In August 2006, a scandal erupted in the context of the war then raging against Lebanon. From July 12 to August 14 of that year, Israel pummeled the country, flattening entire villages and slaughtering an estimated 1,200 people in the process, the vast majority of them civilians.
For some observers, the devastation and slaughter did not itself amount to a scandal. Rather, the real crime of the season had been committed by a Lebanese freelance photographer named Adnan Hajj, who was accused of manipulating two photographs for Reuters of an Israeli air raid on Beirut.
The New York Times reported that “the matter has created an uproar on the Internet, where many bloggers see an anti-Israel bias in Mr. Hajj’s manipulations, which made the damage from Israeli strikes into Beirut appear worse than the original pictures had.”
The alleged transgression was first publicized by blogger Charles Johnson of the Little Green Footballs website, whose other claims to fame include slamming 23-year-old American peace activist Rachel Corrie—fatally bulldozed by the Israelis in 2003—as a “terror-supporting child abuser.” No bias there, obviously.
Ethically speaking, it’s clearly wrong for news photographers to engage in politically or ideologically-motivated alteration of images. But in examining Hajj’s images provided on the New York Times’ website, one is hard-pressed to see how the manipulated image conveys a level of destruction any worse than that conveyed by the original. In both, clouds of heavy black smoke linger over Lebanon’s capital city. As the article notes, Hajj claimed that he was merely endeavoring to adjust the lighting in the photo and to remove a bit of dust.
Even had you wanted to, it would have been difficult to exaggerate the damage inflicted upon Lebanon in the summer of 2006. When my friend Amelia and I hitchhiked around the country a month after the termination of the war, national infrastructure was still in shambles. Bridges had been pulverized, sections of towns and cities had been converted to rubble, and swathes of the Lebanese coastline were coated in oil thanks to Israel’s bombardment of fuel tanks at Lebanon’s Jiyyeh power plant.
Residential areas of Dahiyeh—the southern suburbs of Beirut forever vilified in the media as Hezbollah’s “stronghold”—consisted of ubiquitous craters where apartment blocks had previously stood. On top of all of that, Israel had saturated south Lebanon with cluster bombs, many of which failed to explode on impact and continue to this day to maim and kill. As Human Rights Watch noted in 2008:
“Israel rained as many as 4.6 million submunitions across southern Lebanon in at least 962 separate strikes, the vast majority over the final three days of the war when Israel knew a settlement was imminent.”
Physical decimation aside, the human toll of the conflict was of course even more appalling, as the Israeli military had engaged in such activities as close-range helicopter massacres of families with small children fleeing southern Lebanon in accordance with explicit Israeli evacuation orders.
None of this recent trauma, however, had impeded the extreme hospitality of the residents of destroyed areas, who invited Amelia and me into what remained of their homes, fed us, and often insisted we stay the night.
This year, I conducted another hitchhiking trip in Lebanon in honor of the 10th anniversary of the war, which I documented in a new e-book titled Martyrs Never Die: Travels through South Lebanon, published by Warscapes magazine. The same human generosity was once again on excessive display—and memories of 2006 were as present as ever.
One driver who picked me up on the side of the road had seen no fewer than 11 members of his family, including his mother, killed by the Israeli military. Another young man, who had been 13 at the time of the 2006 war and had remained in his village on the Israeli border for the duration of the conflict, got to see corpses of neighbors crushed in the rubble of their homes; he remarked that, after the longest 34 days of his life, the past 10 years had gone by in a flash.
Shortly after the launch of hostilities in 2006, U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair discussed possibilities for ending the war in what they thought was an unrecorded chat. In Bush’s ever-eloquent opinion, “what they need to do is get Syria, to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it’s all over.” (He also managed to address the British premier as “Yo, Blair” and to thank him for the gift of a sweater, which Blair jokingly claimed to have knitted himself. Mass bloodshed is hilarious.)
Regarding the “shit” being done by various parties, Hezbollah was simply daring to defend Lebanese territory while the United States rush-shipped bombs to the Israelis and warned the international community of the perils of a too-swift cease-fire. Bush helpfully invented terms like “Hezbollian,” and then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hailed the ongoing carnage as the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.”
But as I remark in Martyrs Never Die, the goal of the birthing process is generally not to kill the fetus.
As homicidal obstetrics continued unabated, meanwhile, Adnan Hajj was suspended from photographic duty at Reuters for his image touch-ups, and the New York Times marveled at “the swift justice of the Internet.”
Now, 10 years later, Israel continues to threaten Lebanon with total destruction in the next confrontation—as though its regular assaults on the country over the past several decades haven’t amounted to just that.
For Lebanon, apparently, justice isn’t even slow. It’s nonexistent.
Belén Fernández is the author of "The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work," published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine and Ricochet.