The Selective Skepticism of Salon’s Ben Norton

In a factually challenged piece in Salon, Ben Norton displays a dazzling skepticism of information from Israeli sources alongside a great acceptance of unfounded anti-Israel conspiracy theories (“ Prominent American professor proposes that Israel ‘flatten’ Beirut – a million-person city it previously decimated,” Feb. 19).

Norton’s article, a critical response to a Feb. 15 Haaretz Op-Ed by Professor Amitai Etzioni, is first and foremost based on the false premise that the professor called for flattening Beirut. Norton, a politics staff writer at Salon, avers: “Etzioni concludes his piece implying Israel has no other option but to bomb the city of Beirut.”
But Etzioni comes to no such conclusion, implied or otherwise. In the only instance in which he even mentions the word “Beirut” in his Haaretz Op-Ed, Etzioni rejects the option of bombing Hezbollah strongholds within the city. The George Washington University professor wrote:

Someone in the visiting group mentioned that Israel was charged with bombing Shia neighborhoods in Beirut in order to pressure Hezbollah to stop firing missiles at Israel. However, many studies have shown that such bombing — in Tokyo and Dresden and London — do not have the expected effect, nor did it in 2006 (assuming that such bombing actually occurred).

So, what did Etzioni propose in order missiles to eliminate Hezbollah’s missiles “without causing massive civilian casualties”? He argued that Israel’s only viable option to eliminate Hezbollah’s vast rocket arsenal is by using Fuel-Air Explosives (FAE). The George Washington University professor wrote in Haaretz:

Such weapons obviously would be used only after the population was given a chance to evacuate the area. Still, as we saw in Gaza, there are going to be civilian casualties. Hence, the time to raise this issue is long before Israel may be forced to use FAEs. One way this can be achieved is by inviting foreign military experts and public intellectuals, who are not known to be hostile to Israel, to participate in war games in which they would be charged with fashioning a response to massive missile attacks on Israeli high rise buildings, schools, hospitals, and air bases.

Haaretz initially used various headlines, later changed, which falsely suggested that Etzioni’s advocated for Israel “flattening” Beirut. As of this writing, Haaretz’s online headline (shown below) accurately states “Should Israel Consider Using Devastating Weapons Against Hezbollah Missiles?”, but Salon still employs a bombastic, inaccurate headline which falsely maintains that a) Etzioni proposes “flattening” Beirut, and which b) wrongly states that Israel had previously decimated the city of one million people. The subheadline goes even farther, outrageously claiming that Etzioni “says Israel may have no choice but to destroy Lebanon — again.”

Although Norton himself quotes Etzioni making clear that his Op-Ed certainly did not call for flattening of Beirut (Hezbollah’s missiles, the targets of the FAEs under Eztioni’s proposal, aren’t even stored in Beirut, but in villages closer to Israel’s border), the Salon article and headline both continue to wrongly insist that Etzioni called for just that.

Norton himself quoted Etzioni:

“I agree with you that suggestion to bomb or Beirut (or any other city) would be beyond horrible,” he said. He said Haaretz had changed and then later corrected his headline.

“Ethics aside – Beirut is not where the missiles are housed,” Etzioni added.

Haaretz did indeed commendably corrected its erroneous headlines. Why won’t Salon correct its headline and article?

Skepticism for Israeli Claims Alone

Given Norton’s stubborn, and apparently deliberate, misrepresentation of Etzioni’s Op-Ed, the writer’s skeptical treatment of information from Israeli sources is not surprising. For example, he doubts Israel’s “claim” that Hezbollah stores rockets in civilian houses. Norton writes:

Etzioni furthermore cites Israel’s chief of staff, who claims that most of Hezbollah’s missiles are in private homes. Whether this allegation is true is questionable. Israel frequently accuses militant groups of hiding weapons in civilian areas in order to justify its attacks. On numerous occasions, it has been proven that there were no weapons in the civilian areas Israel bombed in Gaza.

Despite Norton’s doubts, the fact that Hezbollah did store weapons in civilian homes is very well documented, including by groups known for their extremely critical treatment of Israel. For example, Human Rights Watch, whose work Norton himself cites, reported: “Our research in Lebanon documented a number of cases in which Hezbollah fighters placed weapons or ammunition inside civilian homes or villages, as well as some cases in which Hezbollah fighters fired rockets from densely populated areas.”

Further firsthand accounts were reported in The New Yorker:

A man approached and told me that he was a teacher at the Hariri school. I asked him why he thought the Israelis had hit a mosque, and he said, simply, “It was a Hezbollah mosque.”
… A younger man came up to me and, when we were out of earshot of others, said that Hezbollah had kept bombs in the basement of the mosque, but that two days earlier a truck had taken the cache away. It was common knowledge in Sidon, he said, and everyone was expecting the mosque to be hit.

There is no shortage of photographs documenting Hezbollah storing and launching rockets in civilian areas.

Norton’s skepticism however, appears limited to information that justifies Israeli actions. When it comes to outright conspiracy theories purportedly demonstrating Israeli misbehavior, he shows little caution. He writes, for instance:

Critics argue that Hezbollah rarely initiates attacks, but rather instead responds to Israeli military attacks and assassinations of its leaders.

Israel claimed its invasion of Lebanon was retaliatory, initiated when Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in July 2006, but former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert admitted that Israel had in fact planned the war several months in advance , and used the kidnappings as an excuse. Olmert told the Winograd Commission investigating the government’s actions that he had proposed the war in January and had the military draft plans in March.

Here Norton relies on a 2007 Guardian article which was based on Haaretz piece. The Haaretz article, the primary source, very clearly reported that then Prime Minister Olmert was making contingency plans in the event of a possible Hezbollah attack, a fact ignored by Norton:

The scenario presented in the various assessments reflected prior incidents: the abduction of soldiers from Israeli territory accompanied by heavy cross-border shelling. Then-chief of staff Dan Halutz said such an incident would have far-reaching consequences for Israel’s deterrent capability. Halutz said Israel could not show restraint in the face of a kidnapping in the north, and it had to respond. Olmert testified that he accepted this stance.

In a meeting in March, Olmert asked the army commanders whether operational plans existed for such a possibility, and they said yes. He asked to see the plans, and they asked why. He responded that he did not want to make a snap decision in the case of an abduction, and preferred to decide at that moment. Presented with the options, he selected a moderate plan that included air attacks accompanied by a limited ground operation.

Norton apparently does not understand the difference between making plans for launching a war and preparing for a possible scenario.

Another example of the writer’s poor grasp of the facts is his claim that the Golan Heights were annexed in 1967. That territory was annexed in 1981.

In addition to the blatant factual errors, Norton’s liberally makes use of “facts” without at all qualifying that the allegation is heavily disputed. Such, for example, is his offhand comment that Israel “violently expelled three-quarters of the indigenous Palestinian population.” A charge popular with some discredited academics along with anti-Israel activists, it is not backed by the historical record.

Delving some 36 years into the past, Norton writes that “The Israeli military has previously massacred civilians in Lebanon.” In the next paragraph he explains that he is referring to the Sabra and Shatila massacres carried out by “far-right, Phalangist Christian militias,” not the Israeli military. Citing fringe academic Noam Chomsky and Rashid Khalidi, a former spokesman for the PLO, he nevertheless blames Israel (and America). He does not even mention that the Kahan Commission charged with investigating the killings found then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon indirectly responsible for having failed to anticipate a possible revenge attack by Christian forces. The Commission emphasized that “the atrocities in the refugee camps were perpetrated by members of the Phalangists, and that absolutely no direct responsibility devolves upon Israel or upon those who acted on its behalf.”

Norton’s willingness to uncritically accept as fact every allegation that bolsters Hezbollah, no matter how tenuous, together with the ease with which he so grossly misconstrues the Etznioni Op-Ed, disqualifies him as a serious commentator on the Middle East.

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