The Golan Heights refers to a fertile mesa in southwestern Syria with political and strategic importance, belying its size. Israel confiscated the Golan Heights from Syria in the final legs of the 1967 Six-Day War.
Syria tried to recapture the Golan Heights during the 1973 Middle East War. Since then, both countries signed a truce in 1974, and a UN observer force has been in place on the armistice line.
What Is Golan Heights?
Golan Heights is also known as Golan Plateau. Its Hebrew name is Ha-Golan or Ramat Ha-Golan, and in Arabic, it’s al-Jawlan. Golan Heights is a craggy area with a commanding view of the Upper Jordan River Valley on the west.
French-Jewish banking magnate Baron Edmond de Rothschild acquired a big swath of land in 1894 for Jews to settle in the Golan. Other groups from Canada, the US, and Europe followed. The Arab residents frustrated all attempts at Jewish colonization, and the Ottoman land laws were another hurdle. These laws more or less made settlement by nonnatives illegal.
The Bible refers to the Golan Heights as “Bashan.” The word “Golan” stems from the Bible, which speaks of “Golan in Bashan” in Deuteronomy 4:43 and Joshua 21:27. Jewish exiles from Babylonia settled there in the late sixth and fifth centuries BC.
Gamla became the Golan’s central city, the area’s last Jewish stronghold to fight the Romans during the Great Revolt (the first of three major rebellions by the Jews of Judea Province). Gamla fell in the year 67.
The Golan was under the Syrian administration during the Ottoman Empire. When Syria controlled the Golan Heights from 1948-67, it was a military stronghold. Its troops sniped at Israeli inhabitants in the Hula Valley below. The children living on kibbutzim had to sleep in bomb shelters to escape the snipers’ bullets.
At the time, the UN Mixed Armistice Commission had to police the ceasefire. Israel protested the Syrian bombardments on more than one occasion. The commission did nothing to stop Syria’s aggression.
The Golan Heights rise from 400 to 1700 feet near northeastern Israel. The region has some lovely spots, fashioned by the rocky and in places lunar landscape. It is a tourist destination, about two and a half hours’ drive from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Golan Heights is known for its diversity of plant life and magnificent views. It’s said to be beautiful in the spring when multi-colored flowers carpet the plain.
Where Is the Golan Heights?
The Golan Heights connects the borders of Israel and Syria. Its location is at the southern end of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. The Syria-Israel border, known as the “Purple Line,” passes through the region.
This 460 square-mile plateau overlooks Syria, Lebanon, and the Jordan Valley and is only 40 miles from Damascus, offering Israel a solid defensive-offensive location. It’s also an excellent vantage point to detect military activities across the border.
Syrian control over the Golan would provide it with strategic heights overlooking Israel. The latter country is now taking the opportunity to wield its claims over the Golan. It’s the best time since the Syrian civil war has undermined the authority of that state.
Because of the Golan Heights location, Israel has held firm to it. Many UN resolutions have called on it to withdraw from the region. There have been several attempts to convince Israel to pull back.
Syria held secret talks with Israel as recently as 2010. It tried to convince Israel to return to its 1967 border in exchange for a peace deal. But Israel’s position has hardened since the Arab Spring revolts. It has held firm since the civil war in Syria that started in 2011.
History of Golan Heights
Persians, Mongols, and Arabs have settled in the Golan over the ages, with people coming from as far away as Yemen. It’s also home to the religiopolitical sect known as the Druze. They settled in the area in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They controlled the region for around 350 years. Then the Egyptians and then the Ottomans took it over in quick succession.
The constant warring caused the Golan’s population to dwindle over the centuries. The region was almost empty by the mid-nineteenth century.
Jewish groups tried to settle the southern region in the late nineteenth century. They were unsuccessful. The pre-independence Zionist Movement then laid claim to the area. It made its bid in the post-World War I Peace Conference of 1919.
Then, in the early 1920s, the area came under French custodianship. Syria gained independence from the French mandate in 1946. It got control of the Golan Heights around that time.
Then Israel took control of the Golan Heights in 1967 following the Six-Day-War. Random border clashes and exchanges of fire have flared up since then. One of these was the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, known to the Israelis as the Yom Kippur War.
Two Arab fronts confronted Israel during this conflict. One was Egypt on the Sinai Peninsula, and the other was Syria in the Golan Heights. Syria was able to arm itself with up-to-date weapons from the Soviet Union.
A very tough and bloody battle ensued, but Israel received American military aid and prevailed. It annexed the Golan Heights in 1981. Sporadic border skirmishes take place to this day.
In modern history, a tense standoff took place. The clash was between Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and Israel. That happened before the eruption of the civil war in Syria in 2011. Then, in 2014, anti-government Islamist insurgents invaded Quneitra Province on the Syrian side. The area stayed under rebel control until the summer of 2018.
Then Assad’s army revisited the now ruined city of Quneitra and the neighboring area. Their visit came after a Russian-backed offensive and a deal that allowed rebels to leave.
Who Controls the Golan Heights?
Two-thirds of the Golan Heights has been under Israeli control since 1967. The rest is under Syrian control.
Israel annexed the Golan Heights on December 14, 1981, but the UN does not recognize this move. The international community responded with Security Resolution 497 (1981). This resolution called the annexation “null and void.” Not one country legitimized it.
Every year since then, the UN resolution titled “The Occupied Syrian Golan” comes up. This resolution restates the illegal nature of the annexation and occupation by Israel.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, traveled to the Golan in 2016. There he held a cabinet meeting in which he made a special plea. He called on the international community to recognize the Golan as part of Israel.
The sought-for backing did not appear right away. Some observers saw the move as an Israeli effort to take advantage of the civil war in Syria. Netanyahu’s plea to the global community went unanswered at the time. Yet, it seems to have resonated with the US Trump administration.
In 2019, President Trump tweeted that the US would accept Israeli control over the Golan. He was responding to pressure from the Israeli government.
The different sides in the broader Arab-Israeli conflict had mixed reactions. They met the news with indifference, disapproval, and delight. It echoed responses to an earlier US move – to treat Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Golan Heights Population
The Qunaitra Province on the eve of the 1967 war had a diverse population that numbered 147,613, distributed among 163 towns and villages and 108 farms. Israel seized about 70 percent of the territory with a population of about 130,000. They lived in 139 towns and villages and 61 farms. Within a month, the Golan Heights was empty.
Before the Israeli annexation of Golan Heights, the region had 28 rural communities. There was also a city in the making: Katzrin. In 2016, the Golan Heights region had 50,000 residents. The population comprised about 22,000 Jews and 27,000 non-Jews. It included Druze, an Arabic-speaking ethnoreligious group that considers itself Syrian.
Golan Heights has a lower population density than any other region in Israel. It has forty residents per square kilometer. The Golan’s figures stand out when compared to the West Bank, and the West Bank is the other region captured in 1967 and retained ever since.
After fifty years of Israeli control, the West Bank had more than 400,000 Jewish residents. The area of the West Bank is four times larger than that of the Golan Heights. What if the Jews had settled the two regions at the same pace? Some 80,000 Jews would be living on the Heights today.
Still, Golan settlers have built boutique hotels, wineries, and a ski resort. They have transformed the picturesque area into a popular Israeli tourism destination.
Most of the Golan Druze have opted not to take Israeli citizenship. Instead, they hold residency status, which gives them the freedom to live and work in the region. The Druze community still sees itself as having an inextricable link to Syria.
In March 2019, the Mayor of Katzrin, Dmitry Apartzev, made an important announcement. He revealed plans to increase the plateau’s population to 150,000 people. Apartzev expects the number of Jews to reach 100,000 people, and Druze will be 50,000 strong. He also predicted that the inhabitants of the Katzrin region alone would increase from 8,500 to 50,000.
Apartzev, speaking in the wake of Trump’s tweet, added that the acknowledgment of Israel’s control of the Golan would open new prospects. He was hoping for foreign investment in the area. He hoped that the recognition would also help to counter the global boycott crusades. Some countries admonished investors not to invest in the occupied territories.
In June 2019, Israel’s government shrugged off disapproval from the international community. They unveiled a new Jewish settlement in a windy and secluded area of the Golan Heights. They named after none other than President Trump.
The name of the new settlement is Ramat Trump in Hebrew or Trump Heights. The aim was to reflect Israel’s will to cement the former president’s recent support. Israel was happy that he was backing their bid for control over the contested territory.
Where Should the Syria-Israel Border Be?
Syria wants control over the Golan because it would give it a strategic position overlooking Israel. Another critical concern is water resources in a dry region. The two significant sources of water for Israel are the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. The Golan Catchment Area feeds into both. The land on the Golan is fertile; farmers use it for orchards and vineyards.
A sticking point has been where to draw the border. Israel argued for the boundary established in 1923 by France and the United Kingdom. Syria thought that it should be on the 1949 armistice line.
Israel’s borders are not yet settled. Yet, it’s been more than 70 years since that country declared statehood. For centuries their land was part of the Ottoman Empire, ruled by Turkey. The victorious allied powers marked out and assigned the area west of the River Jordan. Britain was to administer it after World War I when the Ottoman Empire collapsed.
Syrian troops penetrated Palestine/Israel in several areas during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Syrian forces still held blocs of territory west of the 1923 international boundary. The two countries signed the armistice in July 1949.
The Trump Administration said that it would update US government maps. These maps would reflect Trump’s decision to recognize Israel’s control of the Golan. Netanyahu received a copy of the new map as a gift from Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. It now recognized the Golan Heights as part of Israel.
Israel Annexation: What Are the Consequences?
Locals rioted after Israel annexed the Golan Heights. Syria complained to the UN Security Council. The Security Council reaffirmed that countries could not take territory by force. US President Ronald Reagan suspended a $300 million arms deal and also shelved a memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation.
Syria slammed the Trump administration, calling its policy shift “an act of aggression.” It vowed to retain control of the Golan area by all available means. The country’s Foreign Minister said in a statement that “the Golan was and will remain a part of Arab Syria.”
Since the Battle of Golan Heights, Israeli Jews have shown support for keeping the region. They do not wish for a repeat of the Golan Heights War. Thus, they do not want to give up the strategic advantage that the area has to offer.
They held this position even before the Syrian Civil War. These sentiments came before the atrocities committed by the Assad regime. Thus, it’s likely that Golan Heights will remain under Israeli control. It doesn’t matter that the rest of the world does not approve.