Los Angeles Times Report on Kuneitra’s Destruction Refuted By Earlier Coverage

In an article May 1 entitled “Syria Still Mourns Land Lost to Israel,” Los Angeles Times correspondent Azadeh Moaveni made false assertions about Israeli actions in the Golan Heights town of Kuneitra during the 1970s which are refuted by the paper’s own coverage from that time period. Highlighting the reporter’s misinformation, the article’s sub-headline reads: “A ghost town destroyed by the Israeli army stands as a bitter symbol of the Golan Heights. Syrians say they want every inch back” (emphasis added).

Moaveni reports: “A once-vibrant crossroads between Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, Kuneitra was home to 20,000 Syrians before Israel occupied it in 1967 during the Arab-Israeli war. Israeli forces pulled out after the 1973 war, but not before bulldozing and dynamiting nearly every building in the village.”

In fact, as a review of the news coverage of the time shows, the town was in ruins due to fighting during and after the 1967 war, and was destroyed before Israel turned it over to the Syrians in 1974. On June 12, 1967, the Los Angeles Times ran an Associated Press story about Kuneitra entitled “Commandos of Syria Clash with Israelis: Skirmish Comes as U.N. Team Discusses Cease-Fire in Ruins of Captured Town” (emphasis added). Thus, the two Los Angeles Times headlines — one from 1967 and one from 2003 — are contradictory. According to the first, Kuneitra was in ruins as a result of the Six Day War in 1967, some seven years before the date which the 2003 headline claims is when Israel destroyed the town.

Furthermore, the 1967 story details: “El Koneytra was a town of smoldering ruins. Heavily armed convoys patrolled the debris-covered streets, automatic weapons trained on windows and doorways . . . . Life was at a virtual standstill with all shops closed or wrecked.” Thus, this damage, obviously the result of the just-concluded war, occured a full seven years before Israel’s supposed malicious destruction of the town.

Kuneitra, which fell into Israeli hands as a result of the 1967 war, continued to come under Syrian fire after that war. For example, a June 25, 1970 dispatch entitled “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.” Likewise, a Sept. 2, 1972 New York Times story referred to the one inhabited street in the village and noted that Israeli soldiers were training “a block or two of ruins away.” A few months later, the New York Times again covered Kuneitra, reporting Damascus radio’s announcement that Syrian artillery had shelled “Kafr Naffakh and El Quneitra” (“Syria Shells Israeli Bases in Occupied Golan Heights,” Nov. 26, 1972).

The Syrian bombardment of Kuneitra continued through the 1973 war. The New York Times reported Oct. 11, 1973 that a Moroccan brigade joined Syrian forces “in an attack on El Quneitra.” And the paper reported Oct. 21, 1973 that the United Nations observation post in the town had survived the war intact, though Kuneitra itself was “a bombed-out military town the Syrians lost to the Israel. . .”

So, if Kuneitra was already in ruins from the 1967 war, and the Syrian assault against the town continued through the 1973 war, how can Israel be blamed for destroying the town in 1974? Unfortunately, Los Angeles Times reporter John Daniszewski leveled the same false charge on April 2, 2000 (“Displaced Syrians Long to Return to the Golan Heights”). Not only did editors not rectify the problem at the time, they are now exacerbating the problem by printing Moaveni’s flawed report.

Population revisions?

A Los Angeles Times report from the era also contradicts the figure that Moaveni provides for Kuneitra’s pre-1967 war population, which he sets at 20,000. On June 30, 1967, the Times ran a UPI story which puts that figure at a fraction of Moaveni’s estimate: “The town of Kuneitra, 50 miles southwest of Damascus, is on the high Syrian plateau. It had a population of 5,000 to 6,000, but now only 250 or so remain.”

Internal Contradiction

Besides being discredited by earlier Times reports, Moaveni’s article suffers from an internal contradiction about the Syrian position vis-a-vis peace with Israel. In consecutive sentences, he writes:

Syria has refused to make a peace with Israel, unlike Egypt and Jordan, before a comprehensive end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The 2000 talks reportedly faltered over Israel’s insistence on denying Syria access to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee along the Golan Heights.

Which one is it? Did talks fall apart due to Israel’s refusal to cede the Galilee’s shore, or because Syria refused to make peace with Israel prior to a resolution of the Palestinian issue? Put differently, would peace have descended on the region had Israel only given up the shore? Or, was Israel’s decision on the Galilee irrelevant, since Syria had decided that peace with Israel was out of the question before a settlement with the Palestinians?

Response from the Times

In response to these points about Kuneitra, the Los Angeles Times cited a 1974 report commissioned by the United Nations to investigate the cause of the town’s destruction. The investigation found Israel responsible for the damage, and the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution condemning “Israel’s deliberate destruction and devastation of the town of Quneitra as a grave breach of the Geneva Convention . . . “

The report, however, must be afforded little if any credibility given that its author, Edward Gruner, was reporting under a major conflict of interest. He and his firm Gruner Brothers had extensive and ongoing business relations in Egypt, Iraq and even Syria (!) (see page 37 of his report), and was thus on the payroll of these governments. Gruner’s business interests surely would had suffered had he published a report that exonerated his client’s enemy.

Gruner failed to consult a single Israeli source or official during his survey (page 35). And, the Gruner report aside, what is one to make of the newspaper accounts which predate and contradict the report? The Los Angeles Times has not attempted to answer this conundrum, leaving the door open for yet more erroneous future reports on Kuneitra’s destruction.

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