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NOW

Mind games

Hezbollah and Israel may no longer be shooting at each other in the Shebaa Farms or elsewhere, but the psychological war waged by these two bitter foes is as fierce as ever. A month ago, it was the Israeli media, along with some unsympathetic Gulf newspapers, which claimed Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, had been demoted by the Iranians due to his performance during the summer 2006 war. Instead, according to those reports, his deputy, Sheikh Naim Qassem, had been handed control of the party’s military wing and Nasrallah’s demotion explained his recent absence from the limelight.

Since the New Year, however, Nasrallah has barely been off the television screens, giving interviews and televised speeches. On Saturday, at a ceremony marking Ashoura, Nasrallah made his first public appearance since the end of the 2006 summer war.

In his speech, Nasrallah claimed that Hezbollah holds the body parts of Israeli soldiers recovered from the battlefields of South Lebanon. He was deliberately and provocatively targeting Israeli sensitivity over the Jewish religious law that demands the dead be buried intact where possible and that their remains lie undisturbed.

“I want to tell all Zionists. Your army is lying to you … [it] is always boasting that if it enters a fight, it wins and never leaves the bodies of the dead or wounded on the ground. I am telling you … your army left parts of their bodies in our villages and our fields and our mujahedeen were killing them and collecting their body parts. And I’m not talking about normal parts. We’ve got heads and hands and legs from your soldiers. We have one semi-complete body from the chest to the pelvis. What did they say to the family of this soldier?”

Nasrallah is a master of psychological manipulation, acknowledged even by the Israelis, and his words had a powerful effect in Israel. The next day, Israeli cabinet ministers queued up to deliver invective against the Hezbollah leader.

Zeev Boim called Nasrallah a “sewer rat” while Meir Sheetrit said, “We don’t need to negotiate with him, we need to destroy him.” Columnist Yigal Walt wrote in Yedioth Aharanot that Nasrallah’s “boastful claim” was “nothing short of dreadful, repugnant, and horrifying.” “His words made our blood boil,” Walt wrote.

Other Israeli columnists spun Nasrallah’s declaration as a sign of the Hezbollah leader’s “weakness” or “desperation” or that he could “sense trouble and a loss in his status.”

However, Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, recognized Nasrallah’s macabre ploy for what it was. As Israeli prime minister during Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Barak is familiar with Hezbollah’s ability to unnerve the Israeli public through the deft use of propaganda.

“Our problem is that we always strengthen him and his words more than necessary. He always uses psychological pressure, and I recommend paying no heed to his comments," Barak said.

On Monday, Hezbollah raised the stakes a little higher when the pro- opposition newspaper Al-Akhbar said it had photographs of the remains of dead Israeli soldiers and published a picture of a dog tag belonging to Sergeant Ron Mashiach, who was killed during the war when Hezbollah fighters shot down a troop transport helicopter with an anti-tank missile as it was taking off from near Yater village.

The Israeli Haaretz daily on Tuesday carried remarks by Mashiach’s distraught mother who had begun to question if the Israeli army had told her the truth about her son’s remains. “I understood he was buried whole. They said that except for the dog tag, everything is fine,” she was quoted as saying.

The families of the other 118 Israeli soldiers killed during the war will probably also wonder if their loved ones were buried correctly according to Jewish custom. And with good reason too. For in raising the subject of Israeli body parts in Hezbollah’s hands, Nasrallah was returning to old – but fertile – ground in the unrelenting psychological campaign against Israel.

In September 1997, Hezbollah fighters ambushed a 16-strong unit of elite Israeli naval commandos near the coastal village of Ansarieh, midway between Sidon and Tyre. Eleven members of the squad were killed in the ambush and another died in the rescue attempt. The ambush is cited by Hezbollah as one of its top three most successful military operations between 1982 and 2000.

Shortly after the last Israeli helicopter clattered into the distance, Hezbollah fighters and local villagers were picking up the bloody remains of Israeli soldiers killed by Hezbollah’s roadside bombs. The remains included part of the head and other body parts of Sergeant Itamar Ilya, who was blown to pieces when a bomb he was carrying detonated in the fire fight.

Negotiations brokered by German and then French intelligence resulted in a swap 10 months later in which Ilya was exchanged for 60 Lebanese detainees and the corpses of 40 resistance fighters. The sergeant’s remains were handed to the International Committee for the Red Cross in a simple cold box.

But by the time the Israeli military transport plane touched down in Tel Aviv, Ilya’s remains had been transferred to a coffin draped in the Star of David flag. His coffin was carried solemnly off the plane by Israeli soldiers and was buried. The story could have ended there. But Hezbollah had another trick up its sleeve.

Using the internet, Hezbollah began posing questions on its website addressed to the Israeli public. The first queried the findings of the two Israeli inquiries into the Ansarieh debacle, which found that there had been no intelligence breach by Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s teasing questions on its website about how it could have known the Israeli commandos were coming led to public pressure on the Israeli government to convene a third commission of inquiry.

Then Hezbollah posed questions about the body parts it had returned to Israel. Hezbollah always said that the remains included body parts from two other soldiers apart from Ilya, adding it had DNA evidence. But the Israelis had kept it quiet, creating the impression to the Israeli public that the only missing soldier from Ansarieh was Ilya and that the other 11 soldiers had been buried intact.

Hezbollah posted photographs of the body parts which included five feet. “How can one man have five feet?” taunted the website. “Your army is concealing the facts. They not only disrespect your sons when they are alive by sending them to certain death, they also disrespect them after they are dead. The bodies of your sons are incomplete and mixed up with pieces of others,” the Hezbollah website said.

The propaganda ploy sparked an uproar in Israel, as a deeply embarrassed Israeli army was forced to admit that it had opened up the graves of two soldiers killed at Ansarieh to add the new body parts.

Suddenly, families of the dead soldiers were demanding autopsies and DNA tests to check that the remains in the graves were really their relatives and not a mish-mash of separate bodies.

The Ansarieh episode was a prime example of Hezbollah’s ability to blend battlefield prowess with skilful propaganda, and underlined to Israel more than any other incident that its days occupying south Lebanon were numbered.

Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut-based correspondent and author of “Killing Mr Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and its Impact on the Middle East. IB Tauris. 2006

  • Rabieh

    Sami, no clue dude, no matter how many times we tell you Israel is the enemy, you always accuse us of being on their side, you know what so what If I am on their side. I don't care, at least they did not occuppy Lebanon for 30 years, abducting us, terrorizing us like our so called sister "syria". When the enemies does something bad, it is not as bad as when a close country like suria does the things they did, from assasinations, etc... You lose tribunal on it's way. Hey by the way, if you really hate Israel, how come you people live, and work with them in USA, try Michigan. You even invite their Rabbi to your events. " refute this logic if you can".

    February 13, 2008

  • Rabieh

    sami dude...read who was on CBN? December 13, 2006...5:41 pm- Aoun said: Hezbollah is a terrorist group. Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN)’s Pat Anderson’s website. The website featured an interview of Aoun in which he declared that Hezbollah was not separate from Syria and was a terrorist group. The interview was actually in Tayyar.org’s archives. Now what I don’t understand is how people can simply forget that not even a couple of years ago while in exile, Aoun was condemning the Syrian presence in this country and now he their ally! The bottom line is that this interview says a lot about how far away Aoun has drifted from his original agenda and prerogatives. He has gone from anti-Syria and anti-Hezbollah to Hezbollah puppet and Syrian yes-man. God help us!!!

    February 13, 2008

  • Sami

    CBN?Christian Broadcasting Network?And you call us sectarians?The 700 club is the biggest supporter of Israel, and you support them hence you are a supporter of Israel, refute this logic if you can.

    February 11, 2008

  • Sami

    The Lebanese, you know that Syria supports Hamas and Hizeb.Israel calls them terrorists.If you call them terrorists also then you must be on the side of Israel, why do you call yourself "the Lebanese" you should call yourself "the Israeli".Thank you Bashar.

    February 11, 2008

  • Rabieh

    Well I believe aoun when he said during an intervew on September 12, 2002 CBN.com Syria is a nation which is known to support terrorism, Per aoun's request Congress voted on the Syria Accountability Act. To learn more about the persecution of Christians, and the threats posed by Syria, Pat Robertson spoke with General Michel Aoun, the elected Prime Minister of Lebanon who was forced from power when Syrian forces seized control of Lebanon. PAT ROBERTSON: Just think, Lebanon was a model country, a beautiful country, etc... The Christians have roughly half of the population of Lebanon, its a little less than 50 percent now. But they are second class citizens, they're being trampled underfoot by the Syrians, and nobody seems to be doing anything about it. With me is General Michel Aoun who is the former prime minister of Lebanon and the former commander-in-chief of the armed forces. General Aoun, delighted to have you with us on The 700 Club, welcome. Tell me about Hezbollah. We hear ab

    February 4, 2008

  • Fouad

    mind game??that's politics...live with+get over it...

    February 3, 2008

  • Sami

    Read again, no one mentioned nuclear, nor Iran or Syria, although they will help.You can go get a visa from Canada, we are staying in Lebanon, grave or no grave.

    February 1, 2008

  • Ex Aounsit

    !think of what you are writing, and the argument of nuclear winds do not stand cause in technological sophistacation they can put you a nuclear suppository ( where they please ) without anything reaching israel, and if you are relying on iran or syria for help - i advise you to prepare a grave right now!

    January 29, 2008

  • Ex Aounsit

    necromania...

    January 26, 2008

  • Sami

    This "vary" large man sent a massage to Israel as follows: i want to be with my people in the open, if you try to kill me i have orders for my people to press one button that will send 40, 000 missils raining on your homes.This is the time for victories it is no longer that "Lebanons strength is in his weakness".It is in his men and his weapons.

    January 26, 2008

  • wtv

    well we're all animals... the root cause of lebanon's difficulties, if you come to take a look into it: - the israelis come and take the land by money what they can and by power what they can't ...the palestinians attacks north (don't know why, ask 3arafat the smartxxx) the christians defends with everything they got against everyone around till they use the help(weapons) of israel, then they decide to change back and maybe start over with their neighbour- lebanese brothers ..coz you know guys, why we're fighting we never done that before - that's not what israel wants so they start killing them, now syria (who plotted all this from the beginning-ASSAD the brain- accepting some palestinians but no acts of war against israel, at the same time directing other palestinians to lebanon, this way the war is on our land) come to put a grasp(and help the lebanese - or christians - whom it fought against in the beginning), then israel gets some slaps gets out, someone does a mistake(or not?)

    January 25, 2008

  • Cedars

    sorry guys, but I have to say that, I have never seen so many UGLY people in one place in my whole life? WOW, a human parts collections ! thanks for clarifying to the world that you are a savage. Even no respect to the dead (it doesn't matter who are they), what are you some kind of a Cannibal? By the way I wonder if all these Gothic people we saw on TV around hassan are Lebanese! Or some from the revolution guards / Syrian army...God help us.

    January 25, 2008

  • Sami

    The rat lives in bkirki.

    January 25, 2008

  • Shunkleash

    It would have been a tremendous loss to the world of science culture and philosophy if the israelis had acidentally dropped a vary large laser guided bomb on this rat. Here he is in this picture...pretending that he is not the root cause of all of lebanons current difficulties.

    January 24, 2008