The Golan Heights: A Storied Past, An Unpredictable Future
Situated just north of Lake Kinneret overlooking the Huleh Valley in Israel and the Al Raquad Valley in Syria sits a plateau, which rises to between 700 and 1,400 feet above sea level and is perhaps the most strategic piece of land in the Middle East, depending on one’s perspective. (Jewish Virtual Library, 2001) The antiquities left behind by the Romans, Turks, Greeks, and Mongols, just to name a few of the empires that have conquered this area, date back several centuries.
This relatively small area of land, roughly the size of Queens, New York, is approximately 40-45 miles long and 15. iles across at its widest point, and controls the Kinneret, Israel’s only lake and foremost water resource. (Bard, 2002) This much-disputed piece of land is called the Golan Heights. Israel’s History of the Golan Heights Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights dates back centuries to Biblical times when Abraham promised the Bashan Region, the Biblical name for the Golan Heights, to the people of Israel. Israeli citizens did not settle in the Golan, however, until the First Temple Period, which began in 953BC.
Half of the Israeli tribe of Menasseh settled in Transjordan and later named the area after another Biblical city of the same name, Golan. (Web Golan) During this era, the town acted as a refuge for criminals awaiting trial, which could also account for the town’s name, as the word “golah” means exile. In 732BC, the Israelis were exiled from the Golan by an Asyrian Emperor, Tiglath-Pileser II, and did not return to Bashan until after 586BC, which was the start of the Second Temple Period. From 732BC to 586BC, the Asyrian Emperor populated the entire region with citizens from various parts of his empire.
When the Israelis returned to their homes, though, they lived in peace alongside the non-Jewish inhabitants. (Camera Media Report,1995) The Golan Heights changed hands several more times and was influenced by various cultures throughout the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Talmudic Periods from 65BC to 636AD. From 636 to 1516 during the Islamic Conquest, also known as the Mamluk Period, most of the Jewish settlements from previous periods disappeared entirely and the Druze were the primary inhabitants of the Golan. The Druze remain in certain areas of the Golan to this day.
Israeli Government, 1998) Besides a brief occupation by the Egyptians, from 1831 to 1840, the Golan Heights were regained by the Ottoman Empire following the Ottoman Conquest in 1517. The Turks maintained control of the Golan for 400 years, until 1917. (Camera Media Report, 1995) Under the Ottoman Empire, although the Golan was administrated from Damascus and controlled from Istanbul, Israeli families began to flourish in the region and the first permanent settlements of the modern era were established. Jews began buying purchasing land as well under the Turkish rule.
In 1891, more than 18,000 acres of land was purchased by Baron Edmund de Rothschild, which was meant to be used for a Jewish settlement in the Golan. (Wikipedia, 2002) In 1917, Britain defeated the Turks and conquered Palestine. Three years later in 1920, Britain and France divided up the former Ottoman Empire, with France receiving mandate over Syria and Britain taking mandate over Palestine. After the British realized there was no oil in the Golan, they made a deal to exchange the Golan Heights with France for a section of land in Syria, Mosul or Metula, where they felt the chance of finding oil was much greater.
An important stipulation of the trade was that France had to give up any and all claims to Palestine. (Camera Media Report, 1995) Once the French took control of the Golan, all land purchased and owned by the Jews in the Golan was taken away. Jews, however, found ways to finance and maintain farms in the Golan until the entire Golan Heights was seized by Syria in 1947, after Israel’s War of Independence. Israel annexed the Golan Heights during the Six Day War is 1967, although the annexation has never been internationally recognized.
Wikipedia, 2002) Syria’s History of the Golan Heights Syria’s claim to and history of the Golan Heights is quite different from Israel’s claim. Although most of the conquering empires throughout time are undisputed, many historical facts that both sides offer contrast considerably. The Syrian’s or more precisely Arab’s first links to the Golan Heights date back to the 2nd and 3rd millennium, when the region was inhabited by Ammorites, Kan’anians, and Arameans, all tribes of Arab origins.
These Arab tribes established kingdoms in different sections of Syria and the Golan until 732BC, when the Assyrians took control of the Golan Heights. (Web Golan, 2002) For the next 200 years, the Caldanian, Babylonian, and Persian Empires annexed the Golan Heights for varying periods of time before the Hellenistic Period began, in 332BC. During the Hellenistic Period, two Greek kingdoms, one located in Syria and another in Egypt, disputed ownership of the Golan until 1st century BC, when the Romans conquered the region.
NIC: Damascus, Syria) Some sources have the name Golan dating back to this period and suggest the Romans began calling the area Golan, which was taken from the Greek name for the area, Gaulanitis. (Wikipedia, 2002) In Syrian history, during much of the Roman Period, Syria’s culture and civilization thrived and progressed a great deal. This was partly due to the independent nature in which the Ghassanian Arab princes ruled the land. The Ghassanian Arabs’ independence contributed to the cultural development not only throughout Syria, but in the Golan Heights as well.
The Ghassanian Arabs’ influence continued through the Byzantine Period, when the Syrian king, Alhareth, assumed to the second rank in the Byzantine state, the rank of Patriarch. All of this culminated in an Arab victory over the Byzantine Empire and Arab control of Syria and the Golan in approximately 636AD. (NIC: Damascus, Syria) For the next 400-500 years, many of the settlements in the Golan Heights were abandoned and nomads were the predominant inhabitants, as the Golan served as a buffer zone between the Crusader kingdom in Palestine and the emirate in Damascus.
Permanent populations did not return to the Golan until the 15th to 16th centuries, when the Druze began settling in the Golan Heights. Sudanese, Algerians, Kurds, Turkomans, and Arabs from Samaria arrived shortly after the Druze in the northern Golan and Mt. Hermon regions. (Nyrip, pp 5-16) The Ottoman Empire took control of Syria, Palestine, and the Golan Heights in the 16th century. The Golan remained sparely populated, however, until the 19th century, when permanent Beduin, Magreb, Circassian, Alawite, Druze, and Turkoman populated settlements arose.
Web Golan, 2002) The Ottoman Empire fell after it aligned itself with Germany in World War I, and following the war, the French and British negotiated a deal that would affect the history of the Golan Heights and the Middle East. (Orvedahl, pp 18-19) In 1944, as the Syrian goverment was well on the way to achieving independence, the Golan Heights became part of the Republic of Syria. This act encouraged Sunni Muslims, Circassians, Druze, Alawites, a small Christian minority and other small groups to repopulate the Golan. Also at this time, all Jewish land rights were revoked in the Golan Heights, since the Golan was now part of Syria.
An armistice was signed in 1949, which took three months to negotiate, and allowed for Israeli-Syrian relations to remain relatively peaceful. Those relations changed in 1967. (Camera Media Report, 1995) Historical Conclusions The history of the Golan Heights is intrinsically linked to Israel and Syria alike, despite the two nations’ unwillingness to acknowledge the other’s historical influence and impact on this small, strategically vital piece of land, unless that acknowledgement is to suggest something negative about the other.
This speaks to the level of complete disdain each nation possesses for its neighbor and the disagreements each have over the past, present and future of the Golan Heights. The Golan will continue to be a reminder to Syria of Israel’s existence, as well as a reminder to Israel of Syria’s utter hatred for the Jewish State and Jews worldwide. In recent years, Israel’s position on returning the Golan Heights to Syria has softened. Some in the Israeli government have concluded that returning the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for a peaceful coexistence is the proper policy to implement.
However, hardliners remain just as resolved to never give the Syrians another opportunity to use the Golan as a military stronghold against Israel. Syria on the other hand has never budged on the issue of the Golan and has always demanded the return of the Golan Heights. Just as these two nations’ pasts are linked, so are as linked their futures. Why Israel Needs the Golan First and foremost, security and safety for the Israeli people is the primary concern for Israel. The Golan Heights is strategically located between Syria and Israel, approximately 40 miles from Damascus, Syria.
Before Israel preempted the Six Day War in 1967, Syria shelled Israeli settlements with impunity from atop the ridges that look down onto Israel settlements. The Golan Heights allowed the Syrian military to fire on areas as far south as the northern West Bank with little to no fear of retaliation from Israeli forces. These days, with more advanced weaponry, Syria would be able to reach the coastal areas of nothern Israel with their SCUD C missiles. Another major consideration for maintaining control of the plateau is whoever legitimately holds the Golan, also holds the militarily advantage in a ground war.
The position is easily defended and gives either side a view deep into the heart of both countries. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Israelis were not only greatly outnumbered, but were also completely surprised when the Syrian military advanced on the Goloan Heights, yet the Israel Defense Force (IDF) held their positions on the Golan long enough for reinforcements to arrive in time to repel the Syrian military. (Orvedahl, pp 35-43) The Golan Heights also acts as a deterrent to any aggression from Syria, Jordan, or Lebanon along the Golan border.
The fact that Damascus is within range of Israeli artillery, prevents Syria from even considering an altercation with the Israelis. Former Prime Minister summed the issue of security up in his address to the residents of the Golan Heights in 1992, when he said the following: “Words are not enough about the Golan Heights. We must put them into actions… Withdrawal from the Golan is unthinkable, even in times of peace. Anyone considering withdrawal from the Golan Heights would be abandoning Israel’s security. Let us invest, all of us together, in order to fulfill our obligations to the Golan Heights.
And to you residents- those who made the Golan Heights what it is- you have all my respect. ” Besides security considerations, the Golan Heights is also a key source of water for Israel, as well as Syria. On the western edge of the Golan Heights lies the Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Kinneret, which is an immensely important freshwater source for Israel and neighboring countries. Lake Kinneret provides over a third of the water for Israel and is fed by the Jordan River and other streams, which mostly run from the Golan.
Kortenoeven, 2000) The issue of water rights alone has halted many negotiation sessions between Israel and Syria and has brought many countries in the Middle East to the brink of war. This was nearly the case in 1964 when Israel threatened to go to war after thirteen Arab heads of state proposed a plan to divert water from the Jordan River into Israel. (Jewish Virtual Library, 1964) Water is not a luxury in this part of the world, rather it is life itself. The final reasons Israel needs the Golan Heights are the economic benefits of owning the Golan, primarily due to agriculture, and the symbolism attached to the Golan for Israel.
The Golan Heights serves as a symbol and testimony to Israel’s strength for the Israeli people and people around world. On two separate occasions during wars with Syria on the Golan Heights the Israeli military was vastly outnumbered, and on both occasions was able to defeat the Syrian Army. Besides the symbolic nature, the Israelis have turned the once barren land into a viable agricultural region for farms and wineries, and over 15,000 head of cattle use the Golan for grazing. The Golan Heights is also fast becoming one of Israel’s largest tourist spots, receiving over 1. million visitors each year. (Graham, 2000)
Why Syria Needs the Golan The most obvious reason Syria needs the Golan is also peace and security. With Israeli troops and tanks so close to the Syrian capital, any future war or conflict would be undertaken with Israel having an immediate upper hand, besides the one already owned by the clearly dominant Israeli Air Force. As long as Israel maintains control of the Golan Heights, any Syrian ground advance would fail, solely due to this small strip of land which serves as the gateway any military must pass through in order to enter Israel.
These facts account for the issue of security; however, as for the issue of peace, in the minds of the Syrian government and Syrian people, there will never be a sustained peace unless the Golan is returned to its rightful owner, Syria. Before the land would ever be returned to pre-1967 boundaries, however, Israel demands guarantees from the Syrians that the area would remain demilitarized, the Israelis would be entitled access to water, and normal relations would be fostered between Syria and Israel, all of which seems to still be a little ways off.
BBC, 2000) Just as with Israel, Syria needs the Golan for water. If Syria reclaimed control of the Golan, Syrians would use the Baniyas River (Baniyas Springs) and the Hatzbani River to provide water for their own people and their own agricultural purposes within the Damascus Basin. This would drastically diminish most of the sources of the Jordan River; since the Damascus Basin suffers from a severe water shortage. Water is badly needed in this area that has experienced several years of drought conditions.
ZINC, 1999) The issue of water is also directly linked to Syria’s economy, since much of the country and its citizens rely solely on agriculture as the primary means of economic support. (Butler, 2000) From a political standpoint, the new leader of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, cannot afford to look weak on this issue. Assad took over the country after his father passed away and remains in a precarious situation, with opposition growing around him. Assad cannot afford to back away from Syria’s demand that Israel returns the Golan Heights.
But thanks to political maneuvering by the late President Assad in the final years before his death, Syria continues to develop a closer relationship with the United States, which allows Syria to be in a stronger position to negotiate for peace with Israel. What the Future Holds for the Golan Heights Ten years ago, Israel returning the Golan Heights to Syria seemed to be merely wishful thinking; but now that once remote possibility is closer to reality than ever before.
With the help of the United States, both sides have considered options which would return the land to Syria in accordance with UN resolution 242, demilitarize the area ensuring security for both sides, and possibly allow for the posting of an observation/peace-keeping force to act as a buffer between the countries. One important issue that must be considered with regards to UN resolution 242; this resolution does not demand complete return to pre-1967 borders, rather it calls for “an exchange of land for peace and security within recognized boundaries. De La Paz, 2002) In order for this to come to pass though, both countries must continue to compromise on the key issues of demilitarization and water.
In the same regards, the United States and other countries must also be willing to act as brokers of peace in order to accomplish this monumental task, which could bring a true and lasting peace to a region of the world that has seen continuous war for centuries. Whether peace is obtained through the use of UN peacekeepers or the United States deploying American units to the region, the Middle East and the world would be better served if the complex issue of the Golan Heights was resolved.