Hizbollah did not get its propaganda coup

The images of the POW exchange reflected well on Israel in the foreign media


The media always find it difficult to deal with Israel-Arab prisoner exchanges. The sheer imbalance in numbers is hard enough to understand.

Over the last three decades, Israel has released some 7,000 Arab prisoners to secure the freedom of 19 Israelis and to retrieve the bodies of eight others.

What was different about this month’s prisoner swap, in return for the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, was not the lopsided nature of the deal, but the identity of one of the terrorists returned to Lebanon. Samir Kuntar was Israel’s most notorious prisoner, a cold-blooded murderer who bludgeoned a child to death. His presence in the exchange produced a notably confused reaction.

Writing in the Telegraph, Andrew Pierce, visiting Jerusalem, found the event inexplicable. “It’s a propaganda coup for Hizbollah. The handover of the soldiers for an evil man, who killed a four-year-old girl having already slain her father.”

But equally sickening, for anyone watching the television pictures, was the sight of the leader of Hezbollah, Sheikh Nasrallah, embracing the killer as if he were a war hero.

The BBC website provided a colourful account of the Kuntar homecoming. It noted the red carpets and the fluttering yellow-and-green flags of Hizbollah and Nasarallah’s words: “The age of defeats is gone, and the age of victories has come”. The reporter noted that the man being welcomed as a hero is “reviled in Israel” for his crimes, but appeared unrepentant, promising he would return to Palestine.

Robert Fisk in the Independent saw it as “a theatrical return for the living and the dead”. Fisk could not bring himself to applaud the child killer’s release. He described him as man used to solitary confinement “idolised by a people who had not seen him for three decades”. Nasrallah had promised his release and kept his word. This, in Fisk’s view, was a day of “humiliation” for Israel.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times focused on the atmosphere in Israel. The pressure on the Olmert government to “bring our sons home” has been ubiquitous in Israel, it explained. Their  families were given very little room for private grief over their deaths, not confirmed until the black-draped coffins were first seen on Israeli television. “It was horrible to see,” Zvi Regev,  the father of one of the killed soldiers, said.

Somehow Olmert found the language to justify want had been done, describing the “fate of everyone of our soldiers as the glue which binds us together as a society”.

But after looking at the news clippings, the TV images and the websites, it is clear that the events surrounding the prisoner exchange were not the propaganda coup that Pierce feared. The sight of a convicted killer embracing a terrorist and the accounts of celebration in Lebanon, best told by Fisk, were over the top and confirmed Nasrallah as a blood-thirsty cleric.

In contrast, Israel’s willingness to make concessions for the return of the war dead demonstrated the value which the Jewish state places on human life and remains of the dead.

It may well be that the media coverage of the events of last week was too thin on the ground and too unexplained to make a lasting impression. But as the late Michael Deaver, creator of the media image of Ronald Reagan, observed, the written word and the voice-over are irrelevant — it is the pictures which are important. The key message of last week’s events was of the dignified return in coffins of two young men who fought for their nation. On the other side of the border there were ghastly ceremonies, nasty embraces and few tears.

Israel’s humanity won this particular battle of videos.

    Last updated: 12:46pm, July 24 2008