July 26, 2011

From the Dept. of Silly Things Written About Good Journalists

I do not know Sharmine Narwani, but she has written one of the more bizarre pieces on Hizballah and Lebanon I have read in quite some time -- and took some unfair shots at a few accomplished journalists in the process. (Read the whole post here.) Two of those journalists, Nick Blanford and Sheera Frenkel, are friends of mine from the region, and Nick responded in an email to a few close Lebanon watchers. He has allowed me to reproduce his response here. Let me just add that when you accuse a journalist in the Middle East of fabulism and then go on to cite the testimony of Robert Fisk (!!!) in support of your argument, you're not off to a good start.


First, my contribution to the Times article was limited to the Hizbullah sources. I have no idea about the veracity of the Scud/Jabal Taqsis claims. Rupert Murdoch's political inclinations do not interest me.

Second, I will not discuss nor elaborate upon my contacts within Hizbullah. They have learned to trust me sufficiently over the years to meet and talk (many of them have become friends) and protecting their identity is my paramount concern. That said, these are not "moles" slipping secret information to a foreign reporter. They are dedicated and proud members of Hizbullah and the Islamic Resistance and (frustratingly) guarded in their comments. Hizbullah cadres are not automatons; they are human beings and feel the tug of human emotion like anyone else. It is not extraordinary that they might be willing to meet and chat with a foreigner whom they like and have grown over the years to trust, the "veil of secrecy" notwithstanding.

If I am a peddler of pro-Israel propaganda, then why would Hizbullah's Al Manar TV interview me for a documentary on the 2006 war, part one of which was aired this evening? (I think part two is tomorrow (Tuesday) night).

My contacts within Hizbullah - both at a grassroots level and at a leadership level - are borne of nearly 16 years following the affairs of the organization from within Lebanon. Sharmine is perfectly within her rights to question my sourcing. All I can say is that after 16 years one develops good contacts. That said no Hizbullah figure - fighter or leader - has ever specified to me any particular weapons system that the organization has acquired or seeks to acquire prior to its use on the battlefield. Believe me, I have tried since my early interviews with Sheikh Nabil Qaouq in the mid '90s to obtain details and my requests are invariably met with a polite smile and a raised hand. No Hizbullah member has ever confirmed to me that the organization has acquired or seeks Scud missiles. When the Scud story broke last year, I wrote several articles that questioned the veracity of the claims. My doubts were not based on whether Hizbullah would like to include Scuds within its arsenal but centered on the logistical complexities of maintaining and launching them. (Without wishing to belabor the point, Scuds are liquid fueled not solid fuelled, like other rockets believed to be in Hizbullah's arsenal, which means that the launch cycle is much lengthier and more complicated. They also require dedicated transporter-erector-launchers which is another hassle to bring into Lebanon and hide. There's more, but I'm sure you get the point.)

As for the increase of weapons into Hizbullah's arsenal, I have been hearing this since late March, shortly after the uprising began in Syria and long before the Israeli and US press began reporting such things. It's common knowledge within Hizbullah circles. Where the weapons go and what they are, I have no idea.

To some specifics:

Sharmine writes: I have been looking for weapons in Lebanon since Israeli President Shimon Peres told us in April 2010 that Syria was sending long-range Scud missiles to Hezbollah. Problem is that I can’t find them anywhere and neither can anyone else.

Blanford says: Me too. And not since 2006 but since 1996. I like to think I know south Lebanon like the back of my hand, but I couldn't find any weapons down there in the 2000-2006 period even though I was sure they were there. (I did stumble across one of their 57mm anti-aircraft guns in 2002 which made for an entertaining afternoon but that's another story.)

Sharmine writes: While Peres’ claims were reported widely in the international media, Syria rejected all charges and Hezbollah played the Israeli game of refusing to confirm or deny anything. Then came a slow but steady stream of denials from an array of international observers – albeit, quietly.First up was UN Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) Commander General Alberto Asarta Cuevas: “We have around 12,000 soldiers and three Lebanese army brigades in a small area. We haven’t seen a thing,” said Asarta Cuevas. “Scud missiles are big. I’m sure there are no Scuds because it is very difficult to hide them,” he added.

Blanford says: If Hizbullah has acquired Scuds, they are not going to bring 40-foot missiles and even larger TELs south of the Litani. The whole point of acquiring a Scud (probably the only point) is that you can launch them from northern Lebanon and still hit Eilat. Come to think of it, didn't Mohammed Raad last week say "If Israel launches an attack, rockets of the resistance will cover all of Israel. Even the city of Eilat won’t be spared".

Sharmine writes: The Jewish state has even provided maps – down to the exact house – that indicate where Lebanese women-and-children-commandos have stashed these weapons. Kudos go to the IDF too for creating user-friendly video games – or, as they like to call it, “3D animated clips” – that “illustrate how Hezbollah has turned over 100 villages in South Lebanon into military bases.”

Blanford says: I'm assuming that Sharmine is referring to the widely disseminated map published by The Washington Post in March showing a rash of red, blue and yellow dots across south Lebanon pointing out Hizbullah bunkers and positions. At the time, out of curiosity, I overlaid the WaPo map over a Google Earth image of south Lebanon and zoomed in to try and guage the accuracy of these multiple dots (I know it's a bit nerdy and obsessive but what can I say). Unlike Sharmine, who discerned that the map was accurate to the "exact house", I found that each dot covered around half a village. Come on, the WaPo map was nothing more than a psy-ops ploy by Israel and had no bearing on reality. If the Israelis really had such sensitive information, do you think they would pass it on to the media? The same applies to the 3D graphics video of Khiam released last year. I tried to relate the video to Khiam itself but failed. Maybe I'm not sufficiently tech-savvy to translate 3D graphics into reality, but this too was just another case of Israeli psy-ops.

Sharmine writes: Hebrew-language newspaper Maariv last summer reported that Israeli finance officials were using Hezbollah to justify exorbitant defense budget demands. Ben Caspit wrote on July 11, 2010: “It’s interesting how every time the military budget is on the table, they release from the stocks Hezbollah’s missile array and expose sensitive classified material.”

Blanford says: Totally right. I wrote such comments for The Daily Star back in the 1990s. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.