The New York Times is the latest media outlet to rehash at face value false Syrian charges that Israel destroyed the town of Quneitra just before returning it to Syria in 1974. Times reporter Neil MacFarquhar (In Long Ruined City, Talk of Lifting the Clouds of War, Oct. 22, 2004) apparently made little effort to fact check the Syrian claims, by, for example, searching his own and other newspaper's archives to learn the actual history of the town, which Israel first took control of in the 1967 Six Day War, and lost and then retook in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
According to MacFarquhar’s one-sided reporting:
For the last 30 years, the Syrians have used this flattened provincial capital as an open-air monument to Israeli perfidy, hauling virtually every visiting foreign dignitary through the ruins to hear their traditional lament about how the Zionists leveled the city when they withdrew under the 1974 cease-fire terms...
Quneitra, a city straddling the cease-fire line from the October 1973 war, its main arteries interrupted by tangles of barbed wire, has been left largely untouched since the Israelis withdrew. Syria says the Israelis dynamited the town as they went; Israel's rather unconvincing explanation, given the neatly collapsed symmetry of house after house, is that warfare destroyed the place.
What is “unconvincing” to MacFarquhar, was quite convincing to journalists for the Times and other papers who were there in the 1960's and 70's when Syrian shelling of the Israeli- held town was the norm.
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 shelling 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 report in the British Times newspaper of April 5, 1974 referred to Quneitra as “the ruined capital of the Heights.”
The Syrians claim, and MacFarquhar dutifully reports, that the Israelis destroyed Quneitra out of spite just before returning it to Syria. How do MacFarquhar and his editors explain these numerous contemporaneous reports in the Times and other newspapers indicating that years before the handover the town was a smoldering ruin as a direct result of warfare, including Syrian shelling?
The likely answer is that they didn’t even know of these reports because they neglected to check their paper’s own archives.
Perhaps it’s not much of a surprise that they neglected to check other important aspects of the story as well, such as Syria’s supposed plans to rebuild Quneitra and allow its former residents to return. According to MacFarquhar’s report:
"In general, it is a good faith measure, especially since we are rebuilding a city while some of our territory remains under occupation," said Medhat al-Saleh, a former member of the Syrian Parliament who spent 12 years in Israeli prisons for fighting its control over the Golan. "It is a way of showing that we are being honest when we say that peace is our strategic option, but at the same time we will not abandon one inch of the Golan."
This is a “good faith measure” by Syria? In fact, the 1974 disengagement agreement with Israel mandated that Syria allow its residents to return to Quneitra; Syria has been in violation of that agreement ever since it was signed. (Israel believed that if Quneitra were repopulated the chances of another Syrian attack would be lessened.)
Specifically, paragraph B(1) of the Separation of Forces Agreement Between Israel and Syria (May 31, 1974) required that:
All territory east of Line A will be under Syrian administration, and the Syrian civilians will return to this territory.
To this day, as even MacFarquhar's story makes clear, Syrian civilians have not been allowed by their government to return to Quneitra.
In addition, it is somewhat disingenuous for the Times reporter to refer in the paragraph above to Medhat al-Saleh as spending “12 years in Israeli prisons for fighting its control over the Golan.” One could carry out such a fight peacefully or violently, and by not indicating which, MacFarquhar implies to many readers the former. In fact, according to a Financial Times story al-Saleh’s efforts were decidedly violent:
Mr el Saleh comes from Majdal Shams, a town on the edge of the occupied area. In 1985, four years after Israel annexed the Golan, he became a member of a secret group that raided Israeli arms stores and planted mines on the roads patrolled by the Israeli army. His activities cost him 12 years in an Israeli jail. Once released, he fled to Damascus (Oct. 7, 1999).
Times readers deserve and expect accurate and fair reporting – in this case Neil MacFarquhar delivered neither.
Note: For more details on Quneitra, including an analysis of the UN report on the destruction of the town, click here.