Children of a Lesser God

Last Wednesday at the Rome Summit, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora reportedly asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, "Are we children of a lesser God? Is an Israeli teardrop worth more than a drop of Lebanese blood?" If America’s callous indifference to his repeated requests for a cease-fire were not enough, Siniora received another answer to his question on Sunday morning when an Israeli attack on the town of Qana killed dozens of people, including at least 16 children. For the second time in 10 years, Qana was again the site of horrendous civilian casualties due to Israel’s indiscriminate use of force. As it did during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and its repeated invasions of the West Bank and Gaza over the past six years, Israel again claimed that the "terrorists" were hiding behind civilians. Again the U.S. leadership, whose own disregard for civilian lives in Iraq is evident, rushed to defend Israel and block it from international opprobrium. Indeed, the rhetoric emanating from the U.S. has made it clear that it considers the Lebanese, and other Arabs and Muslims, expendable.

One need only witness the exodus of foreign citizens from Lebanon in the first week of the war to recognize the similarity to President Bush’s Hurricane Katrina policy: those with money and the right passport can leave; those without are left to die. Yet American officials offer little sympathy. On July 17, U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, stated that there was "no moral equivalence" between civilian deaths in Lebanon due to Israeli bombings and Israeli deaths due to Hezbollah’s rocket attacks. His statement was made in response to a question about eight Canadian citizens and their three Lebanese relatives killed in an Israeli air strike.

Bolton’s disregard for Lebanese casualties pales in comparison to the policies advocated by Jed Babbin, former undersecretary for defense for President George H.W. Bush. As a guest on CNN’s Paula Zahn Now on July 28, he declared, "I’m willing to kill as many people as it requires to take out Hezbollah." How did Babbin account for the increasing support for Hezbollah in Lebanon across sectarian lines since Israel’s invasion began? He claimed the entire country was "enslaved by a sort of Stockholm Syndrome" that could only be cured by Israeli attacks. By labeling an entire population as pathological, Babbin revealed the underlying racism of the Bush administration’s Middle East policy. He also demonstrated how cruelly and consistently American officials and experts tend to blame the victim when their delusional policies prove to be an abysmal failure.

Predictably, support for these views came from Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz. In a July 22 Los Angeles Times opinion piece, he claimed that the term "civilian" had come to equate "the truly innocent with guilty accessories to terrorism." Eerily echoing Ambassador Bolton, Dershowitz declared that "every civilian death is a tragedy, but some are more tragic than others." Like the Bush administration and Israel, he conflates civilians with terrorists in an attempt to blur the horrendous civilian death toll from Israel’s "strategic" attacks using "precision" weapons.

Dershowitz’s goal was to offer the media a new vocabulary that would provide "a more fair way to describe those who are killed, wounded, and punished." Of course he does not explain how the media will determine the apparent innocence or guilt of civilians, or what information and evidence they should use. Nor does he explain how the dead or their families could petition to be recategorized as an "innocent victim" if the media originally misidentified them. He needn’t have bothered, because the press has already demonstrated that existing categories of "civilians" and "militants" are prejudicially determined. A cursory review of newspaper and television coverage from the Middle East will reveal that the Arab and Muslim victims of Israeli and American attacks rarely receive individual profiles. Instead, they are grouped together in an overwhelming and mind-numbing body count that blares from the daily headlines: over 60 Lebanese killed, 100 Iraqis dead, 30 Palestinians killed. The numbers are staggering but impersonal and distant. There are no interviews with grieving relatives or friends and no pictures to humanize those killed. They are reduced to nameless and faceless statistics.

I have personal experience with this type of reporting, or rather, the lack of it. Four years ago on July 28, my 18-year-old cousin, Mamon, was killed by the Israeli Army in the West Bank village of al-Mizra’a al-Sharkiya, near Ramallah. Mamon and his friends were unarmed, and the village was not the origin point for any suicide bombers. However, Army patrols within the town had increased sharply in the previous few days in an attempt to harass the villagers. Mamon was shot in the back, and a friend, Ahmad, was shot in the foot. The soldiers used expanding bullets, or "dum-dums," which are banned under international law. They did not call for an ambulance or attempt to take Mamon to the village medical center; instead, they interrogated him as he lay bleeding. When he lost consciousness, the soldiers attempted to dump his body on the front porch of a nearby house. The owners of the home interceded and demanded the soldiers call an ambulance or take Mamon to the village clinic. Over 30 minutes passed from the time Mamon was shot to when he was finally taken to the clinic. He died upon arrival. What was an earth-shattering event for his family and friends only warranted a two-sentence paragraph in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz and no coverage in the Western media. The lack of coverage occurred in spite of extensive outreach to media sources in an attempt to draw attention to this tragedy (which was similar to countless others in the West Bank and Gaza) and bring the soldiers involved to justice. A reporter for the San Francisco Examiner interviewed me, but the story was never published. According to the U.S. press, Mamon not only didn’t die, he never lived.

This long-standing standard of coverage in the region has enabled the Bush administration, the Israelis, and their apologists to label entire populations as "terrorists" deserving no mercy. Meanwhile, the children of Qana have been buried, and the earth moans with their cries for justice. We ignore their pleas at our own peril. If complicity in terrorism is to be found in this "War on Terror," it is not among the civilians caught in the Bush administration’s inept, morally bankrupt attempts to play power politics in the Middle East, but in those who remain silent as this murderous folly unfolds before our eyes.

Read more by Osamah Khalil