After Jordan's King Hussein violently ejected the PLO in September 1970, while killing thousands, they trooped off to Lebanon which they promptly destabilized and assisted into a bloody civil war. The war went on for about a decade, and tens of thousands of civilians were murdered. Eventually the Israelis invaded, in 1982, and while this was one of Israel's darkest chapters, forcing the PLO out of Lebanon went a long way towards ending the Lebanese civil war, which wound down shortly thereafter.
Most of the years the war had interested the world only to a limited extent. Thomas Friedman relates, in From Beirut to Jerusalem, how he understood he had to get out when he spent one evening cowering under fire in the middle of Beirut knowing his editors back at the New York Times wouldn't feel there was enough interest in the story to publish it. (P. 244)
Then, in the summer of 1982 Israeli troops battled into Beirut. They were followed, of course, by the cream of the world's media, raring to tell. By this time I was very painfully disillusioned by the IDF's actions, but I remember pinching myself as the media drove around Beirut showing the world how the Israelis had destroyed the city. A decade of destruction being laid at the doorstep of ten days of Israeli violence. "This can't be happening", I remember assuring myself, but of course it was. "Surely no one believes this shit?!?!?" but of course they did; indeed, they lapped it up.
Unlike the general chaos of the second war in Lebanon in 2006, this time Israel seems to be functioning mostly in an orderly and systematic way (though they still haven't figured out how to operate the sirens in Beer Sheva, for whatever reason. Maybe next month.)
One of the many differences is that this time the media - Israeli and foreign - is being kept away from the operation zones. Only al-Jazeera, which had reporters in place from the local population, is broadcasting away, but there are still people in the West who don't buy stories from al-Jazeera unless they appear also on CNN. (Juan Cole relies mostly on al-Jazeera, which probably explains why he's so factually-challenged).
Blocking the international press corps runs the danger of having them peeved at you, but on balance I think Israel's decision so far has been vindicated by the result, as the media would hardly have been in the position to explain what's going on.
I've spent some six years of my life in the army, cumulatively, between the ages of 18 and forty-plus. When I was in my thirties I began applying the insights I was acquiring for my doctoral research regarding large bureaucracies to what I was seeing in the IDF, to the great befuddlement of my commanders who didn't know what I wanted of them. As a voting citizen I've always made it a point to understand what is going on, how we're wielding our power and when and why we abuse it. As a historian I've gone back to periods I don't remember, or remember from a personal perspective, and I've tried to re-imagine what was going on and why. You may see this as arrogant, but I really do think my ability to understand what's going on is better than, say, that of Christine Amanpour, in spite of the dozens of hot spots she has flown into over the years, and then flown out of.
And yet, although for the past ten days I've been focusing intensely and extensively on this operation, it's only in the past two or three days that I feel I'm beginning to understand what is going on; even now there are large gaps in the picture, and lots of fog of war. The possibility that reporters with deadlines to meet - even Israeli ones, all the others even more so - could march into the battle zone and have anything useful to tell us, is, frankly, remote. The best they'd be able to do is point at rubble, recent or not, and breathlessly tell about the tremendous havoc the IDF is wreaking; then they'd troop off to the Shifa hospital in Gaza ind interview the civilian casualties (alas, there are many of them) without ever recognizing which of the uniformed personnel are hiding Hamas leaders, nor where the steps down to the bunker are.
Next post: what is going on?