In a BBC article about Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, the reporter introduces readers to a shadowy figure lurking in the background and laughing maniacally over the bodies of the dead. The identity of that cartoonish culprit might not come as a surprise to those familiar with the BBC’s Mideast coverage: It is Israel.
If we’re exaggerating here, it’s only slightly. The May 22 story, “Hezbollah plunges deeper into Syrian conflict” by BBC Beirut correspondent Jim Muir, is mostly about intra-Arab clashes, until the reporter and his anonymous source take readers on a little detour:
“Yes, it’s a risk for Hezbollah, but it’s part of Iran’s overarching regional strategy: the Syrian regime must not fall,” said one well-placed Shia observer.
“It’s all systems go, and Iran will unleash everything it has to. It and Hezbollah consider this a threat to their political existence.”
“Israel’s interest is to see the civil war continue and Hezbollah sucked in and massacred as it has been in the past few days, when they’ve lost 40 fighters. It’s a grinding machine, and Israel is laughing and happy.”
Indeed, put like that, it is hard to imagine Israel not being happy to see what it regards as extremists and terrorists from both the Shia and Sunni sides of the sectarian divide at each other’s throats in Syria.
It is apparently quite easy for the BBC reporter to imagine Israel as a caricature, rubbing its hands together gleefully as it watches the carnage in Syria, but very difficult to envision the real country, and its real sense of concern with the upheaval on its northern border.
But even for those whose vivid imagination for Israeli callousness coexists with an inability to envision the country’s worries, it should have been apparent that there are no champagne bottles being uncorked in Jerusalem. All one needs is an internet connection to understand that Israeli strategists are preoccupied not with laughter but rather with caution. On the very day Muir’s report was published, for example, veteran Israeli military correspondent Yoav Limor explained,
Over the past few days, Israel has found itself facing increasing pressure on the Syrian front. Strategically, it is concerned that Russia will provide Syria with the advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missile system. On an operative level, it faces ongoing efforts by Syria and Iran to transfer advanced weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Tactically, there has been a rise in the number of shooting incidents across the Golan Heights border.
Limor’s piece is entitled “Israel’s Triple Challenge On the Syrian Front.”
Also on that same day, Israeli air force chief Amir Eshel sounded the alarm, and made sure his concerns were heard by referencing the 1973 Yom Kippur War, an event that traumatized Israeli society and still today remains a vivid lesson against complacency. As reported in the Times of Israel,
The commander of the Israeli Air Force, which has reportedly bombarded targets in Syria several times in recent months, warned Wednesday that war could break out on Israel’s northern border at any moment, demanding the full engagement of the IAF’s resources.
“If tomorrow Syria collapses, and I am not saying that will happen, we could find ourselves in the thick of it very fast and in great number,” IAF commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel said, illustrating how the nature of surprise wars had changed for Israel since the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
“Because the immense arsenal parked there, just waiting to be looted, could spread with each gust of wind and you find yourself having to act very fast and in great quantity,” he said, alluding to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s sizable stockpile of both conventional and chemical weapons. “These days a number of scenarios can lead to a surprise war.”
Explaining that there are “no more knock-out victories,” Eshel suggested Israel faces a more complicated challenge today than it did in 1973. “We find ourselves in a very different context than during the Yom Kippur War, and we will have to employ greater flexibility, with more intensity and in a short amount of time,” he said.
This was not the first Israeli murmur about 1973. Just days before the BBC’s Muir reported on supposed Israeli glee, a Los Angeles Times reporter noted that “some Israeli officials say tensions with Syria have reached one of the highest points since the 1973 Yom Kippur war.”
Also weighing in shortly before Muir penned his report was the chief of staff of Israel’s army, Benny Gantz, who warned that “a day doesn’t go by in which we don’t have to make decisions that could lead us to a sudden and uncontrollable deterioration. That is something that will be with us for the near future. We need to be more alert.”
And on that same day, Israeli Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan told reporters, “The question is no longer will rockets be fired at the large populated areas in Israel; the question is when it’ll happen.” Presumably nobody in Israel “laughed” at the comments.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said that the Middle East “is in one of its most sensitive periods in decades with the escalating upheaval in Syria at its center.” Netanyahu had just met with Russian president Vladamir Putin, in large part because Israel is alarmed by Russian plans to deliver advanced S-300 missiles to Syria. But the arms sale, Russia says, will go on as planned.
Israel is also keeping a close eye on Syria’s large chemical weapons arsenal. As Dexter Filkins reported for the New Yorker — also before Muir cited the supposed Israeli laughter — “the most terrifying prospect for Israel is not even Iranian missiles being transferred to Hezbollah; it’s the group getting a hold of Syria’s chemical weapons.”
If, despite all this, Jim Muir finds it “hard to imagine Israel not being happy” about the instability to its north, one can only wonder why. But the BBC’s tendency to imagine Israel as gleeful u
nder these circumstances likely helps explain why the its reporting on the Jewish state often seems more like caricature than news.