Ha’aretz Allegation of War Crime Unfounded

In a recent Op-Ed, Israeli writer Yitzhak Laor, whose columns appear regularly in Ha’aretz, further fueled the industry of lies about Israel with a tried and true method: twisting or exaggerating a real incident so that the reader has no idea s/he read a lie, at worst, or an unsubstantiated claim, at best.

In his column about the first Lebanon war, Laor wrote (“Lebanon war was no deception,” June 5);

The Beaufort was conquered, the dead of Tyre and Sidon lay in the streets, our newspapers sang paeans of praise to the cherries, the Israel Defense Forces blew up the mosque in Ain al-Hilweh with hundreds of people barricaded inside, including children.

Thus, Laor casually charges Israel with a war crime. But did IDF forces blow up a mosque “with hundreds of people barricaded inside, including children”?

During the first Lebanon War, a bloody battle did indeed take place in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, located on the outskirts of Sidon. Many Israeli soldiers, Palestine Liberation Organization fighters and innocent civilians were killed. Multiple accounts of the battle describe how the PLO entrenched itself among the civilian population, and even held civilians in the camp against their will so as to use them as human shields. But, among all the accounts, there is no information about the blowing up of a mosque with children inside.

Presspectiva, CAMERA’s Hebrew site, wrote to Laor requesting the source for his claim and he directed us to Ze’ev Schiff’s and Ehud Ya’ari’s Israel’s Lebanon War, considered the most comprehensive and serious book on the first Lebanon war. The relevant paragraph follows (pp. 149-50, in English):

The last stand in the camp took place in one of the mosques. Whether or not Haj Ibrahim was still alive and directing the battle, the men in the mosque refused to surrender, continuing to resist even when explosives were hurled into the building. Unintelligible shouts and cries could be heard echoing inside until the mosque collapsed on its defenders.

Thus, according to Laor’s own source, there’s not a word about children, or even civilians, in the mosque. The children are strictly Laor’s embellishment; there is nothing in the Schiff-Yaari book to substantiate the claim. Moreover, according to Laor’s source, the mosque collapsed during the course of fighting between the Israeli army and Palestinian combatants who were barricaded inside. That’s slightly different than, as Laor put it, “Israel Defense Forces blew up the mosque in Ain al-Hilweh with hundreds of people barricaded inside, including children,” as if the IDF placed explosives around the mosque, in which innocent civilians were seeking refuge, with the intent of killing them.

Without doubt, though, civilians were killed in the Ain al-Hilweh battle. But Laor further deceives by not giving any context whatsoever regarding the circumstances of the civilian casualties. In their book, Schiff and Ya’ari detail:

What made the fighting particularly difficult for the Israeli troops was the fact that these camps were essentially residential neighborhoods and were therefore crowded with civilians, especially swarms of children. The Palestinian fighters blended in easily among the population: the only thing distinguishing them from the noncombatants was the weapons they bore. Efforts were made to persuade the civilians to abandon the camps for their own safety, but to mixed results. The PLO fighters were of two minds on this issue: they fully appreciated that the civilians could not only serve them as excellent cover but would probably stir presssure for Israel to accept a quick ceasefire; yet the longer the ceasefire was delayed, the more the PLO softened at the sight of their wounded and suffering compatriots. (Emphasis added, p 140)

. . .the battle for Ein Hilweh made the difficulties in subduing the others pale by comparison. What happened at Ein Hilweh can only be described as a suicidal battle, a senseless and costly outpouring of rage. It was the Palestinians’ last stand in South Lebanon — their Masada, as it were. There, rather than surrender to the Israeli army, they preferred to die to the last man — deliberately taking many civilians with them. (Emphasis added, p 141-2).

. . . the greatest problem the Israelis faced was to get the civilians out of the most dangerous areas of the camp and evacuate them to the seashore or shelter them in buildings that had already been checked or cleaned out. Again and again, the half-pleading refrain was announced over loudspeakers: “Whoever does not bear arms will not be harmed.” . . . .

. . . three separate delegations had been tried [to persuade the PLO fighters to allow civilians to flee to safety], each comprising leading personalities from Sidon. . . The third delegation returned with the most harrowing tale of all. Residents of Ein Hilweh had told its members that the militiamen were shooting civilians who tried to escape. In one particularly grisly incident, three children had been riddled with bullets before their parents’ eyes because their father had dared to suggest calling an end to the fighting so at least the children of Ein Hilweh could be saved. (Emphasis added, p 147)

Why is it so important to focus on Laor’s one sentence? First, he presents his claim, which is, at best, unfounded, and, at worst, a fabrication, as fact. By pointing to a source which does not substantiate his claim, he himself unwittingly acknowledges his claim’s baselessness. Such manipulation needs to be exposed. It also raises the disturbing question: How many times has he done this before, and gotten away with it?

Second, his stunt typifies the methods employed by those propagandizing that Israeli soldiers are war criminals. Similar claims recur in every battle and war in which Israel finds itself (and Cast Lead was a prime example), despite the fact that in depth studies show civilian casualties killed by Israel are far fewer in absolute and proportionate figures than in other violent conflicts.

Laor’s column contributes to the ever-growing mountain of misinformation concerning Israeli conduct. That the misinformation appears in the influential Ha’aretz newspaper, as opposed to an insignificant blog or forum, endows it with undeserved credibility. At the moment, any wet-nosed activist or writer seeking documentation about Israeli “war crimes” has received another gift from a newspaper which has yet to learn that fact-checking before publishing (including Op-Eds) is a basic rule in journalistic ethics.

Following publication of this analysis on Presspectiva, our Hebrew site, Ma’ariv‘s Ben-Dror Yemini wrote about the Laor falsehood, citing Presspectiva. CAMERA’s translation follows:

Regarding the first Lebanon war, one of the regular columnists at Ha’aretz recently wrote that “the Israel Defense Forces blew up the mosque in Ain al-Hilweh with hundreds of people barricaded inside, including children.” Presspectiva, which tracks the Israeli media’s contributions to the industry of lies, asked the writer for a source for the information. The writer referred to the book by Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari, Israel’s Lebanon War. But the book makes no reference to such an incident. It does contain a description of a difficult battle, in which PLO fighters used civilians. There was no blowing up a mosque, there were no “hundreds of people barricaded inside,” and the word “children” is not even mentioned in the context of the mosque. Schiff and Ya’ari’s book describes PLO terrorists as preferring to “cause the deaths of many civilians” [this is the wording in the Hebrew version of the Schiff/Ya’ari book]. In addition, the book includes information about “three children shot to death in front of their parents.” In this way terrorists sought to deter civilians from heeding IDF pleas to flee the camp, in order to prevent harm to innocent lives. But Laor audaciously inverts the reality. He accuses the Jews. It’s always good to pin some mass murder on the Jews. Especially murder of children. It’s in the Jewish nature, after all.

The point is that blood libels are the bread and butter of this writer. Ten years ago, he published a column in the respected British publication, London Review of Books, in which he claims that,  “Gas chambers are not the only way to destroy a nation. It is enough to destroy its social tissue, to starve dozens of villages, to develop high rates of infant mortality.” [See here.] There was just one problem. World Bank statistics show just the opposite. In 1980, the infant mortality rate among Palestinians in the territories was 54.9 per 1,000 births, in 1990 it was 32.7, and in 2002, when the article appeared, the figure stood at 25. Since then, there has been an additional substantial decrease. The Palestinians fare far better than most in the Arab countries, Iran and Turkey. But the lie was printed and disseminated. Nobody stopped the writer 10 years ago, and so he charges on.

A literary critic would have presumably observed the writer’s recurring motive: the association of evil Zionism with the blood of children. The historian would detect the gross lie that characterized the battle against the Jews in the past, and against the current Jewish state. But there is a difference. Once, unenlightened religious inciters pedaled the blood libels. Today blood libels appear in respected journals or in a newspaper of “thinking people” [a reference to Ha’aretz‘s Hebrew marketing campaign in Israel]. The useful idiots will of course continues to claim that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. It’s just her twin sister. Or, to be precise, we should say that anti-Zionism is politically correct anti-Semitism.

The writer, for those who are interested, is poet, critic and literary figure — Yitzhak Laor.

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