With a tentative ceasefire taking hold this week in Lebanon, Israel and Hezbollah were quick to blame the other side for the destruction, and disseminate propaganda to reinforce their claims. Their spinning reflected an anxiety that the first draft of history is often more than just a draft. Bob speaks with UC Irvine Middle East historian Mark LeVine about the lasting impacts of early media coverage
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I'm Bob Garfield. As the ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah took hold this week, the U.S. press looked to call the fight, much like commentators of a boxing match trying to determine which bloodied fighter won by decision. [NEWS BROADCASTS]
ANNOUNCER: And a new claim of victory by Hezbollah's leader.
ANNOUNCER: Hezbollah defiantly was claiming victory today.
ANNOUNCER: It's a major defeat because Israel failed to break-
ANNOUNCER: Well, did either side win in these five weeks of fighting?
PRESIDENT BUSH: First of all, I, you know, if I were Hezbollah, I'd be claiming victory, too.
BOB GARFIELD: Meanwhile, the boxers stumbled back to their metaphorical corners and waved their exhausted arms, trying to rally the crowd. Israel dropped leaflets on decimated neighborhoods, blaming the destruction on Hezbollah's reckless actions, while Hezbollah passed out flyers congratulating Shiites on their victory, even as they were returning home to rubble. The Israeli government urged its citizens to download special software to help reverse what it sees as increasingly negative online coverage of Israel, alerting users to respond to online polls and critical articles. But anti-Israeli activists got the same message, and began using the software to counter the pro-Israel comments. Israel even hacked into the broadcast signal of Al-Manar, Hezbollah's TV channel, and overlaid images of dead Hezbollah fighters. Middle East historian Mark LeVine isn't shocked by the rush to spin things, but with Israel's particular tactics he was surprised.
MARK LeVINE: What's striking to me is that actually people thought this would work and that people would suddenly pick up a flyer amidst the rubble of their house and say, oh, yes, it's Hezbollah's fault for causing this, not Israel's fault for dropping a bomb. I don't know of many times in history when this has worked, and the fact that today, in this day and age, with such a sophisticated media understanding that even the most uneducated person has, that governments would actually go to this level to think that this could help in winning this kind of war between Hezbollah and Israel is quite stunning.
BOB GARFIELD: Are you equating these techniques with, for example, Tokyo Rose, the name the Allied Forces in the South Pacific gave to female Japanese propagandists during World War Two?
MARK LeVINE: Well, I can only say that of all the Lebanese people [CHUCKLES] I've spoken with, I don't think very many Lebanese, if any, had changed their minds about who was at fault here and who was really responsible. So in terms of spinning this war, which Hezbollah was clearly doing from the moment it kidnapped Israeli soldiers, I have to say that Israel's attempts to spin this war are certainly quite primitive.
BOB GARFIELD: How would you value the images, immediately after the hostilities, of Hezbollah members, only days before, armed gunmen, out manning bulldozers and so forth and cleaning up the rubble?
MARK LeVINE: I think this is the most priceless image of the war for Hezbollah. For many years now, the Bush Administration has talked about the idea of creative destruction as the best way to remake the Middle East in our image. In other words, we need to destroy the old systems, even using violence if necessary, as in Iraq or Afghanistan, to help build something new. The problem is we've been very creative in what we've destroyed, but not so creative in how to rebuild. And I think Hassan Nasrallah has suddenly learned this idea of creative destruction much better than we did, much better than even Israel's idea of creating a new Middle East out of the ashes of the old, because the second the fighting died down, his men started rebuilding. And therefore, for his constituents, they can now feel, even though I've suffered collectively, it was worth it. So he's creating a sense of collective unity.
BOB GARFIELD: The press, particularly in the Arab world, have been referring to Lebanon as the Sixth War, a reference to the previous wars between the Arabs and Israel, but it hasn't really taken hold in the West. What's the significance of calling this "the Sixth War"?
MARK LeVINE: Calling it the Sixth War first of all gives it a level of credibility that it might not otherwise have had, because the other Arab-Israeli wars were wars of many, at least several Arab states against one country, Israel. This has been a war that's been between the state of Israel and a guerrilla movement in a neighboring country. To raise it to the stature of all the other wars, which are so engrained in Arab culture, right? – and especially because so many of them were wars that they were defeated, this, in some ways, creates a psychological counterbalance that allows people to think that finally we have managed to beat or at least stand up to Israel, even if the "we" is utterly fictitious. And that's, of course, one of the things that the media is good at, is making people who have nothing to do with an event actually feel they are somehow part of it. So I think the Arab media in all the other countries that have nothing to do with this war are trying to appropriate it and make it their own victory, even though ostensibly it had nothing to do with them and was probably done in spite of them.
BOB GARFIELD: What are the stakes here? What is this spinning meant to accomplish?
MARK LeVINE: I think if we're asking how – the way the conflict is being mediated now, how the media images are helping to shift and settle the terrain for, let's say, the next six months, and will that put in place a new order or trends that will continue for the next five or ten years and really be engraved into the world's historical narrative of these events, I think, yes, I think the way this is playing out right now is going to have very long-term consequences. I think the way that Hezbollah has been able to transition so quickly from a fighting force back into a civilian and social force is de-legitimizing almost every state in the region, because they cannot do that, even when they haven't fought a war. When there's an earthquake in Cairo, it's never the Egyptian government that can help the victims. It's usually the Muslim Brotherhood. It's just proving once again to people around the Muslim world that it is the social movements on the grass roots that are there for them, not the oppressive states. And that's the narrative that has traveled through this war and is going to come out the other end.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark, thank you very much for joining us.
MARK LeVINE: Thank you so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark LeVine is a professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic studies at University of California Irvine. His new book, Heavy Metal Islam, will be published by Random House next spring.