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World Middle East

Golan Heights rises from international backburner

  • Paula
For months now, all eyes have been on southern Israel and Gaza. Less attention has been focused on what’s happening in the north of Israel, and more specifically along the Golan Heights.
by PAULA SLIER | Nov 29, 2018

It explains why a recent call by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the international community to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the area didn’t really garner much attention. Neither did Washington’s opposition two weeks ago - for the first time ever - to an annual United Nations resolution calling for Israel to end its presence there.

But the Russians took note. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insists that any change in the status of the Heights can happen only with the approval of the UN Security Council as otherwise, “it would constitute a violation of existing accords”. Russia, along with most countries in the world, considers the Golan Heights to be occupied Syrian territory.

And yet for Israel, it is an integral part of the country’s security, now more than ever because of the turmoil and instability across the border on the Syrian side.

Long considered a “sleeper issue”, as Gaza takes a backseat (temporarily) and the war in Syria winds down, the status of the Golan Heights is likely to take front seat again. 

Every year since 1981, a UN non-binding resolution called “Occupied Syrian Golan” comes before the General Assembly. It states that Israel’s jurisdiction of the area is “null and void”, and constitutes “a flagrant violation of international law”.

In years gone past, Washington abstained from voting. But this year, alongside Israel, it voted “no” - the only two countries to do so. A total of 151 states voted in favour.

Washington criticised the resolution for being “extremely biased against Israel”, but did not provide an American position on sovereignty over the Golan Heights. In spite of excitement in many Israeli circles, the new US position does not necessarily mean that American President Donald Trump is getting ready to recognise Israeli claims over the area.

Still, the abstention is hugely symbolic, and something Jerusalem has long been lobbying for. The Netanyahu government has been pressing the White House in recent months to recognise its annexation of the area. After Washington moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, many Israeli legislators called for an acknowledgement of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan. But American Ambassador David Friedman responded at the time that the legislators were “ungrateful”, and did not understand US global interests unrelated to Israel.

However, the shift in the UN vote does acknowledge the changing reality on the ground, and the fact that the chances of Israel returning the Golan Heights to a Syria devastated by years of war are less than they were before the war began. It’s also not clear who exactly Israel would be returning the area to, should that day even arise.

What’s more, there are different messages coming out of Washington. In August, Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said that a formal US endorsement of Israel’s control over the Golan Heights was not under discussion. But the next month, Friedman said he expected Israel to keep the Golan Heights “forever”. Netanyahu has repeatedly said Jerusalem will never renounce the area.

Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the closing stages of the 1967 Six-Day War. Most of the Syrian Arab inhabitants fled, an armistice line was established, and the area came under Israeli military control. Almost immediately, Israeli citizens began to settle there.

Damascus tried to retake the area during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but was defeated. An armistice was signed in 1974, and since then, a UN observer force has been in place.

In 1981, Israel unilaterally annexed the area in a move that was not recognised internationally. Today, 20 000 Israelis and about 24 000 Druze live on the Israeli side of the Golan. Only 12% of the Druze population holds Israeli citizenship, and they are much less integrated into Israeli society than the Druze living in the Galilee. But, for the first time ever, this past October, they participated in local elections.

Damascus’ position has always been that it will revive peace talks with Israel only if there is a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 border. This would give it control of the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee - Israel’s main source of fresh water. In principle, Israel supports returning territory for peace. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to return most of the Golan to Syria during the 1999-2000 talks, but would not agree to returning all of it. This is likely to remain the main stumbling block moving forward - should the opportunity for talks ever arise again.

Most Israelis want to hold onto the Golan Heights and not return it to Syria. The area gives Israel an excellent vantage point for monitoring Syrian movements, and also provides a third of the country's water supply. Trump’s pro-Israel foreign policy and past actions have left many Israelis believing - and hoping - that although the US, for now, says it’s not about to officially recognise Israeli sovereignty over the area, it could still happen.

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