Essay: The Birth of the Terror Selfie
Feb 3, 2016 | Matti Friedman
From Lebanon, 1994, to ISIS
This fall and winter have seen many of us here in Israel consuming a miserable kind of reality TV: blurry clips of young Palestinian Muslims with knives seeking release in murder and martyrdom, lunging, stabbing, falling stricken to the ground, the action captured by cellphones or security cameras; an imam in Gaza waving a knife and calling on the faithful to render us into “body parts”; a fighter from the Islamic State, our new neighbour, warning us of the violence he and his comrades will inflict when they arrive.
The effect was so disturbing that it triggered psychological stress akin to that of a real war, though the fatalities barely added up to a skirmish. No land was conquered or lost, no concessions demanded. With our computers and cellphones, as the Director of Military Intelligence put it, “We’re all brainwashing ourselves.” The battlefield had moved almost entirely inside our own minds.
In the past month or two it has been more apparent than ever that the confluence of unfiltered information, dramatic images of bloodshed, and fanatical interpretations of Islam have converged to become one of the key forces shaping our lives. That makes it worth looking for the moment this force began to make itself felt in earnest. My selection, a subjective one based on my personal experience, can be found on the front page of the Israeli daily Maariv of Oct. 31, 1994.
Two possible futures appear on this page in the form of two stories. The day’s main headline tells us that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is in Morocco, where he met with King Hassan. Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan is a few days old. The photo shows a warm handshake between the Prime Minister and the King, two men of similar age, and the headline quotes the Israeli leader: “Peace is a house, and the economy will furnish it.” This was what was known at the time as the “new Middle East,” the title of an optimistic book published by Shimon Peres a year earlier, which envisioned a peaceful region where new highways moved citizens of Palestine to shop in Israel and Israeli tourists to the souks of Damascus, past old tanks rusting at the side of the road.
Below the fold is a smaller headline. It reads, “Shock in the army: Soldiers flee at outpost during Hezbollah attack.” The story appears on page 2 with a blurred frame from a video in which an armed man is seen driving a flag into the ground.
The latter story, obscure at the time and forgotten now, bears some explanation.
Two days earlier, a Saturday, at an Israeli army position on a hilltop in southern Lebanon, shelling commenced just after 8:30 am. This base, Outpost Pumpkin, was part of a string of grim Israeli army positions with trenches, machine guns, and bed-and-breakfast names; nearby were Outposts Cypress, Citrus, Red Pepper, and Basil. In those days the army controlled a buffer zone inside Lebanon to protect Israel’s northern border, waging a guerrilla war in this zone throughout the 1990s with the Shi’ite fighters of Hezbollah, the Party of God. Hezbollah wasn’t the powerful force we now see dominating Lebanon and fighting in Syria, with 150,000 missiles pointed at Israel. At the time the group wasn’t taken particularly seriously. Yet this little war, about which nearly nothing has been written, is key to understanding the present-day Middle East.
A lieutenant moving between guard posts on the perimeter had his back riddled with shrapnel and was helped to a bunker where medics were busy with someone else, a soldier who had lost some of his fingers. Shooting seemed to be coming from every direction, and the soldiers couldn’t see the attackers. Several sentries and lookouts guarding the approaches from the west abandoned their positions under fire, and then the guerrillas arrived with their cameraman.
We’re used to this kind of footage by now, but in the fall of 1994 it was fresh and gripping: shouting in Arabic, gunfire, martial music. At first the camera’s lens is at the height of dry thistles on the hillside, below the peak where the Israeli emplacements loom. Hezbollah shells hitting the embankments send up plumes of dust. Someone not visible in the frame shouts, “Just a minute.” After another shell hits on target we hear, “Good, good!” A fighter shoulders a launcher and fires a rocket.
When four guerrillas leave cover and move uphill, closing the distance to the outpost, the cameraman follows them. They run until the steep climb slows them to a walk. There is no response from the Israelis. When the fighters reach the top one pulls out a Hezbollah flag and plants it triumphantly with both hands as the camera rolls. It is the jihadi moon landing, the Iwo Jima of militant Islam. Cut.
The newly rapid and unchecked flow of electronic information across borders gave the Hezbollah propagandists of 1994 immediate access to millions of TV viewers throughout the Islamic world, where the video was greeted with applause and admiration. Viewers in Israel were horrified. The Hezbollah man drove his little flag into the ground on Israeli TV sets over and over again. Headlines called the incident “the disgrace,” and Outpost Pumpkin became briefly infamous as a symbol of rot in the military. Hezbollah claimed to have captured the hill and to have “purified it of Zionists,” in the words of one official account. In fact, though one soldier had been killed the garrison was intact, and the guerrillas never set foot in the base. After planting the flag they ran away, but you didn’t see that on the video. What you saw looked like a victory, and so in Israel the incident gained the dimensions of a major military defeat.
Terrorist drama isn’t new, as the bomb-throwing nihilists of tsarist Russia would remind us, and neither is the use of mass media to amplify military success – even if you don’t know what happened on Iwo Jima, you know the photo of those Marines and their flag. But this video represented the seed of a new idea, or perhaps a distillation of the old one. It was no longer necessary to do anything as difficult as kill the tsar or capture the island, or even hijack an airplane before the eyes of the world media, as the PLO did in the 1970s. The camera wasn’t a way to amplify success, but a replacement for success.
Some in the army protested that the incident was just an attack repulsed. But they were stuck in the 20th century, while Hezbollah had progressed to the 21st. The flag was an enactment of bravery and defiance staged for the organisation’s own camera, which was the only really important weapon in the assault force. The Hezbollah fighter wasn’t engaged in an actual attack, but in a religious play. He was saying to his audience: Look at me, at my bravery, at the strength of my faith, fear me or follow me. It was a kind of selfie.
What the fighters were up to on Oct. 29, 1994, is interesting and important because it helps explain what their heirs and imitators are up to today. Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem explained in a book that his organisation is “not merely an armed group that wishes to liberate a piece of land, nor is it a circumstantial tool whose role will end when the pretext for using it comes to an end.” It is rather “a vision and an approach.” The idea is not to use war as a continuation of politics by other means, but to form what Qassem calls a “resistance society,” a community of faith where people are raised to believe that death in battle is not an unfortunate necessity but the attainment of a religious ideal. Hezbollah’s men weren’t radicals. They were not, that is, members of a society who have used reason to conclude that extreme action will accomplish the dramatic change they desire. They were fanatics: people with an entirely different idea of what’s going on, what life is, and where the future lies.
When confronted with this type of thinking, Western observers tend to dismiss it as strange rhetoric masking the kind of goals Westerners can understand. Journalists expend a great deal of energy trying to discern those goals, if not inventing them outright. (This is why, for example, you’ll encounter so many reportorial gymnastics to the effect that Hamas’ war against Israel has to do with a Gaza blockade imposed years after Hamas’ war against Israel began.) In the 1990s we in Israel misunderstood Hezbollah as a kind of Viet Cong, an ideological group interested in a piece of land. Many observers shared the same misunderstanding. “Despite its rhetoric,” journalist Hala Jaber assured readers in a book about Hezbollah from 1997, “Hezbollah knows that its military resistance would be terminated once Israel withdraws from South Lebanon.”
But Hezbollah’s war was never solely about forcing Israel off territory, and Qassem brags in his book of rejecting an Israeli offer for a negotiated withdrawal. It wasn’t primarily about land, and the battle on the hill in October 1994 wasn’t for the hill. The attack was meant to provide an image and an example that would mobilise support for a holy war that wouldn’t end because it was an end in itself.
Powerful new ideas often pop up in a few places more or less simultaneously, so it’s not surprising that at the same time al-Qaeda was in incubation, Hamas was stirring, along with other ideological cousins around the region. The World Trade Center had been bombed the year before in a botched attack largely deemed a curiosity. The “vision and approach” was spreading across the Middle East in different versions beneath the outwardly stagnant surface of the region’s dictatorships.
None of this was clear that day in 1994. When the editors at Maariv sat down to lay out their front page on Oct. 31, the talks in Morocco that weekend were the main headline and Outpost Pumpkin went under the fold. From there the flag incident migrated deeper inside the paper over the next few weeks before being forgotten – except by the soldiers who were there and by the new soldiers who rotated in and out of Outpost Pumpkin afterward. Before I arrived on the hill with my infantry company three years later, our commanders made sure to tell us the story. The image of the holy warrior with the flag was imprinted on our impressionable brains and kept us awake in the guard posts. The following year, when I was responsible for my own soldiers on the hill as a platoon sergeant, I made sure they knew it too.
The guerrillas grew stronger and savvier in the years that followed. Israelis were not actually losing the war in Lebanon – the forces weren’t remotely comparable – but they were worn down. After a disastrous commando raid inside Lebanon in 1997, Hezbollah displayed Israeli body parts that had been left behind (and later erected a sign facing Israel showing a fighter holding a soldier’s severed head). Israelis began to perceive themselves to be losing, and support for a withdrawal grew. One night in May, 2000, five-and-a-half years after the video, soldiers from my company finally blew up Outpost Pumpkin when the army pulled out of south Lebanon.
The withdrawal gave Hezbollah what it wanted and ended the war – or so we thought, because we still didn’t understand Hezbollah or the war. In fact, the footage of Israeli vehicles retreating showed Hezbollah’s audience that the group’s “vision and approach” worked and could be replicated. A few months after the withdrawal, in the fall of 2000, the Palestinians launched the onslaught that became known as the Second Intifada. On Palestinian TV I saw footage of mass protests in Gaza spliced with shots of Israeli tanks leaving Lebanon earlier that year. Hezbollah’s success, wrote Naim Qassem, was “a light at the end of the Palestinian tunnel, a hope that liberation might be achieved by treading the path of resistance and martyrdom.” You didn’t have to win a battle or cede anything in humiliating negotiations. Instead, you could mobilise support and wear down the enemy with dramatic performances – of bravery, cruelty, sacrifice, and, above all, faith.
In its varying and often competing forms, this “vision and approach” has appeared to fill nearly every vacuum in the Middle East since then – south Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Sinai, and elsewhere. The different incarnations disagree about much but tend to share a taste for theatrical violence: gleaming knives, a pilot burning in a cage, a jet crashing into an office building. As we saw this fall in Paris, one of the latest stages selected for this performance, things have progressed so far that the original practitioners now seem tame.
Just as the Hezbollah fighters knew they wouldn’t take the outpost that day, the suicide stabbers on Israel’s streets right now know they won’t make a dent in Israeli control, create an independent state for Palestinians, or change anyone’s life for the better. Like the shooters in Paris or San Bernadino, they move in a world beyond such mundane goals. They aren’t soldiers but storytellers. Along with many others across this region, they have escaped despair into a fevered movie set where they are the directors and stars and everyone else is a disposable prop. We all need to understand this movie, because we’re all in it.
On that day in 1994, nearly everyone watching the Middle East thought the story that mattered was the one about leaders of states talking to each other. But the nameless men with the camera at Outpost Pumpkin mattered more.
Matti Friedman is the author of The Aleppo Codex and was a reporter and editor in the Jerusalem bureau of the Associated Press between 2006 and the end of 2011. His new book, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story, will be published in May. This article is reprinted from Tablet Magazine, at tabletmag.com, the online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture. © Tablet Magazine, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.