BBC reporting on Golan Heights attack passes up on providing crucial background

On the afternoon of March 18th Israeli soldiers patrolling the northern part of the border with Syria in the Golan Heights noticed something suspicious near the fence which marks the western (‘Alpha’) side of the demilitarised zone, adjacent to an area of the border currently controlled by the Syrian army. After they got out of their vehicle to investigate, an explosive device was detonated, injuring four soldiers: one lightly, two moderately and one very seriously. Israel responded with artillery fire towards Syrian army positions.

Several hours later a report appeared on the Middle East page of the BBC News website under the title “Israeli soldiers wounded by bomb blast in Golan Heights“. The incident itself is described in three short paragraphs phrased to suggest to readers that the information has not been confirmed by the BBC. IED Golan Tues 1

“Four Israeli soldiers have been hurt by a bomb blast near the demilitarised zone between the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Syria, Israel says.

The device was detonated as the troops approached the frontier on foot after identifying “suspicious activity”, an Israeli military spokesperson said.

Israeli artillery subsequently fired on Syrian military positions in the area.”

The only reference to the severity of the injuries sustained by the soldiers comes in the caption to the photograph chosen to illustrate the article.

“The Israeli military said one of the soldiers was seriously wounded by the explosion”.

The report goes on to mention (partially) two previous recent incidents among several ignored by the BBC at the time.

“Two weeks ago, Israeli troops shot two “Hezbollah-affiliated terrorists” attempting to plant an explosive device near the fence demarcating the demilitarised zone, the Israeli military said.

And on Friday, an explosive device was detonated near soldiers patrolling the nearby border with Lebanon. No casualties were reported after the incident in the Mount Dov area, which Israel blamed on Hezbollah.”

The article’s next four paragraphs repeat versions of information appearing in the profile of the Golan Heights which appears on the BBC News website’s Middle East page and – despite being last updated in May 2013 – still erroneously refers to “the pre-1967 border” instead of 1949 Armistice lines. [emphasis added]

“The Golan Heights, a rocky plateau in south-western Syria, has a political and strategic significance that belies its size.

Israel seized the region from Syria in the closing stages of the 1967 Middle East War, and thwarted a Syrian attempt to retake it in 1973.

The two countries remain technically in a state of war, and UN observers are deployed to monitor the 70km-long (44-mile) demilitarised zone.

Since the uprising began in Syria three years ago, both government forces and rebel fighters have repeatedly crossed into the buffer zone, and there have been several exchanges of fire with Israeli troops.”

The report fails to make clear to readers that all of those “exchanges of fire” took place after cross-border attacks – intentional or not – from the Syrian side of the fence. It also fails to clarify sufficiently to readers that the presence of armed Syrian military forces inside the demilitarised zone contravenes the ceasefire agreement of 1974. Additionally, BBC audiences are not informed that the demilitarised zone is now only partially monitored by UNDOF or that the routine weapons inspections that body is supposed to carry out (to ensure that both Israel and Syria adhere to the permitted quotas specified in the ceasefire agreement) are no longer being carried out by UNDOF on the Syrian side.

Early in the morning of March 19th Israel responded to the previous day’s attack with strikes on Syrian military facilities on the eastern side of the Golan Heights. Here is how that event was presented by one official BBC Twitter account:

tweet bbc world response

And here by another:

tweet bbc me english response

An article titled “Israel attacks Syrian army sites in Golan Heights clash” appeared on the Middle East page of the BBC News website on March 19th. The caption to the photograph chosen to illustrate the article states: Golan incident response report

“The Golan Heights, a rocky plateau in south-western Syria, has great political and strategic significance”. [emphasis added]

Earlier versions of the article opened:

“Israel says it has attacked several Syrian military sites in retaliation for a bombing that wounded four of its troops in the occupied Golan Heights.

Israel’s military said its targets included a Syrian army headquarters, a training facility and artillery units.”

Readers of the report’s initial versions were not provided with any updated information regarding the wounded soldiers (one of whom, at the time of writing, remains in a critical condition) and most of the information given was recycled from the previous day’s report in the form of a link.

“It comes after four Israeli soldiers were hurt in an explosion on Tuesday. […]

Israel said four of its soldiers were injured as they approached the demilitarized zone after identifying “suspicious activity” on Tuesday.”

In the report’s third and fourth versions (which appeared some two hours and four hours respectively after the original) the above was replaced by the following statement:

“On Tuesday, the four Israeli soldiers were wounded, one of them seriously, when an explosive device was detonated as they approached the fence demarcating the demilitarised zone.”

In the report’s two earlier versions, once again audiences were encouraged to see prior cross-border incidents in terms of equivalence rather than them being accurately described as Israeli responses to attacks from the Syrian side.

“Syrian and Israeli forces have traded fire a number of times over the ceasefire line in the Golan Heights since the uprising in Syria began.” [emphasis added]

The third and fourth versions of the report included the following:

“The Israeli air force has conducted several attacks on Syria since the uprising began three years ago.

Those air strikes are believed to have prevented the transfer of stockpiles of rockets from the Syrian government to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia Islamist movement that supports President Bashar al-Assad.”

Of course Israel has not given any official notification of having carried out those strikes, but yet again it appears that in this case – despite editorial guidelines on accuracy – the BBC is in no need of confirmation before turning its correspondents’ conjecture into ‘fact’. 

This report too includes general background material based on the BBC’s less than accurate Golan Heights profile. [emphasis added]

“The Golan Heights, a rocky plateau in south-western Syria, has a political and strategic significance that belies its size.

Israel seized the region from Syria in the closing stages of the 1967 Middle East War, and thwarted a Syrian attempt to retake it in 1973.

The two countries remain technically in a state of war, and UN observers are deployed to monitor the 70km-long (44-mile) demilitarised zone.”

Once again, the BBC failed in all versions of this report to adequately clarify to audiences the current situation regarding the demilitarised zone, the decline in UNDOF supervision and the presence there of armed Syrian forces in violation of the ceasefire agreement. 

The article’s fourth version (which had its title changed to “Israeli air strikes in Golan ‘kill Syrian soldier'”) included Syrian state media notification of military casualties resulting from the Wednesday morning strike and uncritically quoted a bizarre official statement from a regime which has killed hundreds of thousands of its own citizens over the last three years. Golan response art vers 4

“But the Syrian General Command of the Army and Armed Forces was quoted as saying the air strikes were an attempt to “divert attention from the successive victories” of its troops against rebel forces, particularly the recapture of the town of Yabroud, north of Damascus, over the weekend.

It also warned Israel that “such aggressive acts would jeopardise the region’s security and stability, and make it vulnerable to all options”.”

That version of the article also included the following outlandish assumption from the BBC Jerusalem Bureau’s Kevin Connolly:

“The choice of targets demonstrates that Israel is clearly blaming Syrian government forces, and not rebel fighters or units of Hezbollah, for the attack on its patrol, our correspondent says.”

In fact, whilst it has yet to be established which organisation carried out the attack, the Israeli minister of defence made it clear that “Israel viewed Syrian President Bashar Assad as the person responsible for what happens in his country”.

Earlier versions of the report  included the following:

“Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the border with Syria has been recently “filling up” with jihadist fighters hostile to Israel and militants from the Lebanese Shia Islamist movement, Hezbollah.”

No attempt was made to provide BBC audiences with further background information on the topic of the different armed elements to be found on the Syrian side of the border.

The article ends by again mentioning the previously unreported incidents of March 4th in which an attempt was made to plant an IED in the same area and last Friday’s attack at Har Dov. It is not made clear that Tuesday’s attack took place along a stretch of the frontier controlled by Assad’s forces, in contrast to much of the rest of the border which is held by opposition militias of one description or another. 

The BBC’s coverage of incidents in the Golan Heights over the past year or so has been patchy at best.  Hence, with audiences already lacking much of the context to this latest incident, proper provision of factual information relevant to the story’s background would have enhanced readers’ understanding of events. Unfortunately however, the opportunity to inform audiences on the current state of affairs along the border and of the reasons for the growing ineffectiveness of the demilitarised zone in preventing attacks such as the one which took place on Tuesday – and any future ones – was passed up by the BBC.

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