What happened to the Syrian town of Quneitra?
Quneitra, in the Golan Heights, (also called Al Koneytra or Kuneitra) was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, suffering heavy damage in the process. As the only town along the front with Israel, Quneitra served as the Syrian command center until the 1967 war. The Syrian army’s officer’s club, barracks, and fuel and ammunition dumps were prominent buildings in the town. By the time Israeli troops actually entered the town, most of the population had fled.
Between the 1967 war and the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Syria did not hesitate to shell Israeli forces stationed in Quneitra, further damaging the town. At the outbreak of the 1973 war, Quneitra was a major target for Syria’s opening assault on Israeli troops. The town changed hands several times, as tank fire and artillery battered buildings throughout the town. Quneitra was repeatedly shelled by artillery and tanks belonging to Syria and her Arab allies. In 1974, as part of the Israel-Syria disengagement agreement, Quneitra was handed back to Syria. Rather than repairing the damage and allowing Quneitra?s residents to return as called for in the agreement, however, Syria instead left the town in ruins. They put up billboards and built a”a museum of Israeli brutality” to exploit what Syria charges are “Zionist crimes”. Statements in the media often echo the Syrian canard, with reporting such as, “Quneitra was destroyed by the Israelis before being handed back to Syria in 1974.” When Pope John Paul II visited Syria in 2001, Quneitra was chosen as a location for prayers to provide a platform for this Syrian propaganda against Israel and to promote the fictitious story of the fate of Quneitra. The facts are quite different from the Syrian invention. According to reporters who were there at the time, Quneitra fell victim to war and military attacks, including Syrian shelling after Israel took control in 1967. For instance, a Los Angeles Times article of June 12, 1967 included a sub-head which referred to Quneitra as the “ruins of [a] captured town.” The article reported that Quneitra:
- …was a town of smoldering ruins. Heavily armed convoys patrolled the debris-covered streets…
- Life was at a virtual standstill, with all shops closed or wrecked.
This damage, obviously the result of the just-concluded war, occurred a full seven years before Israel?s supposed spiteful bulldozing of the town, as claimed by Syria.News reports of border clashes in the Golan Heights before the Yom Kippur War and of the fighting during the war often mentioned Syrian shelling of Quneitra or of combat there. The book Myths and Factsnotes, in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Quneitra:
- …was shelled and captured by Syrian troops, retaken by Israelis, and then defended against intense Syrian counter attacks. Tanks roamed through the town, between and through buildings.
The book also reports that Quneitra:
- …also suffered damage from 81 days of artillery duels that preceded the disengagement.
A May 5, 1974 dispatch from Quneitra published in the Times of London, reported the town:
- is in ruins and deserted after seven years of war and dereliction. It looks like a wild west town struck by an earthquake. . . Nearly every building is heavily damaged and scores have collapsed.
These and other reports refer to Quneitra as “destroyed” long before the time when Syria claims Israel bulldozed the town. There is no doubt the major damage was caused by Syrian attacks and not from any action by Israel. In May 2001, the New York Times was forced to retract biased reporting about Quneitra, saying in a Correction:
- In article on Monday [May 7, 2001] about the visit of Pope John Paul II to Syria referred imprecisely to the destruction in the Golan Heights city of Quneitra, where he has since delivered a prayer for peace. The city was captured by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. It is the Syrians who contend that the Israelis used dynamite and bulldozers to level the town before they left in 1974. Israel says the damage was a byproduct of fighting in the wars of 1967 and 1973.