On Tuesday, the Israeli military shot down a Syrian fighter jet over the Golan Heights because, a military spokesman said, the plane had "infiltrated into Israeli airspace." As one general told reporters, "We cannot tolerate any penetration of the Israeli airspace, so we had to shut him down even though we understand that his intention was not to attack us." The pilots, who were conducting strikes against ISIS targets near the Golan Heights, were able to eject and land safely by the time their plane was shot down by a U.S.-made Patriot air defense system.
Not surprisingly, the military's claim that the jet was in Israeli airspace has gone virtually unchallenged in the U.S. media. There is, of course, one major problem with this: Under international law, the Golan Heights belongs to Syria, and has been illegally occupied by Israel for the past 47 years.
Less than six months after Israel won the 1967 Six-Day War and began occupying Arab territories it had taken, including Syria's Golan Heights, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 242. That decree called for the immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Golan Heights (as well as East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank). The vote was 15-0, and that of course included the United States -- one of five permanent members. Subsequently, there have been no resolutions rescinding 242, which was reaffirmed by Resolution 497 and in turn reaffirmed by the General Assembly 161-1. That means at this moment, Israel is in clear violation of international law.
Not that anyone would know this based on U.S. media coverage, which typically whitewashes such inconvenient realities when reporting on Israel and the occupied territories. This is in part because our national conversation concerning matters involving Israel has become so warped, that our diplomats can't call it like is, and our politicians can't actually refer to the occupied territories as occupied territories without getting truckloads of criticism dumped on their heads until they apologize.
Here's how The Associated Press reported Israel's shooting down of the Syrian jet:
"The Israeli military shot down a Syrian fighter jet that infiltrated its airspace over the Golan Heights on Tuesday morning — the first such downing in decades, heightening tensions in the volatile plateau."
Here's USA Today:
"Already heightened tensions between Israel and Syria escalated Tuesday, when Israel shot down a Syrian warplane that flew into its airspace. It was the first time in more than three decades that a Syrian military jet has entered Israeli airspace."
"The plane may have accidentally strayed into Israeli airspace while attacking rebel targets on the Syrian side of the border, according to early indications."
Meanwhile, Bloomberg went about as far as anyone was willing to go (albeit vaguely) in terms of providing the actual background:
"Israel captured the southern section of the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War and annexed the strategic plateau in a step that was condemned at the United Nations. "
Virtually every, if not every major U.S. media outlet, including CNN.com, NBCNews.com, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others reported on this incident without mentioning that Israel is controlling the Golan Heights illegally, just as it's doing with East Jerusalem and the West Bank. And a big reason why, is that even mentioning this basic 47 year-old fact will send the pro-Israel crowd into a howling fit. We've reached the point now where the strongest language the White House can practically muster in the face of obviously illegal Israeli settlement expansions in the occupied territories is that they're "counterproductive," as if Benjamin Netanyahu had just left dinner with Mahmoud Abbas without chipping in.
So yes, Israel certainly controls the airspace over the Golan Heights, but to report this without recognizing Syria's de jure claim to the territory, is to ignore reality while relegating international law and the votes the U.S. itself has cast at the UNSC to total irrelevance.