The Washington Post’s Misrepresentation of the Shebaa Farms

Washington Post news coverage of and commentary on Israel’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon often refer to “the disputed Shebaa Farms” region and “Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms.” Such descriptions frequently accompany reports of Hezbollah insistence that it will continue “armed resistance” until Israel ceases occupying Lebanese territory.

But there is no international dispute over the status of the 10-square-mile area at the intersection of the Lebanese, Israeli and Syrian borders. In the successful self-defense of the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel took Shebaa Farms and the Golan Heights from Syria. Lebanon was not a party to the ’67 war. In 2000, the United Nations confirmed Israel’s complete withdrawal from Lebanon and reaffirmed in 2005 that Israel occupied no Lebanese territory.

Nevertheless, the Post reported on August 9, in “U.S., France At Odds on Resolution For Mideast,” by staff writers Colum Lynch and Robin Wright, that “the Bush administration also does not want to offer more specific language on Shebaa Farms — the disputed border area that abuts Israel, Lebanon and Syria that Hezbollah has used to justify keeping its weapons — for fear it would be seen as a reward to the Shiite movement, European officials say.”

Also on August 9, the Post published an Op-Ed column, “End This Tragedy Now; Israel Must Be Made to Respect International Law,” in which Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora disingenuously wrote that “Israel continues to occupy Arab land in Lebanon ….” and called for “the U.N. Security Council to place the Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shouba Hills areas under U.N. jurisdiction until border delineation and Lebanese sovereignty over them are fully settled.”

In its August 8 edition, in the fourth paragraph of “Lebanon’s Proposals Change Dynamics; Arab Delegation to Meet With Security Council as Bush Urges Swift Action,” by Michael A. Fletcher and Robin Wright, the Post reported that:

Lebanon also proposed that Shebaa Farms, a disputed territory where Hezbollah and Israel have waged their most intense confrontation for six years, be handed over to U.N. custody until the border between Lebanon and Syria can be determined. Hezbollah has justified keeping a private army to regain control of Shebaa Farms, which abuts Israel, Lebanon and Syria.

Not until paragraph 22 (of 25) are Post readers told “but the United States ruled out putting Shebaa Farms under U.N. custody since the Security Council concluded that Israel had fully withdrawn from Lebanon years ago. ‘If there’s going to be a change in the condition of Shebaa Farms, that’s for Syria and Lebanon to decide,’ U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton said.”

The Post, in a chart accompanying its July 16 page one report headlined “Israel Intensifies Assault on Beirut,” included this entry for July 12: “Hezbollah, the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim movement, launches Katyusha rockets and mortar shells toward military posts in the disputed Shebaa Farms area and the Israeli town of Shlomi.”

In a July 14 commentary headlined “Behind the Crisis, A Push Toward War,” Post syndicated columnist David Ignatius wrote that “one way to boost the Lebanese government (and deflate Hezbollah) would be to negotiate the return of the Israeli-occupied territory known as Shebaa Farms.” On July 26, after a CAMERA letter on the subject, Ignatius returned to the topic in an Op-Ed headlined “A Way Forward.” He recommended that “the United States would call for negotiations over the return of a disputed territory known as Shebaa Farms, claimed by Lebanon even though the United Nations ruled in 2000 that it was Syrian.” That was more accurate, but the words “return” and “disputed” remained to mislead readers.

So what’s behind the Shebaa Farms “dispute”? Nancy Soderberg, a Clinton administration ambassador at the United Nations from 1997 to 2001, explained in an August 2 New York Times Op-Ed, “Peacekeepers Are Not Peacemakers:

… the Syrians, the Lebanese and the Iranians must give up the fiction that Israel did not fully withdraw from Lebanon in 2000. Hezbollah justifies its terrorist attacks by claiming that Israel never withdrew from a small area called the Shebaa Farms. In fact, however, the Shebaa Farms area is not in Lebanon; all international records clearly show it is part of Syria. When it was clear in 2000 that the Israelis were going to withdraw from Lebanon, Syrian and Lebanese officials circulated in the United Nations a crudely altered map purporting to show the area in Lebanon. The Security Council rejected that claim and confirmed the Israeli withdrawal. But myths have a way of surviving in the Middle East and the Arabs continue to use it as a justification for attacks.

The Washington Times referred accurately to Shebaa Farms in an August 6 page one dispatch headlined “U.N. debates a cease-fire in Lebanon; Beirut balks at the Security Council plan because it does not require Israel to leave,” by Evelyn Leopold of Reuters News Agency: “They [draft resolutions] also call for the demarcation of Lebanon’s borders, including the Shebaa Farms area, now legally part of Syria.”

The Washington Times also “scooped” most news media in explaining the Shebaa Farms “dispute” once Hezbollah attacked Israel on July 12. In a July 31 article, “Disputed farms suggested as key to peace,” The Times‘ Jerusalem correspondent Abraham Rabinovich, noted: “For Israel, the Shebaa area is of little strategic importance and has always been subject to return to Syria in peace negotiations. Israel probably would accept an earlier pullback if Syria formally ceded the area to Lebanon. Syria has verbally supported Lebanon’s claim to the area, but it has shunned any official redefinition of its borders [all emphases added] because it still regards the territory of Lebanon, Jordan and Israel to be part of the Greater Syria that existed [in the view of pan-Arab nationalists] before World War I.”

Rabinovich, though terming Shebaa Farms “a disputed rural area,” notes that it “was farmed by residents of the nearby Lebanese village of Kafr Shuba but under effective Syrian control when it was captured by Israel in the Six-Day War together with the adjacent Golan Heights …. No formal agreement between Lebanon and Syria ever clearly defined the border in the area. Maps dating from the French mandate in Lebanon in the 1920s show the farms to be within Syria, as do official Lebanese maps printed in the 1960s.”

In 2000, Rabinovich adds, Israel withdrew to the “blue line” “designated by the United Nations on the basis of old maps and treaties as the international boundary between Israel and Lebanon.” Beirut “challenged the line” but “U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s office declared the Lebanese claim ‘not valid’ …. Hezbollah’s critics charge it with simply using the issue to justify its existence as an armed force and to continue serving as an outpost of Iran’s Islamic revolution.”

The Shebaa Farms story should have been old news before Hezbollah launched its war against Israel this summer. As CAMERA pointed in Washington Post-Watch: Almost All Right on Lebanon, December 4, 2005.

On Jun e 16, 2000, the U.N. Secretary-General concluded that Israel had withdrawn all its forces from Lebanon. On Jan. 28, 2005 the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1583, which, among other things, reconfirmed the Secretary-General’s June 2000 declaration of a complete Israeli withdrawal. The same day, Reuters news service reported that “the U.N. Security Council … rebuked Beirut by declaring that the disputed Shebaa Farms area was not part of Lebanon ….”

It’s true that Hezbollah — listed as a terrorist organization by the United States as well as by Israel — acting for its Syria suppliers and Iranian paymasters, insists it has been “resisting” Israeli “occupation” of Lebanon by attacking Israel’s troops at Shebaa Farms. It’s true that a weak Lebanese government echoes the claim. But it’s false that there are any doubts as to the status of the area — Israel took it from Syria — and before Hezbollah infiltrated Israel on July 12, killed three soldiers, kidnapped two others, and shelled civilians targets in northern Israel, it was false that the Jewish state “occupied” any part of Lebanon. When reporters or commentators refer out of context to “the disputed, Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms” in regard to Lebanon and Hezbollah, they are not practicing journalism but echoing anti-Israel propaganda.
(For more information on Shebaa Farms, see here.)

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