Dissecting the media coverage of the "Sujud incident"

Lebanese politics and the media were abuzz this week over the repercussions of the "Sujud incident," in which an Army helicopter was shot at by the Resistance; and the controversy over a headline in the French-language newspaper, L'Orient-Le Jour.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah during last week's TV address. R.R.

BEIRUT, September 6, 2008 (MENASSAT) – The "Sujud incident," in which a Lebanese Army helicopter was shot at by Resistance, or Hezbollah militants in the southern town of Sujud, has sparked harsh but expected reactions from all sides. 

On August 28, 2008, a Lebanese Army helicopter had to make an emergency landing after taking gun shots that killed its first pilot, Lieutenant Samer Hanna. 

It was the first incident of its kind between the Lebanese Army and the Resistance, and it comes at a time when heated discussion is going on about Hezbollah's weapons. Thus it provided a perfect opportunity for Hezbollah's critics to push the argument that Hezbollah is building its own state within the Lebanese state. 

Hezbollah, realizing the importance of what happened, was quick to hand "the shooter" over to the Lebanese Army (also a first) and announced complete and full cooperation with the investigation by the judiciary. Significantly, the family of the dead officer refused to receive condolences by a Hezbollah delegation. 

The Lebanese Army was cautious and formal, offering condolences and expressing hope that the incident wouldn't be exploited politically. It is conducting its investigation away from the media. 

Despite the harsh words spoken about Hezbollah by politicians from the parliamentary majority, Al-Mustaqbal, the newspaper belonging to the main Sunni party, Saad Hariri's Future Party, was rather subdued about the Sujud incident on Friday.

It did feature an article about the controversy between Michel Aoun, Hezbollah's main Christian ally, and the French-language newspaper L'Orient-Le Jour.

Aoun had heavily criticized L'Orient-Le Jour over an August 30 headline qualifiying the Sujud incident as a murder and alleging that the shooter had acted "in cold blood."

According to Aoun, L'Orient-Le Jour "deserves to be brought to justice for describing the shooter as a murderer before a court of justice has made its ruling."

On Thursday, L'Orient-Le Jour wrote the following in response to Aoun's accusations: "We published on August 30 that slain Officer Samer Hanna was shot when the helicopter landed, and we received the information from ministerial sources."

Aoun's criticism therefore contradicted the facts, L'Orient-Le Jour said. 

Former Lebanese president and head of the Phalange party, Amin Gemeyel, called the controversy over "a return to the dark days of Syrian guardianship, which oppressed all free voices in Lebanon."

Visiting the offices of the paper on Friday, Gemayel said that Aoun was employing "the same means [as Syria] to intimidate journalists and the press and to impose his positions on them."

Meanwhile, Lebanese president Michael Suleiman, in an attempt to calm things down, personally addressed a meeting of journalists and representatives of the press syndicate over the Sujud incident.

"Haven't you heard of all the times armies have bombed their own soldiers by mistake? Or armies shooting down their own airplanes by mistake? This happens with the best and most developed armies. An accident is an accident. We should not under estimate it, it is bad and harmful, but the army is dealing with it realistically, and the resistance is taking it seriously, not underestimating its gravity," Sleiman told the journalists. 

Such a statement by a President who was until recently the head of the Army, carries considerable weight. Sleiman's choice of words effectively placed the Resistance and the Army on the same footing.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah also put in his two bits with a new televized speech in which he addressed the Sujud incident directly.

"We are cooperating with the Lebanese Army since the first minute," Nasrallah said. "`Some brothers were surprised by a helicopter they could not identify, and one brother opened fire, and what happened has happened."

Nasrallah revealed that it was the shooter himself who asked to be turned over to the military judiciary. "He is a 19 or 20 years old young man who said, 'I joined the resistance to defend my country, I did not come to cause any embarrassment for the resistance.'" 

But Nasrallah also criticized those who have exploited the incident in order to disrupt the relationship between the Army and the Resistance, indirectly addressing the L'Orient-Le Jour controversy.

"The whole issue is nothing more than an accident, it has no political bearing… We do not send messages using the bodies and blood of our loved and dear ones, neither in the Army, nor in the Resistance, nor among civilians.

"I do not accept that anyone label him a criminal. He is a resistance fighter who was doing his duty, a confusion has happened and the investigation will clear the matter. It is for the judiciary to decide; no one else has the right to incriminate anyone." 

Nasrallah's speech comes amid heated discussion within Lebanon about the necessity of Hezbollah's weapons, and increased Israeli threats to both Hezbollah and Iran. It also has to be seen against the backdrop of the recent quartet summit in Damascus between French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Syrian president Bashar Al-Asad, Sheikh Mohammad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani of Qatar and the Turkish Prime Minister, Rajab Tayeb Ardogan.

The Damascus summit aims to end Syria's international isolation over its support for Hezbollah, which inevitably calls into question the issue of Hezbollah's arms and their role in the regional context.

Both President Sleiman's and Hezbollah's handling of the Sujud incident are revealing for the future discussion over the arms of the Resistance.

By comparing what happened to mistakes taking place within the same army, the Lebanese President has effectively placed the Army and the Resistance in the same category. One might say: together for better or worse.

At the same time, Hezbollah has handed over one of its members for the first time ever to the Lebanese judiciary.

President Suleiman seems aware of changes that might come, both in peace and war. The power in negotiations requires power over the weapons – Hezbollah's success in the prisoners release negotiations with Israel is proof of this.

The question now is: How will Hezbollah negotiate? And will this be part of the much anticipated discussion about Lebanon's defense strategy?