Washington Post’s Coverage of Forest Fire, Syria Mixed at Best

The Washington Post led its “World” pages on December 4 with two important Israel-related articles. The prominence was deserved, the coverage insufficient.


“Syria’s renewed influence raises alarms in U.S., Israel; Support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah, alliance with Iran remain strong despite Obama administration’s efforts” filled the top half of the page. It was a 1,036–word news feature by The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Janine Zacharia. Directly below ran “Despite aid, Israel unable to check deadly wildfire; Nation was unprepared for blaze that continues to consume scenic forest,” a 561-word news article, also by Zacharia.


“Syria’s renewed influence raises alarms in U.S., Israel” noted that “Syria’s fresh interference in Lebanon and its increasingly sophisticated weapons shipments to Hezbollah have alarmed American officials and prompted Israel’s military to consider a strike against a Syrian weapons depot that supplies the Lebanese militia group.”


The article’s key points included:


* Secretary of State Hilary Clinton told a Lebanese newspaper on November 10 (more than three weeks before The Post’s article appeared) that Syria’s behavior neither has met U.S. expectations nor upheld Syria’s international obligations;


* Obama administration dialogue with Damascus has “done little” to end a) Syrian hospitality for “Palestinian leaders of militant groups”, b) the flow of weapons into Lebanon, and c) Syria’s interference against American efforts to support Lebanese independence;


* “Syria’s alliance with Iran remains strong, to the dismay of U.S. officials …”; and


*”Israel has complained to the United Nations about long-range missile and shorter-range rockets that are flowing freely from camps inside Syria … to Hezbollah.”


But the dispatch had major weaknesses:


Referring to the Iranian-funded and trained, Syrian-armed Hezbollah seven times (including once in a photograph cutline), The Post avoided the group’s designation by the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and other countries as a terrorist organization. It called Hezbollah “the Lebanese militia group” once and referred to it without adjectives all other times.


The newspaper’s reference to Syria sheltering “Palestinian leaders of militant groups” also obfuscated. The leaders referred to represent groups including Hamas and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine that, like Hezbollah, are designated terrorist organizations.


Discussing Syria’s renewed influence in Lebanon, the article omits mention of the 2005 car bomb assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 others or the series of subsequent assassinations — also widely believed linked to Hezbollah and Syria — of numerous Lebanese politicians, journalists and others.


Taking Washington’s current disappointment with Damascus as it news peg, The Post fails to question –given unsuccessful outreach to Syria by other recent U.S. administrations — the premises of this most recent attempt. 


Some sparks, but too much smoke


Washington Post reporting of the worst forest fire in Israel’s history made important points, but like “Syria’s renewed influence,” was repeatedly flawed:


1) It noted that “in a country as small as Israel, where territory is at the heart of political conflict, every inch of land is especially precious.” The Post, which has referred to countries much larger than Israel (Georgia, for example) as “tiny,” appropriately reminds readers that the small size of the Jewish state intensifies the impact of events there.


But the statement that “territory is at the heart of political conflict” easily could mislead readers. Arguments over disposition of lands won in the 1967 Six-Day War often divide Israeli political parties. But the Arab conflict with Israel has been pre-political: From rejection of the 1937 British plan for partition of Palestine to Palestinian leadership’s current refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, the struggle stems from Arab denial of Jewish peoplehood and sovereignty over any territory. 


2) It referred to “the disputed Golan Heights.” Exactly. The final status of the Heights, sovereign Syrian territory repeatedly used for aggression until taken by Israel in self-defense in ‘67, remains to be negotiated according to U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973).


But if the Golan is “disputed,” then even more so the status of eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). They are, under international law, not sovereign territories of any nation, although Israel does claim the entire city of Jerusalem as its eternal capital. The Post occasionally does describe eastern Jerusalem as “disputed,” but virtually never so identifies the West Bank (which it sometimes mistakenly terms “Palestinian territory”).


3) The paper properly points out that a study “found that Israel’s fire services were underfunded and unprepared” and its recommendation of “an investment in firefighting aircraft” has gone unimplemented. Yet the final paragraph easily could be understood as presenting a false dichotomy between Israel’s defense and firefighting needs:


“But even as Israel prepares to acquire hundreds of millions of dollars worth of advance fighter jets, no budget has been allocated for the much cheaper aerial fire-fighters.”


In the face of Western arms sales to Arab states, including the proposed $60 billion U.S.-Saudi deal, and Iran’s apparent nuclear weapons drive — unmentioned in this Post article — Israel may have no choice but to seek expensive new fighter-bombers. Fire-fighting planes are a separate, not a mutually exclusive, requirement. 


4) The article erroneously:


* Termed the Western Wall “Judaism’s holiest site” when that designation refers to the Temple Mount. The Wall is the holiest side at which rabbinic authorities permit Jews to pray.


* Referred to “a Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship” seized by Israeli troops. The Mavi Marmara, boarded last May in a raid that turned deadly when passengers attacked boarding Israeli troops, carried no humanitarian aid. It did carry Islamic extremists bent on breaking Israel’s embargo of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.


* Calls Hezbollah only “the Lebanese militant group.” Like the article “Syria’s renewed influence,” this dispatch does not remind readers that the Iranian- and Syrian-backed” Hezbollah is designated a terrorist organization by countries including the United States and Israel.


“Despite aid, Israel unable to check deadly wildfire” was a third-day follow. Read here.

The Post’s December 3 edition covered the blaze only with a large, unrepresentative, detail-lacking color photograph showing “Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men” watching the fire on a distant horizon.


Both articles provide Post readers with important information. But neither is as timely as it should have been and both, omitting basic facts, gave readers only partial sketches of Israel’s dangerous neighborhood. 


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