THE BLOG

Blogging From Beirut : And Then They Paid Dearly

Throughout the brief seven months that I've lived in Beirut I've been a devoted reader of the New York Times online, with a tendency to dwell in a sentimental way on the New York/Region section. Nothing like a lurid Westchester murder story or cross-borough custody battle or the latest chapter in Eliot Spitzer's excellent adventures to set the homesick mind at ease. Lately I've watched in awe from afar as Con Edison fails day after day to return power to the freedom- and cooled-air-loving residents of western Queens, my home for a few fond years.

Which is how I happened yesterday onto Lisa Foderaro's story on the effect of the current hostilities in the Middle East on a program run by the Jerusalem-based organization Taglit-Birthright Israel, which sponsors free summer trips to Israel for American Jews aged 18 to 26. For the story Foderaro interviewed Victoria Kaplan, a "young New Yorker" who had decided to take the trip when "a few days before her scheduled departure, violence erupted on the Israeli-Lebanese border."

Incidentally, Birthright has changed its itinerary this summer, Foderaro reports. Groups are steering clear of the north, where Hizbullah rockets are landing, and of some areas in the south, "where tensions with the Palestinians run high." The group is passing its time mountain climbing, snorkeling and spelunking in areas of the country not experiencing erupting violence and/or high-running tensions.

To her credit, Kaplan went ahead with her travel plans. "We're getting to do some things that groups don't ordinarily get to do," she told Foderaro from overseas. "Once we arrived, it seemed amazing to me that there could be a war going on. Everyone here is so happy and comfortable, and we haven't seen anything even remotely violent."

That's nice.

Despite the often superlative work of its reporters, the New York Times by and large has not in the last 14 days presented a reality recognizable to anyone living in Lebanon. What Lebanese reader would know what to make, for example, of the paper's lead headline of July 14: "Israel Blockades Lebanon; Wide Strikes by Hezbollah."

"Blockades" - that doesn't sound too bad. It certainly doesn't sound like what Israel was doing to Lebanon. By then the airport had been hit twice, bridges and highways across the country had been destroyed and shockwaves from the pounding of Beirut's southern suburbs had thrown much of the city into a state of sleepless trauma. Maybe "Whups On" wouldn't fit? "Cold Cocks"? "Straight Up Punishes"?

On that morning, a Friday, the civilian death toll in Lebanon (as supplied in the third paragraph of the Times story, a skillfully reported piece whose co-authors, Hassan M. Fattah and Steven Erlanger, are at work in a war zone 6,000 miles away from the copy desk on West 43d Street where the headline was presumably written) was 53; the toll in Israel (as supplied in the first sentence of the story) was two.

With those numbers I'll take a strike over a blockade any day.

Part of the ongoing defense of Israel was chronicled in a dispatch yesterday for the Times by Fattah, who wrote about 18 members of the extended Shaito family of Lebanon. The family was fleeing the southern village of Tireh when an Israeli rocket "slammed into the center" of its Mazda minivan, killing three, critically wounding two and otherwise wounding 11.

The story ran under the headline: "To Flee or to Stay? Family Chooses Too Late and Pays Dearly."

Bad headline. Its implication - an implication totally without grounding in Fattah's copy - is that the tragedy that befell the Shaito family was a matter of timing. The family would have been safer, the headline suggests, if it had departed a day earlier, or the day before that. Unfortunately the Shaitos' terrified decision to cling to their home instead of following orders caused them to pay dearly - i.e., become dead.

The headline-writer was working in either ignorance or denial of the killing ground the South had become. Should the Shaitos have abandoned their home on Friday, the day the leaflets were dropped, when at least 30 were killed in attacks on Srifa, a town north of Tireh; when 10 civilians in Aitaroun, in Lebanon's southeast corner, were killed in a strike on the building where they had sought refuge; and when the port city of Tyre buried 105 civilians from the surrounding area in a mass grave because there was no time to identify and properly inter the bodies?

Did the Shaito family have reason, when those leaflets came fluttering onto their rooftop and into their hands, to expect better treatment out on the naked roads from the Israeli helicopters than had been shown the 15 children and 7 adults who were killed in the so-called "Marwahine massacre" of July 15, when the victims' open truck was attacked just after having been turned away from a South Lebanon UN encampment?

"Bombing victims, witnesses and officials interviewed in the area on Sunday said Israeli warplanes hit people escaping by vehicle from their villages at least six times in a day of fierce bombardments," Fattah writes.

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On a lighter note, there's a debate here about how those bunker-busters Uncle Sam is sending over are going to sound on the receiving end. (There are some veterans of the Baghdad press corps running around town who probably could settle the question.) The assumption is that some of these things are going to be dropped on the southern suburbs.

One school of thought holds that the bombs, which can penetrate up to 40 meters (according to the New York Times), are going to be very loud. A competing school contends that on the contrary, a bomb exploding underground is not liable to be as loud as one exploding, say, on top of a 12-storey concrete residential building; once the bomb goes subterranean the earth and concrete and abandoned children's toys and stuff lying around will muffle the explosion. Each school has factions - one popular offshoot holds that the sound will be "loud then soft."

We will let you know.