Shebaa Farms: CNN and the US media encounter difficult terrain

During my formative years in North Carolina, my daddy used to say to me, “Son, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” My father’s adage applies all too well to CNN.

Over the past 16 months, Partners for Peace has repeatedly contacted CNN to explain that Shebaa Farms is not in Israel, but in occupied territory. Time and again, we have sent letters stating that the United Nations regards Shebaa Farms as Syrian while Hezbollah sees it as Lebanese (as does Syria, albeit disingenuously). The one thing we know is that it is not Israeli.

CNN has the information, but almost without exception gets the story wrong. Indeed, the moment I heard about the August 8 attack on Shebaa Farms, I raced to the site to see whether or not they had finally taken the point. They had not.

Letters to CNN on August 8 had not brought improvement when I checked the website the next day. A subheading read, “Rockets, missiles in northern Israel.” Later, CNN changed this to the equally confusing “Rockets, missiles across border.” This alteration, however, suggests missiles fired across the Israeli border and, presumably, into Israel. But this cannot be the case as Shebaa Farms is not in Israel. CNN, then, is falsely accusing Hezbollah of attacking Israeli territory when in fact the strike came on territory that Israel illegally occupies.

Partners for Peace wrote on August 8 that this errant reporting:
“does a disservice to your readers and harms the chances of having an informed American polity that understands what is really happening in the Middle East.”


If the new and equally troubling subheading no longer exists, it may be because CNN sometimes corrects articles in response to concerns from Partners for Peace. This is appreciated but insufficient as most readers will have moved on by the time of the correction.

In January 2003, the most recent time violence had been reported at Shebaa Farms, Partners for Peace also wrote CNN.

CNN’s calling Shebaa Farms ‘disputed’ can only confuse readers as they will think Israel has a real legal claim to it. In fact, Shebaa Farms is either Lebanese or Syrian but emphatically not Israeli. But I have been over this ground with CNN many, many times and presumably this is known but ignored.”[1]


Hezbollah has certainly been known to fire into Israel.[2] As a result of CNN’s poor reporting, however, one often is not quite certain what has or has not happened. That history of gumming up geography and seemingly contradictory information within a CNN piece influenced an April 2002 letter to CNN:

“This report is extraordinarily confusing. It is entirely unclear to me whether Hezbollah is hitting Israel or is actually hitting Shebaa Farms which is not Israeli. Or is it CNN’s position that Shebaa Farms is ‘disputed’? Perhaps Hezbollah is hitting both, but from this [report] it is literally impossible for me to know what is actually going on there. Greater clarity would be much appreciated.”

At question were the following statements: 1) “The Israel Defense Forces said Monday several of its positions on Mount Dov in northern Israel had come under artillery fire from Lebanon, and its troops were firing back”; and “For the second straight day, suspected Hezbollah guerrillas fired mortar shells and anti-tank missiles at Israeli army outposts in the district of Shebaa Farms at the foot of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, an Israeli military spokesman said.” To keep its readers informed, must take greater care not to issue seemingly contradictory geographic statements.


CNN was not alone in clouding the most recent Shebaa Farms story. The Los Angeles Times wrote:

“There was also violence Friday along the troubled border between Israel and Lebanon. The exchange of fire was the first there since January.”


Shebaa Farms is certainly close to the Israeli border, but readers should be informed that the attack was most definitely in occupied territory and not inside Israel. Obfuscation is most unhelpful.

The Washington Post wrote:

“Also this morning, Israeli fighter planes fired missiles at Hezbollah targets in Lebanon in response to artillery fire directed at Israeli military positions on a disputed section of the border, according to a senior Israeli military official.”


This will suggest to many readers that Hezbollah attacked an area that Israel might have a legitimate claim to rather than territory the UN deems occupied. In citing Israeli officials spinning the status of border areas, the Post should clearly inform readers of how the international community regards the same area. The one geographic statement ventured should not be, as it apparently is here, from an Israeli official misrepresenting the facts.

For its part, the New York Times presented a most unhelpful map. The map seems to put Shebaa Farms on the Israeli side of the border though an official with the newspaper’s maps desk said it was an optical illusion. Nonetheless, James Bennet does state, quite helpfully, that the attack came on occupied territory rather than Israeli territory:

“From Lebanon, Hezbollah guerrillas fired antitank missiles and mortar rounds for the first time since January across Israel’s northern border at Israeli military posts in an occupied area of the Golan Heights.”


The only question here is whether the antitank missiles and mortar rounds really did get fired over a strip of Israel and into Shebaa Farms, as is geographically possible (though whether it is possible in terms of range is a different matter), or went directly from Lebanon into Shebaa Farms.[3] If it is the latter, the attack should not be described as having crossed Israel’s northern border.

Joining Bennet in describing the attack as taking place in occupied territory is Reuters in an article posted by MSNBC. Though Reuters describes the territory as disputed, it eventually describes why:

“Hizbollah, along with Lebanon and its power-broker Syria, says the Shebaa Farms is Lebanese territory, but the United Nations deems Israel’s pullout from Lebanon complete and considers the area Israeli-occupied Syrian land.”


Fascinatingly, the Associated Press in a news story run by Fox News reported that Shebaa Farms is in southern Lebanon.

“Hezbollah guerrillas shelled Israeli positions Friday in a disputed border area in southern Lebanon, and Israel responded with artillery fire, security officials said.”


Heads may roll at Fox once it is known that somebody posted a story that favors the Syrian and Lebanese viewpoint that the land is Lebanese. But, perhaps Fox was satisfied with the story because anything that undermines the UN — in this instance holding that the land is Lebanese and not Syrian as the UN says — is seen as a positive at the self-described network of fairness and balance.

A different Associated Press story posted by Fox News, apparently a later one, did manage to obscure the geography:

“The Bush administration responded angrily Friday to Hezbollah’s shelling of Israeli positions in a disputed Lebanese border region.” This was followed by “Lebanon and Syria, which channels Iranian weapons to Hezbollah, were notified [by American diplomats] that it was in their best interest to maintain calm along the Israel-Lebanon border area and were advised there should be no violations of the line approved by the United Nations after Israeli troops withdrew from southern Lebanon.” Yet, as American diplomats should know, the attack explicitly targeted occupied territory and not Israeli territory.


Many news outlets are not about to let a few facts stand in the way of spinning the story to make it look as though Israeli territory has been attacked. At other times, they will not explicitly say Israeli territory has been attacked, but will euphemistically refer to “disputed territory,” which can only lead most readers to conclude that the land might be Israeli when really the dispute is over whether it is Syrian or Lebanese.

Americans have a right to know when Israel has been attacked — and when it has not. This requires explaining the difference between Israel and Israeli-occupied territory. Whether CNN will start drinking in the relevant facts is no sure thing. It seems to take repeated effort on fundamental matters of fact, such as the geography of Shebaa Farms and the Apartheid Wall, to get CNN to cover these matters accurately.

There is clear bias here and some within CNN are well aware it is there. We need to keep banging on the door of CNN and many of the other news outlets.

Michael Brown is Executive Director of Partners for Peace, a non-profit organization founded in 1991 that has sought to educate the American public about key issues in the quest for peace and justice in the Middle East. He is an occasional contributor to EI.

[1] Interestingly, the final paragraph of this January 2003 letter read: “Additionally, I trust CNN will soon run a piece on the demolition of some 62 Palestinian shops in Nazlat Issa to clear space for Israel’s ‘Wall of Apartheid.’ This was an important and troubling development that should not be overlooked by CNN.” Until late July, CNN repeatedly failed to get the geography of the separation barrier right. On August 5, CNN went so far as to report the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) had been accused by the IDF of an assault on a soldier during a protest against the separation barrier. The article failed to note that the ISM is committed to nonviolence and was subjected during the incident, not for the first time that week, to heavy-handed violence by Israeli security forces. They beat Garrick Ruiz of Los Angeles so vigorously he suffered two cracked ribs. The Los Angeles Times did not cover this despite a telephone call from Partners for Peace to the newspaper’s correspondent, Megan Stack. In a related development, the State Department issued no public condemnation of the attacks on Ruiz and ISMers despite repeated efforts by Partners for Peace in the past few weeks to warn State that its failure to speak out for nonviolent Americans was sending a clear message to the IDF that the US government would not stand up for its citizens. State’s neglect puts these courageous Americans in grave danger.

[2] As this article was being written, Hezbollah did in fact fire artillery into Israel that killed one civilian and lightly injured four others. Hezbollah claimed it was firing at an Israeli military plane violating Lebanese airspace and UNIFIL launched an investigation to determine whether this claim was accurate. Israel, it should be noted, frequently does violate Lebanese airspace. Hezbollah may have been firing at an Israeli military plane, but the act was still grossly negligent in not recognizing it was likely putting civilians at risk. This is very similar to the negligence the Israeli military shows in firing missiles into Gaza and the West Bank during assassinations that all-too-frequently are anything but “pinpoint.”

This most recent round of tensions began when Israel (this seems quite clear) assassinated a member of Hezbollah in Beirut on August 2, 2003. Whether in Lebanon or the West Bank and Gaza, the government of Ariel Sharon seems committed to a policy of assassination which, more often than not, leads to a near immediate ratcheting up of tension and violence. It is a failed policy, but too infrequently noted as such.

[3] The New York Times must be watched very carefully. Recently, and very positively, the paper ran an editorial stating that there should be a freeze on settlements not just in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but East Jerusalem too. Therefore, The New York Times Magazine of August 3, 2003 was disconcertingly off-base when it included a photo of Bethlehem with a caption reading: “Bethlehem seen through barbed wire from Israel.” Surprised that Bethlehem could be seen at such an angle from Israel, Partners for Peace called to inquire. Eventually, we were told that the photograph was taken from Har Homa. When Partners for Peace stated that Har Homa was not part of Israel but a settlement, we were told that it was close enough because it was a caption with limited space and, anyway, Israel says it’s Israel. At one point we were told that our argument was a tautology and that if we wanted to take up a “determination of fact,” we could get out a typewriter and send in a letter! A further call to a different editor met with a far more reasonable and professional response.

The difficulty in securing a possible correction in this case from The New York Times Magazine stands in marked contrast to one from earlier this summer when an otherwise excellent article in the Magazine inaccurately stated that Richard Perle had resigned from the Defense Policy Board when, in fact, he had only resigned as chairman. That matter was handled pleasantly and quickly with a correction running two weeks later.