Trying to be even-handed as rockets fly
Wednesday 17 April 1996
I thought of the St John's Wood house last Friday as Bibi Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party, told a CNN interviewer that the effect of Katyusha rockets on Kiryat Shmona, this northern Israeli town, was much the same as that of V1 flying bombs and V2 rockets falling on London.
Watching Israelis on international television on the day Mr Netanyahu spoke, it would be just possible to believe he was drawing a fair parallel. In the morning a Katyusha exploded in Kiryat Shmona beside a car, whose petrol tank exploded, badly burning Hanni Himi, wife of the deputy mayor. CNN showed the car blazing. Within hours Israel retaliated with artillery fire and bombing which has since forced 400,000 Lebanese to flee their homes.
But there is no comparison between the scale of the casualties and destruction on the two sides of the border. Yesterday the Israeli army said Hizbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla movement, had fired 120 Katyushas since Operation Grapes of Wrath began on Thursday. So far, Mrs Himi is the only serious casualty; six or seven people have been lightly wounded. Higher figures given by some news agencies for the number injured include 30 people suffering from shock.
Obviously it is more dangerous this week to be in Kiryat Shmona and northern Galilee than in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. But in contrast with 120 Hizbollah rockets in six days, Israeli guns have been firing more than 3,000 heavy rounds in a 24-hour period, according to UN officers. In addition, the air force has launched more than 200 bomber or missile raids every day. In this way Mr Netanyahu's comparison between Katyushas and the V weapons is wholly misleading.
It is difficult for journalists to avoid giving the impression that the military operations by both sides, and the suffering they cause, is comparable. I was in Metulla, a pretty hilltop town on the Israeli-Lebanese border, at 9am last Friday when we heard a salvo of rockets had hit Kiryat Shmona. We drove first to where a Katyusha had landed near a tree, blowing off branches and peppering houses with shrapnel.
The first person we met, Yitzhak Michaely, said: "I can't believe my luck." He took us to his apartment and pointed to a hole in the plaster above a sofa. He reading a book and drinking coffee when a Katyusha exploded in the distance. He left his seat and a second rocket exploded on the other side of the road, sending a piece of metal through the window which hit the wall where his head had just been.
The first Katyusha Mr Michaely heard was the one which set fire to Mrs Himi's car. She was very unlucky: the rocket hit the road as she drove past, the explosion digging a shallow hole in the tarmac about 12in across. The car was so badly burned you could not tell its original colour and the tyres had melted. I talked to a man who had helped Mrs Himi out of the car. He said at first he could not get the door of the car open and she was already on fire.
Driving back to my hotel in Metulla I intended to write a story solely about Mrs Himi and Mr Michaely. He was badly frightened and she had suffered terrible injuries. But I had misgivings, not about reporting what had happened to them, but of giving the impression that it was a typical event and that Kiryat Shmona was being pounded by rocket fire.
In the event, the news of the attack was overtaken by the arrival of Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, and General Amnon Shahak, army chief of staff, at a nearby army base to confirm that Israel was going to retaliate by ordering people to leave 41 villages in Lebanon if they did not want to be hit by artillery and air strikes.
Exaggeration of the extent of the bombardment of northern Israel creates its own political problems. Few Israelis go to northern Galilee: they get their idea of the Katyusha attacks from Israeli television and the press.
Mr Peres has promised to stop the rockets, but he cannot deliver on this pledge unless the US persuades Syria to curb Hizbollah. The Katyushas are too small and mobile to be successfully eliminated by artillery and air strikes alone. If diplomacy fails, the only alternative will be a ground offensive.
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