NEW YORK - To walk through the Syrian city of Quneitra is like visiting the scene of a cataclysmic earthquake. Everywhere, there are mountains of rubble, great mounds of cement blocks, twisted sheets of corrugated metal and spaghettis of iron bars. The flattened carcasses of dozens of homes, shops and schools are lodged into the grassy plain in what once was a town of 20,000 people on Syria's frontier with Israel. The few buildings still standing are disemboweled, their walls punched through by rockets and scarred by bullets.
Quneitra has looked this way for more than three decades, since Israeli forces withdrew from the town a year after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Syrians insist that the Israelis bulldozed or dynamited nearly every building in Quneitra before leaving; Israel claims the town was destroyed during fighting over the Golan Heights.
On orders of the late President Hafez Assad, the Syrian government kept Quneitra a demolished ghost town - an eerie war memorial to its struggle with Israel. On Fridays, Syrian families have picnics in front of the rubble. Municipal officials lead foreign visitors and journalists on choreographed tours. They hand out a hardcover book of photographs titled, "Quneitra: Martyred City."
Syrian officials have a well-rehearsed script, which I heard when I visited Quneitra in 2003. "Every Syrian knows about the Israeli crimes committed in Quneitra," said Mohammed Ali, a government official who organizes the tours. "We're going to keep it this way until all of our territory is liberated."