BEIRUT — Watching television in Lebanon and Israel has become a jarring experience over recent weeks.
Frustrated viewers have inundated their cable and satellite providers complaining that the onscreen images constantly flicker and freeze. Analysts on both sides of the border suspect covert military activity but, like any good Middle Eastern story, theories abound as to who is the culprit.
The onset of the problems coincided with a Sept. 6 Israeli air raid on Syria. Television signals began to deteriorate shortly afterward and on Sept. 12, Lebanon’s Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh told local daily An Nahar that interference had “started with the aggressive Israeli infiltration on Syria.”
But by Sept. 20, Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, which also linked reception problems to the raid, reported “Syrian espionage activities on northern Israel using Russian experts” as a possible cause of the disruption.
A third theory emerged on Sept. 23 when satellite industry publication Rapid TV News cited reports that strong radar signals were being generated by “various intelligence elements, chiefly Western countries, which are trying to fathom the intentions of Israel and Syria in the near future.”
Israeli and Lebanese cable providers have offered less specific explanations. Israeli satellite operator Yes said reception problems had been caused by “electromagnetic interference not connected to the company.”
Meanwhile cable providers in Lebanon said the disruptions originated from ships patrolling the Eastern Mediterranean.
“Radar systems in the (Mediterranean) Sea have scrambled satellite signals across Lebanon,” said Rola Zantout with Lebanon’s Cablevision, echoing the views of Orbit and Econet, two other providers in Lebanon.
The ship theory has also been reported in Yedioth Ahronoth, which added that spy aircraft could also be involved. Interference had decreased significantly by the end of last week but sporadic aberrations continue.
During Tuesday evening’s newscast on Lebanon’s LBC, a live report from a correspondent covering forest fires was suddenly cut short. The anchor then made a brief reference to chronic “scrambling of the airwaves” before picking up another story without explaining further.
But questions are being asked well beyond the Middle East. When pressed by journalists, U.S. President George Bush pointedly refused to discuss the Sept. 6 Israeli raid during a news conference late last month.
Israel remained silent on the raid until Tuesday when military sources tacitly admitted that an air operation took place.
Syrian state media reported the raid on the day it occurred, but only revealed the supposed target on Oct. 1 during an interview with the BBC. Syrian President Bashar El Assad told the broadcaster that Israel had struck “a military construction site” without providing further details.
The American media has also joined in the chorus of speculation.
Unnamed sources told the New York Times and Washington Post that Israel may have targeted a Syrian nuclear facility developed with experts from North Korea.
Hillary Clinton, candidate for the Democratic U.S. presidential nomination, lent some credibility to this theory when saying she supported the apparent strike against such a facility during a debate on Sept. 26, just days after Bush had repeatedly refused to comment.