Forty years ago this month, Israeli military forces entered Lebanon to expel Palestinian terrorists who were using the country as a base to plot and carry out attacks. The operation, dubbed “Peace for Galilee,” would have lasting political and social ramifications for both Israel and Lebanon. It would also mark a turning point in press coverage of the Jewish state.
Yasser Arafat, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, an umbrella association comprised of terrorist groups, believed that the media was an essential component in his war against Israel. Indeed, Arafat fondly referred to the press corps that was ensconced in Beirut’s Commodore Hotel as his “Commodore Battalion.”
The distorting effect of the media’s coverage of the war is thoroughly documented in military historian Richard Gabriel’s 1984 book Operation Peace for Galilee: The Israel-PLO War in Lebanon. Israel, he noted, “lost the propaganda war.” How that happened is instructive.
“For many years,” Gabriel observed, the PLO had “been paying, seducing and corrupting journalists in Beirut. Its techniques included granting exclusive interviews, making sure the press was well treated and providing them with women and drugs and sometimes making cash payments.”
“Equally important,” the military historian pointed out, “since 1975 in West Beirut, the PLO ‘licensed’ selected journalists by providing them with PLO accreditation cards. With these cards, journalists were able to travel into various areas of Beirut to obtain news stories.” Those journalists “who over the years had refused PLO blandishments or who had tried to remain objective were openly threatened and forced to leave the city.” And only those journalists who were “licensed by the PLO could travel into PLO areas during the siege without risk of being shot.” Journalists who were not “friendly” were not welcome.
By controlling access, the PLO sought—successfully, it must be said—to control the narrative.
The PLO wanted to create the impression that the IDF attacked targets indiscriminately, wantonly destroying property and murdering large numbers of civilians. The PLO succeeded for several reasons. One of them was that, in addition to controlling access and brandishing both rewards and threats, the PLO benefited from a tightly organized propaganda department. As Gabriel observed, “There was a constant flow of PLO press releases and videotapes, as well as a number of absolutely false statements by the PLO, which had the effect of projecting the image of innocent women and children being destroyed in battle.”
The press complied with the PLO’s propaganda line. NBC News commentator John Chancellor blamed Israel for destroying Beirut, absurdly claiming that “nothing like it has ever happened in this part of the world.” This was in a part of the world that has witnessed the destruction of entire civilizations, the Islamic conquest and the genocide of Christians. Carl Rowan, a former U.S. diplomat in the Kennedy administration and a columnist for The Chicago Sun-Times, said that “Israel’s leaders are imitating Hitler.”
Comparing Jews to their historic persecutors is a staple of anti-Semitism. But as authors Jason Maoz and Ze’ev Chafets have documented, it was a common enough indulgence for the media during “Peace for Galilee.” Cartoonists even got into the act, with several comparing then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to a Nazi. In one widely syndicated illustration by cartoonist Bill Schorr, Begin is depicted as saying, “For every problem, there is a final solution.”
The depiction of a bloodthirsty and uniquely evil Jewish state wasn’t only anti-Semitic. It also had the effect of constraining Israeli actions and doctrine, giving Palestinian terrorists an advantage.
Indeed, the truth about Israeli actions was the opposite of what was being reported. As Gabriel noted, “There was no systemic terror bombing [by the IDF] as reported by the press.” Further, Jerusalem’s “concern for civilian casualties marked almost all IDF operations throughout the war, especially in the areas of Tyre and Sidon, where it reduced the speed with which the Israelis were able to overcome enemy opposition.” Then as now, the IDF’s policy of dropping leaflets before certain strikes gave terrorists the opportunity to escape and redeploy.
Elsewhere, Israeli troops were under “strong restrictions to minimize fire and civilian casualties,” which provided an opening for PLO terrorists, who “were often able to resist much longer than would normally have been the case.”
The PLO took full advantage of this and “openly used civilians as shields and often fought from hospitals or ambushed from civilian areas,” Gabriel documented. In the Ein Hilwe camp, for example, the PLO “staged military operations out of hospitals and put guns on their roofs.” PLO terrorists “often ambushed Israeli soldiers from inside houses.”
Yet many reporters omitted the PLO’s use of human shields. Instead, they were happy to essentially perform stenography.
The PLO provided news organizations with civilian casualty estimates that were nothing short of “ridiculous,” Gabriel observed. Indeed, many of the figures were provided by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society—an organization led by Arafat’s own brother. This didn’t stop many in the media from treating them as credible.
Similarly, Israel was often blamed for infrastructure damage that, in fact, frequently occurred during Lebanon’s civil war—a war that predated Israel’s invasion by more than six years.
The press also gave Iran’s role in the conflict short shrift.
As the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA) has documented, in the 1970s the PLO helped train Shi’ite terrorists in Lebanon—arming and equipping the nucleus for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Islamic republic’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini would return the favor. As Gabriel noted, battles in certain cities, such as Aley, were “very heavy … because the troops defending it were Iranian volunteers sent by Khomeini to help their Islamic brethren.”
Nor were they the only “volunteers.” At one point, the IDF had detained “about 1,800 foreign ‘mercenaries’; non-Arabs” including Germans, Africans and others who “had come to the PLO camps” in Lebanon for training. But as with Iran’s role, the international composition of the anti-Israel coalition was largely ignored by a press that preferred to cast the conflict as purely an Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Four decades later, the legacy of “Operation Peace for Galilee” looms large.
Israel’s Lebanon war would, with time, lead to the fall of the Begin government. And while the PLO was successfully expelled, Lebanon would eventually become a haven for another anti-Semitic terrorist organization: Hezbollah. Like the PLO before it, Hezbollah would create a “state within a state” and launch attacks from behind the cover of human shields and an often-complicit press.
Sean Durns is a senior research analyst for CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.