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Media Analyses

CAMERA Column: Syria’s Quneitra Hoax

On his recent visit to Syria, the Pope was the most recent in a long line of prominent guests ushered by the government to the demolished town of Quneitra, there to personally witness in the rubble of flattened buildings evidence of alleged Israeli brutality. Such visits, complete with former residents bussed in to lament their fate, have been regular fare since 1974, when Syria regained Quneitra under a UN-brokered agreement and immediately charged that Israel had maliciously destroyed the town with bulldozers and dynamite just before the hand over.

Predictably, a UN investigation of the Syrian charges ignored eyewitness evidence, took no testimony from Israelis, and found that, indeed, Israel had intentionally destroyed the town. The report’s credibility was somewhat tarnished by the fact that the author and chief investigator was on the Syrian payroll.

The Syrian and UN charges notwithstanding, the facts tell a different story. Quneitra, in the Golan Heights, was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, suffering heavy damage in the process. By the time Israeli troops actually entered the town, most of the population had fled. Between the 1967 war and the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Syria did not hesitate to shell Israeli forces stationed in Quneitra, further damaging the town. And during the 1973 war, Quneitra was repeatedly shelled by Arab (not just Syrian) artillery and tanks.

The following year, as part of the disengagement agreement, Quneitra was handed back to Syria. Rather than repairing the damage and allowing Quneitra’s residents to return as called for in the agreement, however, Syria has instead left the town in ruins and put up billboards and a museum to expose what it charges are “Zionist crimes.”

A media with a seemingly insatiable appetite for anti-Israel fables eagerly embraced this one, in countless dispatches repeating at face value the Syrian claims. The BBC, CNN, the Financial Times, The Guardian, and the French wire service AFP were just some of the media outlets which ran accounts that could have been written by Bashar Assad himself.

Thus, a BBC web report claimed that Quneitra was “destroyed by the Israelis before being handed back to Syria in 1974.” CNN’s Jim Bittermann informed viewers that Quneitra “was captured by the Israelis during the Golan Heights battles during the 1967 war. The citizens were evacuated. And then the city was systematically destroyed.” His CNN colleague Brent Sadler was only slightly more reserved, telling viewers that Israel “reportedly destroyed [Quneitra] piece-by-piece before handing the land back to Syria ...” Not to be outdone, The Financial Times’ Gareth Smyth led his report with “Pope John Paul II on Monday prayed for ‘peace in the Holy Land’ in Quneitra, a Syrian town destroyed by Israel in 1974.” And so on – the Associated Press was apparently the only news service to at least have the decency to follow the Syrian charges with an Israeli denial.

How was Quneitra destroyed? Well, according to reporters who were there at the time, it fell victim to war and military attacks, including Syrian shelling after Israel took control in 1967. For instance, a Los Angeles Times article of June 12, 1967 included a sub-head which referred to Al Koneytra (ie Quneitra) as the “ruins of [a] captured town.” The article reported that “Al Koneytra was a town of smoldering ruins. Heavily armed convoys patrolled the debris-covered streets,” and “Life was at a virtual standstill, with all shops closed or wrecked.” This damage, obviously the result of the just-concluded war, occurred a full seven years before Israel’s supposed spiteful bulldozing of the town.

Soon after the war, Syria began regularly to shell Quneitra. For instance, a New York Times dispatch of June 25, 1970 headlined “Fighting Flares in Golan Heights as Syrian Tanks Attack Israelis,” reported that Syria had shelled Israeli positions in the Golan for three hours, hitting “El Quneitra, Nahal Gesher and Ein Zivan.”

And a Times story on September 2, 1972 referred to the one inhabited street in the town and Israeli soldiers training “a block or two of ruins away.” Yet another Times story, this one on November 26, 1972 was headlined “Syria Shells Israeli Bases in Occupied Golan Heights,” and reported Damascus radio’s announcement that Syrian artillery had shelled “Kafr Naffakh and El Quneitra.”

On October 11, 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, another Times report told of a Moroccan brigade joining Syrian forces “in an attack on El Quneitra.” And in an article on October 21, 1973, the Times reported that while the UN observation station in the town had survived the war intact, Quneitra itself was “a bombed-out military town the Syrians lost to the Israelis ...”

Finally, a London Times report of April 5, 1974 referred to Quneitra as “the ruined capital of the Heights.”

But for CNN reporters and their like-minded colleagues elsewhere, the story of a vindictive and cruel Israel destroying Mosques and Churches, driving out peaceful residents and flattening their town, was too good to check. After all, why would CNN doubt the word of President Bashar Assad, who had just asserted in the presence of the Pope that Jews “betrayed Jesus Christ ... and tried to betray and kill the Prophet Muhammad?” Why would the BBC doubt the word of Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas, who wrote a book claiming that Jews use the blood of gentiles to bake their Passover matzohs?

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