Israeli Website Mixes Fact And Fantasy

The Guardian - April 3, 2001

Tasteless computer games are one thing, but Brian Whitaker says that fantasy masquerading as journalism is far worse

Scanning the news on the internet at the weekend, I was alarmed to see at the top of the list a headline saying: "Talonsoft announces Arab-Israeli Wars".

Who, I wondered, is Mr Talonsoft - and why did his announcement of such a momentous event appear only in an obscure publication called ZDNet?

In fact, the story proved far less dramatic than its headline. Automated news compilations on the internet list stories from hundreds of sources, but there are none of the typographical signals that printed newspapers use to indicate their importance. The first story on the list may be of no great consequence.

Talonsoft, I discovered, is a US-owned software company that specialises in computer war games, and its latest product, Arab-Israeli Wars, will be released in the summer.

"The game will feature 22 stand-alone scenarios covering a number of historical battles from the Six-Day war, the independence war, the war of the waters, and the Yom Kippur war," the blurb says, apparently unaware that the names of these wars are contentious.

"Players will control authentic units such as the M48A2 Patton, the M60, the T-62, the MiG 17, and the F-4E Phantom II. Battles will take place in a variety of Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon."

Possibly it did not occur to Talonsoft that announcing this during the worst week of Israeli-Palestinian violence since the intifada began could be perceived as tasteless. Or possibly their marketing department thought that would be the ideal moment.

Either way, there's something very disturbing about a company that turns one of the world's great unresolved political conflicts into a plaything - though it is only one of many ways that our electronic world blurs the boundaries between fantasy and reality, between tragedy and entertainment.

Last month in Beirut, I visited an internet cafe that echoed with the sound of digital gunfire. About 30 teenagers were running around virtual streets, shooting at virtual enemies. Just a few years earlier, in the real street outside, their fathers - and possibly even elder brothers - fought real gun battles during the Lebanese civil war.

Computer games may be realistic, but at least they do not purport to be anything other than a game. If some of the players can't tell the difference, that's not necessarily the makers' fault.

It's a different matter, however, when fiction purports to be journalism. There's a website called debka.com that describes itself as "an internet weekly on intelligence, politics and terrorism" and "the decision-maker's indispensable tool".

For a subscription of $120, you can have it emailed every week - which at least suggests its content is worth paying for. Debka, which is based in Jerusalem, hints at having exclusive access to Israeli intelligence sources and makes a habit of mis-spelling Arabic names.

A banner at the top of each page says: "We start where the media stop" - a claim that few could disagree with, since Debka blends fact, fantasy and propaganda in ways that make it difficult to separate one from the other.

One of Debka's recurring obsessions is its belief that the PLO, Hizbullah, Syria, Iraq and Iran have all joined a secret alliance against Israel. Many of its stories are tailored to support this theory.

Anyone who has witnessed the repeated failure of Arab countries to agree on a united course of action about any issue of importance ought to have serious doubts about the likelihood of such an alliance.

Nevertheless, some elements in the Israeli government and military seem intent on promoting the idea that it exists - and Debka supports them in their efforts.

The motive of these elements is not entirely clear. Some suggest they are seeking to provide justification for an attack on Lebanon and Syria. Perhaps more likely, they may be trying to persuade the US to grant Israel a free rein in the region and provide it with more weapons.

But there certainly is a political motive behind the stories of a PLO-Hizbullah-Syrian-Iraqi-Iranian alliance, and they should be treated with suspicion unless supported by more evidence than Debka is able to provide.

A recent "special exposé" of the new Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, gives a flavour of Debka's journalistic methods and content:

As a child, Debka says, Bashar "was always rather strange - virtually uneducable, quick-tempered and given to petty cruelties against animals and weaker playmates. No one bothered to correct his ways, never imagining he would ever come to high office."

The death of Bashar's elder brother (whom many people had expected to become the next president) suddenly changed all that, Debka says. His ailing father, Hafez al-Assad, desperately sought to prepare Bashar for the presidency.

According to Debka, he "turned to the adept image-makers of British and French intelligence, asking them to fabricate for the youthful Beshar [sic] a Western-educated, modern Arab intellectual facade."

As a result, Debka says, Britain cooked up a fictitious story that Bashar had studied ophthalmic surgery in London - though why the British were so obliging in this matter is not explained.

The Americans and Israelis knew about the Syrian-British scheme, Debka adds, but agreed to keep quiet when both Bashar and Hafez al-Assad promised to be nice to Washington and to "sign peace with Israel on acceptable terms".

Debka complains: "After several months in power, Beshar shows no sign of keeping either of those promises."

The only evidence cited by Debka to support this fanciful tale is that "the young Syrian president studiously avoids contacts with foreigners and medical people", so as not to reveal "his lack of medical knowledge and halting English."

It adds: "When he cannot avoid these contacts, he listens and nods but says little." The rest of the story is attributed to unnamed "intelligence sources".

Intelligence sources are always a useful standby in the absence of any firm evidence: the nature of their work not only suggests they have special knowledge, but also provides an obvious reason why they cannot be identified.

People who are not identified cannot be held reponsible for what they are reported to have said.

One of the problems with Debka is that its stories usually have just enough of a factual basis to sound plausible - indeed, some of them may even be true. They are also sufficiently well told and interesting to trickle out into popular gossip and occasionally into the mainstream media.

Unprovable (and probably spurious) claims about threats to Israel from Iranian Republican Guards in Lebanon and Hizbullah guerrillas in the occupied territories which originated in Debka have recently re-surfaced in two respected publications: Jane's Foreign Report and the Saudi-owned daily, Ash-Sharq al-Awsat.


See Also:
  • Re Debka Article: Caveat Emptor - Reader Beware!