At forefront of Middle East conflict

Preview: `Frontline' offers insight into the strategy of both sides.

April 04, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

For years, PBS executives have vowed to make their news and public affairs programs more timely - usually with little or no success. But it would be hard to imagine a more timely or relevant report on the escalating warfare in the Middle East than Frontline's "Battle for the Holy Land" tonight.

The report, produced by British journalists for the BBC and Frontline, takes viewers deeper inside the world of Palestinian suicide bombers and the Israeli commando units designed to intercept them than anything I have seen on American television. The access alone is remarkable.

Viewers will meet a Palestinian "engineer" who makes the "belts" of explosives that bombers wear. He models one for the cameras as he explains how the TNT is made to explode. Viewers will also see an Israeli commando unit carry out a nighttime raid on a house within Palestinian territory to capture Nasser Zakarna, convicted in Israel as a Hamas terrorist. The segment plays like a scene written by John le Carre.

Then there is a sequence showing an Israeli helicopter launching a missile attack on the car of a suspected Palestinian terrorist. While the intended target escapes, a 3-year-old boy in the car is killed.

As gripping as these stories are, what truly distinguishes the report is the understanding it offers into the current standoffs in Bethlehem and the Ramallah headquarters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, as well as the mounting body count from suicide bombings and warfare in the Middle East. Watch this report, and you will understand the military strategy on both sides, especially the new realm of warfare into which the daily suicide bombings targeting civilians have taken the Middle East.

"Through martyr missions inside Israel, we sent a clear message to the Israeli street: The Israeli street will never enjoy peace until the children of Palestine also enjoy peace," Jihad Ja'arie, a leader of the Al-Aqsa brigade says in the film, echoing the words Osama bin Laden used to further threaten the United States after Sept. 11.

The Al-Aqsa brigade is the military wing of Arafat's Fatah organization, one of the militias that conduct suicide bombings against Israelis.

Ali Sufari, head of the Islamic Jihad, another group using suicide bombers, says, "Suicide missions are not our goal; they are a deterrence. It achieves for us the balance of terror. When my countryman sees that Apache [American-made Israeli helicopter] circling in the sky, he becomes scared. But also for them [Israelis], when an operation [suicide bombing] takes place in Afula, the man in Tel Aviv becomes too scared to even sleep at his home. Such is the balance of terror."

More than anything else, this film is about the balance of terror, showing how suicide bombings tip that balance away from the vastly superior military firepower of the Israelis. While network and cable news in recent days have been filled with images of Arafat under siege - Israeli tanks knocking down compound walls, while Arafat speaks on a cell phone, his face lit only by a flashlight - Frontline also shows the siege Israel feels itself under from suicide bombers and the ways in which it is trying to stop the attacks.

"Battle for the Holy Land," which was filmed in December with updates filmed this week, divides the hour between the two sides to offer a structural balance. But it also succeeds in the far more difficult task of letting us see a little bit of both military cultures from the inside out, through the eyes of the foot soldiers and lieutenants living on the edge of death in the promised land.

Premiere

What: Battle for the Holy Land

When: Tonight at 9

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)

In brief: A powerful look from within the trenches of Middle East warfare.

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