The NY Times “Forgets” the Golan is Occupied

The New York Times takes us to the Golan Heights today, an area it calls “Israel’s quietest frontier,” now threatened by spillover from the war in Syria. It is a region of “stunning landscapes and rural quiet,” the Times says, attractive to Jewish settlers.

The story makes brief mention of 22,000 Druze who live in the Golan but says nothing about the 120,000 Syrians driven from their ancestral homes there to make way for Israeli Jews. Instead, the report by Jodi Rudoren keeps its focus on Israeli fears and avoids the ugly history of ethnic cleansing. As she tells it, the Golan is a “quiet frontier” of Israel rather than occupied Syrian territory.

The Times buys into the Israeli claim that it has legally “annexed” the Golan Heights after “capturing” it from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War. The paper states from the first that this is Israel, and only later, in one paragraph, notes that “the world does not recognize Israel’s 1981 annexation of the 444-square-mile area” and that “Israel and Syria remain technically at war.”

Rudoren’s story reports that the Jewish population has doubled to 30,000 over the past 20 years, and she mentions Druze apple farmers who will suffer this year because they cannot export to Syria.

This leaves the impression that Druze enjoy equality with Jews in their efforts to cultivate land and gain a livelihood. Her story gives no hint of the barriers placed in the way of non-Jewish farmers on the Golan. As in the West Bank, Israel facilitates transportation and construction for its settlers and obstructs Arab efforts to build facilities and cultivate markets.

When a group of us visited the Druze town of Majdal Shams in 2011, Dr. Taisser Maray, director of Golan for Development, noted the complexity of Israel’s bureaucratic barriers, saying, for example, that the occupying government requires the Druze to secure permits from six separate authorities in order to build water tanks. These include the archaeological, military, water resources and natural resources departments, among others.

According to the Golan rights organization Al Marsad, “The Israeli planning policies towards the Syrian population in the Golan limit their development and restrict their social and economical development.” As a result, 972 Magazine reported, the Syrian residents of the Golan “usually build without permits as Israel will not allow for natural population growth.”

It’s a different story for Jewish settlers in the Golan; they receive a 13 percent tax reduction as an incentive to move to the area, while Al Marsad reports that “the indigenous Syrian population of the Occupied Golan still have to pay full taxes.”

Rudoren writes that “Golan residents are steadfast about staying, but unease is seeping in.” Her reference to “residents” is limited to the illegal Jewish settlers. It does not include the Syrian Druze who still remain in the Golan and who have shown a steadfast refusal to become Israelis.

In 1981, 14 years after Israeli forces drove more than 120,000 residents from their homes and destroyed some 140 villages, Israel “annexed” the Golan Heights and tried to force the Druze residents to adopt Israeli citizenship. The vast majority still consider themselves Syrians and have consistently said no.

In protest to the Israeli effort, the residents of Majdal Shams staged a 19-week strike and endured a military blockade of their town. When they still refused to back down, Israel agreed to classify the residents as non-citizens.

None of this history appears in Rudoren’s story. She says only that the Druze are “a native sect that mostly shuns Israeli citizenship,” implying that this is a religious matter, rather than a political protest.

Their refusal to become Israeli citizens would make sense if the Times had informed readers of the brutal ethnic cleansing that took place in 1967. Within a week some 120,000 were displaced and Israeli troops obliterated “all traces of their existence.” Those who tried to return to their homes were deported or sentenced to 15 years in Israeli prisons.

The takeover has left the longtime indigenous residents of the Golan with only 6 percent of their original land and created a painful divide in many families. “I have three brothers on the other side,” Dr. Taisser said, “and I never see them.” Before the Israeli occupation, he said, his family used to “walk over the hills to weddings in Lebanon and come back. Now we can’t do that.”

“Everyone has family in Syria,” Mya Guarnieri writes in 972, “loved ones they see through binoculars at Shouting Hill [a site at the edge of no man’s land], cousins they talk to through bullhorns, brothers they have never met.”

But Rudoren’s story is all about Israeli Jewish settlers, their fears and their preparations for defense, backed up with military support. The indigenous residents get a passing nod and nothing more.

972 calls the Golan “the occupation the world forgot.” Israel is content with this state of affairs and thus the Times, flouting its mandate as the newspaper of record, is content to leave the story of the Golan in the dark.

Barbara Erickson

In The NY Times Settlements Are a Problem, But Only For Israel

Palestinians have formed a new unity government, Israel has announced more settlement building in retaliation, and readers of The New York Times are told that this is a problem: It flouts international opinion and threatens to isolate Israel further in the world community. It also strains ties with  the United States, which has chosen to work with the new government.

There are other problems, of course, and one is the fact that each settlement unit means Palestinians lose even more land, water and resources, and the West Bank becomes riddled with off-limits, Jewish-only colonies.

In “Israel Expands Settlements to Rebuke Palestinians,” the Times gives a nod to the Palestinian view, but in doing so it dismisses their rights. Palestinians, the story says, “regard that territory as theirs for part of a future state.” In fact, this is Palestinian land now, not a possibility for the future, and Israel is the occupier. (See an earlier post “Disenfranchised.”)

Another problem, not mentioned in the Times, is that the settlements are illegal under international law. As international law professor Ben Saul notes, they are illegal according to “nearly 50 years of international consensus in the UN General Assembly, the Security Council, and the International Court of Justice.” In the Times story, however, this clear legal finding becomes nothing more than a problem of geopolitics.

But the most curious statement in this article by Jodi Rudoren and Isabel Kershner is this: “While the Israeli authorities had previously reacted to Palestinian violence with steps that included settlement expansions, this time they used settlements as a retaliation over a political change.”

Their story provides not one case of settlement building in reaction to violence, but it immediately goes on to supply examples from other circumstances. Most recently, Rudoren and Kershner state, the announcements have come as “compensation to the Israeli right for the release of Palestinian prisoners.”

They also quote Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to the European Union and currently a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. Eran refers to “the knee-jerk Israeli announcements of settlement construction every time something doesn’t go their way.”

So we have settlement building to compensate the Israeli right and settlement building as a knee-jerk reaction every time Israel doesn’t get its way. What happened to Rudoren and Kershner’s assertion that construction has been in response to Palestinian violence?

It seems that the Times, often quick to follow the Israeli line and also the official United States line, is uncomfortable presenting this fragmented, inconsistent story, in which the two allies are now at odds. Readers who try to make sense of this article may begin to question the wisdom of relying on the “newspaper of record,” especially when it comes to covering Israel and Palestine. That, no doubt, is not a bad thing.

Barbara Erickson