Syrian Civil War Strays Into…Syrian Territory

After Syrian mortar fire from Syria’s civil war reportedly strayed into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights last weekend, some U.S. journalists seemed confused about the political geography of the region.

Hamat Gader, Golan Heights (photo by Job de Graaf)

The Golan Heights are a part of Syria that’s occupied by Israel–not part of Israel. (Photo: Job de Graaf)

For instance, CBS Evening News reported (11/12/12) reported:

Syria’s civil war has now touched Israel. For the second straight day, a shell from Syria landed in Israeli territory.

Well, no. The shells in question landed on the Golan Heights, a part of Syria that has been occupied by Israel since the Six-Day War in 1967–but is internationally recognized as continuing to be Syrian territory.

CNN Wire report, “For Second Time in 24 Hours, Fire From Syria Hits Israel” (11/12/12),  mentioned that Israel “occupies” the Golan Heights, then pivoted back to the headline’s theme, the official Israeli view, that the Golan Heights belonged to Israel:

Fire coming from Syria into Israel “will not be tolerated and shall be responded to with severity,” the complaint said, according to Israeli military sources. Israeli Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich said she doesn’t think the fire from Syria into Israel was intentional.

In a later version of the story (11/13/12), CNN Wire corrected the mistake–after a fashion–with this confusing paragraph: “The Golan is regarded internationally as occupied territory despite Israeli governmental control. It is home to 41,000 residents, including Jews, Druze and Alawites. Israel seized the territory from Syria during the 1967 Israel-Arab war, and it was eventually annexed.”

This so-called annexation is not recognized by any other nation, and was rejected unanimously by the UN Security Council in Resolution 497 (12/17/81). In the resolution, the Security Council declared “the Israeli decision to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights…null and void and without international legal effect,” and demanded “that Israel, the occupying Power, should rescind forthwith its decision.”

A Boston Globe photo caption (11/13/12), remarking on Israel’s response to the Syrian mortar fire, originally read: “Artillery shells (above) fired by government forces exploded Monday in Bariqa, Syria, near Israeli territory in the Golan Heights.”  A day later, the changed wording on the Web correctly referred to the Golan as “Israeli-held territory.”

A widely circulated Associated Press report (e.g., Detroit News, 11/13/12) quoted former Israeli official Dore Gold suggesting that the Golan Heights were Israeli territory, adding that Israel, in AP‘s words, “has found itself in a difficult position as the fighting rages near the frontier with the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau it captured from Syria in 1967 and later annexed.”

Under international law, a country may not annex territory seized in battle. Even the U.S., Israel’s staunchest ally, considers the Golan to be occupied Syrian territory, and voted in favor of Resolution 497 condemning the annexation. It says something about how profoundly ingrained pro-Israel bias is in U.S. media that its journalists, often far too dependent on U.S. officials, have absorbed Tel Aviv’s perceptions of Middle East geography even more thoroughly than they have Washington’s.

About Steve Rendall

Senior Media Analyst and Co-producer of CounterSpin Steve Rendall is FAIR's senior analyst. He is co-host of CounterSpin, FAIR's national radio show. His work has received awards from Project Censored, and has won the praise of noted journalists such as Les Payne, Molly Ivins and Garry Wills. He is co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error (The New Press, 1995, New York City). Rendall has appeared on dozens of national television and radio shows, including appearances on CNN, C-SPAN, CNBC, MTV and Fox Morning News. He was the subject of a profile in the New York Times (5/19/96), and has been quoted on issues of media and politics in publications such as the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and New York Times. Rendall contributed stories to the International Herald Tribune from France, Spain and North Africa; worked as a freelance writer in San Francisco; and worked as an archivist collecting historical material on the Spanish Civil War and the volunteers who fought in it. Rendall studied philosophy and chemistry at San Francisco State University, the College of Notre Dame and UC Berkeley.