all of it was outgoing, but the guessing game begins with another day.
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Hezbollah's submission remains elusive goal
So here we are: Two Wednesday's ago Israel started trying to bomb Hezbollah into submission. Of course, they don't say that's what they are doing, but words like weaken, degrade, disarm, disrupt, dismantle, take out the leaders, are all synonyms.
In two weeks, civilians on both sides have paid the price. Lebanese Internal Security Forces said 398 have been killed in Lebanon, including Hezbollah fighters; 50 people have been killed in Israel, including 19 civilians, according to the Israeli military. Today alone, Hezbollah fired 151 rockets at Israel, the highest number since this all began, and nine soldiers were killed battle, the highest number so far.
At first, Israeli leaders told us the battle was going well, that they would need a few days to finish the task. We are still told it it's going well, only now they say they'll need a few weeks.
Meantime, Israeli soldiers and officers have started dying in combat, fierce hand-to-hand combat in little villages like Maroun Al-Ras and Bint Jbeil. In an interview with an Arab newspaper, Hezbollah Chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah popped-up to mock Israel, saying Israel celebrates the capture of tiny Maroon Al-Ras as if it were the fall of Stalingrad.
Standing on the Israeli side of the border, staring at Maroon Al-Ras, Brigadier General Alon Friedman tells me he respects his enemy.
"Definitely," he says. "Hezbollah give us a good military challenge, as an army, as the enemy. They have a program, they have a concept which they are carrying out. But as I said earlier, our army has good means. We have studied this organization for a long time. We know where we are going and therefore we have the program which is succeeding."
But now into the third week of war, the Katyusha rockets keep coming, even though Brigadier General Friedman told me Hezbollah is being pushed back: "We are taking them out of their positions and this causes the fire to be less focused, less accurate. He has to move north and fires less deep into Israel, and slowly we are moving them to where we want them."
Too slowly for some here. Already, the armchair generals are questioning the wisdom of Israel's military tactics: Should there have been more air power? A wider bombing campaign? Should the ground forces have gone in sooner? Should they seize, hold, even occupy land?
Hard to tell. The only thing we do know is that when the world's top diplomats gathered in Rome today, where all eyes were on the possibility of a ceasefire, Israel was given more time to bomb Hezbollah ... into submission?
Getting personal with Katyusha rockets
We've spent the day so far along the Israel-Lebanon border. It's amazing how quickly you get used to the sounds of shelling.
A couple days ago, I couldn't tell the difference between incoming and outgoing fire. Now, it's obvious to my ear.
We came upon a Katyusha rocket that had struck along the side of the road. It had created a trench about 80 feet long that was still on fire when we got there. The rocket was half-buried in the ground.
It was a strange moment. There was no one else around. There were no fatalities. And no one was injured. I guess emergency personnel had more pressing matters to attend to.
We then went to the local police station and took a look at the bomb squad's arsenal of rockets they've recovered. Some of these Katushyas are filled with ball bearings that scatter on impact, as Dr. Sanjay Gupta reported last night. The launchers themselves are rather basic devices. I'm always amazed by the simple methods humanity has devised to kill one another.
In this border area, the mountains are literally on fire. Rockets have landed along the forested slopes and huge plumes of white smoke fill the sky.
Tonight on the program, we'll show you what these Katyushas look like up close and how Israeli authorities are trying to deal with the seemingly endless supply of them that Hezbollah has at its disposal.
See you tonight.
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
The faces of Hezbollah
What makes a terrorist?
I don't mean why do people starting bombing, and shooting and fighting from the shadows. I mean, for the purposes of news organizations defining terrorism, what should the definition be?
The United States and others clearly call Hezbollah a terrorist group: The source of countless raids, bombings and attacks on Israel; the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, which left 241 people dead; and the architects of all those displays in which young men cover their faces, strap mock bombs to their chests, and parade before the cameras pledging to kill any and all soldiers and civilians alike who oppose their cause.
All this makes Hezbollah, especially for many westerners, the very definition of a terrorist group.
But some people describe another part of Hezbollah. They talk about a group that is beloved in southern Lebanon for running schools, hospitals, social services, even clearing snow in the winter for some communities that the official government of Lebanon does not serve. They say these things make Hezbollah something other than a terrorist group: A quasi-government; a nation within a nation.
All of this is done for Shiite Muslim families. The Shiites in Lebanon have long felt economically and politically deprived, and Hezbollah clearly gives many of them a feeling of both military and social strength.
So for one side, Hezbollah is a killing machine bent on seizing by terror what it wants from the world; for the other side, Hezbollah is a brave force, fighting for the rights of its people.
So what should the standard be? If you ran a newsroom, how would you define who is called a terrorist and who is not? What, for you, is Hezbollah?
This is not another Katrina
A lot of times I wake up and have no idea where I am. The blinds are drawn, the room is nondescript. It happened again just a few minutes ago. I lay there, looking at the ceiling, trying to remember. A few seconds passed, then the sirens sounded. Haifa. If there are sirens, I must be in Haifa.
It's easy to get confused. We've been traveling around a lot, trying to see this story from as many different angles as possible. We were in Beirut yesterday, then Haifa, and we're about to move again. We are heading back to the border with Lebanon to focus on Israeli military actions in southern Lebanon.
Yesterday, I had the chance to talk with a lot of the U.S. Marines and State Department officials running the ongoing evacuation of Americans from Beirut. Every day this past week, Marine and Air Force choppers have been landing at the U.S. embassy and ferrying Americans home. They've moved more than a thousand people by air, more than ten thousand by ship.
I know there was some criticism of the evacuation effort early on, with some Democrats comparing it to the response to Hurricane Katrina. But the truth is this week American forces have moved a huge number of people out, and they've done it under very difficult circumstances. Seeing the Marines and State Department people in action, up close, is inspiring. They are highly motivated and are working around the clock. They have been giving medical treatment to the sick, and I've watched them play with kids who are screaming with fear because of the deafening whirl of the helicopters.
Now, it seems like the U.S. military will begin ferrying in humanitarian supplies. Some will no doubt be critical, saying that the United States is not doing more to stop the violence. That is certainly an understandable position. But I just wanted to take a moment and recognize the efforts that individual Marines and sailors and State Department folks have been making.
We are quick to point out when our government fails; it's important to recognize when it works as well.
Monday, July 24, 2006
Trying to avoid becoming a target
A lot of you have asked us to discuss some of the logistical challenges of covering the fighting. The reality is that how and where to report this story is, at best, a case study of making decisions on the fly.
Here's a download of where we are so far today:
Over the weekend, Anderson and his team hoped to get to the Tyre area in southern Lebanon. As you know, this area was a site of intense Israeli targeting in recent days. So the calculus for us became: Even if we could get there safely, could we actually get back out? Another big issue: Could we actually get a broadcast signal out of the Tyre area?
Among broadcasters there is a concern about how our small convoys of cars full of equipment and personnel look from the air. There is a risk Israelis (eyes in the sky: drones, satellites) could mistake them for a Hezbollah convoy headed closer to the border and within striking distance of Israel. So simply being on the road with several vehicles is a risk.
Plus, when we fire up our broadcast signals it is unclear what we look like to Israeli military monitoring stations. If there are a number of broadcasters firing up signals from the same remote place, the hope is that the Israelis would identify it as media signals, and not Hezbollah rocket electronics, and thus avoid being a target.
Other difficulties: With evacuations intensifying from south Lebanon and more and more bridges and roads getting hit, there is the very real chance our team could get stuck and unable to report and broadcast. It's a risk we did not want to take.
We concluded, for now anyway, this was a good time for Anderson to move out of Beirut and to another part of the region. Much of last night and early this morning were spent sorting out the best place for Anderson to be tonight.
At this writing, honestly, it's still a question mark.Update, 5:20 ET:
Looks like Anderson and team are going to broadcast from Haifa, Israel, tonight with series of packages and guests exploring Hezbollah, the large Christian population in Lebanon, and the most recent news from the frontlines.
Sunday, July 23, 2006
Our very strange day with Hezbollah
Hezbollah invited us to come see them again; it's the second time in as many days. Yesterday, Anderson, photographer Neil Hallsworth and I drove to the southern suburbs of Beirut and waited at a predetermined meeting spot.
A few minutes passed, then an old, American-made sedan pulled up behind us. Two men jumped out of the car. Our fixer approached them and after an animated conversation, one of the Hezbollah men stuck his head in our car window and said in passable English, "We're very sorry to inconvenience you but there will be no tour today. There are Israeli drones overhead and it's not safe to be here. Please leave now." Those were easy orders to follow.
Today, we were told Hezbollah was again willing to take our team into their neighborhood. Meet them at the same spot, they said, at 11 a.m. and don't be late. We weren't. We waited. Then waited some more, and what follows is a log of a very strange day with Hezbollah.
10:40 a.m.: Our team of Anderson, Neil, producer Tommy Evans and I arrive at the site of a bridge that's been blown to pieces by Israeli bombs. It's the same spot we met our Hezbollah men yesterday. Next to the bridge there are two high-rise apartment buildings under construction. This is a poor neighborhood and new construction clearly doesn't come here often. The buildings are heavily damaged, though, and it seems unlikely they'll ever be completed.
10:50 a.m.: Our translator, Mira, is making a call to Hezbollah's office, making sure they know we've arrived. You don't have to spend much time in these neighborhoods to realize that you're an outsider ... and you're being watched. They tell us they know we're here.
11:05 a.m.: Hezbollah is late for our meeting. We're sitting still for 25 minutes in an area recently hit hard by Israeli jets, so it's no surprise the mood is tense. We're not talking much. A young couple passes by -- the boy is wearing jeans and short sleeves, the girl a head-scarf and a dress covering her body ankle to wrist. They nod politely and continue past us. They're holding hands. We're still waiting.
11:22 a.m.: A crowd of journalists is passing 200 yards behind us and we quickly realize we've been given bad information and that Hezbollah's tour has started without us. We turn our car around and try to catch up.
11:26 a.m.: It's not hard to spot 40 western journalists walking through a bombed-out area, and we've just now found the group. We also find out we missed some ground rules. We're pulling into a side street and two men dressed in black step out of a doorway with AK-47s. Neil has the camera on his shoulder and they immediately assume he's rolling. He's not, but they want to check the tape anyway. We show it to them and they let us pass. Hezbollah tour ground rule #1: Don't show the faces of anyone we don't want you to see or pictures of places you're not supposed to be. Now we know. We catch up to the group.
11:35 a.m.: We're standing on what used to be a residential street. It's now a mess of wires and rubble. Smoke is still rising off the debris. Bombs have smashed nearly a quarter mile of this area and there's virtually nothing left. There's a twisted tire from a children's bike here, some compact disks from someone's collection there. Anderson is doing a few stand-ups, but the Hezbollah representative leading the tour is telling us it's time to move on. We tell him we want to talk to some people who lived here, who witnessed what happened. "Not here," he says. "Maybe at our next stop."
12:05 p.m.: Our car is being led through back streets to a broken-down building with five ambulances parked in front. "These are the emergency workers who respond to casualty calls when Israel drops their bombs," the Hezbollah man says. "Take your pictures and talk to some of them if you'd like." We're growing tired of what is now obviously a dog-and-pony show, but we decide to play along, and approach one driver with a few questions. Anderson asks him what kind of casualties he's seeing, but before he can answer, the ambulance beside us turns on his siren and screeches out, followed by the next ambulance, then the next. It's a well coordinated and not-so-subtle piece of propaganda that might as well come with a soundtrack titled "Hezbollah Cares."
12:16 p.m.: We again ask the Hezbollah guy (he won't give us his name) when we can talk to some residents, but he brushes us off and tells us maybe at our next stop. He's now on his cell phone and it's not hard to imagine he's making sure all the props are in place before we move on. I wish I spoke Arabic. He opens our car door, slides in, and says he's riding with us. We're fine with it and offer him a bottle of water. "No thank you," he says in English. While we have his attention, Anderson asks him if we can talk to someone in Hezbollah's leadership. His answer is short: "Not while we're at war." He gets out of our car and onto the back of someone's motor scooter.
12:30 p.m.: We're now driving through a neighborhood that hasn't seen any bombing, but it's here we're told we can talk to some residents. Hezbollah guy takes us down to what amounts to a crude bomb shelter and tells us the people here live on this street but are afraid to sleep in their apartment. The concrete room is dimly lit and dank. Two people on plastic chairs are watching an Arabic news channel. One sits in the corner yelling angry epithets about Israel for the reporters. We wait for the media gaggle to leave, then introduce ourselves. They tell us they're a mother, her son and his wife. There's no way to know if it's true. The conversation follows a familiar pattern:
"Are you scared?"
"Will you fight?"
"To the death!"
"Do you hate Israel?"
"Of course, and its mother America!"
We thank them for their insights and move back up to the street.
12:44 p.m.: We're back on the street and on cue, a Hezbollah resistance song is now blaring from an apartment. A young man on the porch dressed in black is giving us the victory sign. I look behind me and there's our Hezbollah guide encouraging the young man to lift his hands higher so our camera can see.
12:50 p.m.: Anderson is doing a few more stand-ups about our story that's quickly become less about Hezbollah and more about their crude propaganda machine when the "family" emerges from the bunker behind us and joins their friends in the street. They're laughing, talking loudly, and gesturing with their hands, mocking anger. I really should learn Arabic. Anderson does another stand-up about the group now standing behind us.
12:55 p.m.: We pile into our van and are now driving out of the Hezbollah-controlled neighborhood. It feels like we've just left a haunted house: Slightly frightening at first, but ridiculous by the end.