Israeli-occupied Golan Heights: in pursuit of regional hegemony

  • Gizem Taşkın
  • 5 Jun 2018

Following the US move to open its embassy in Jerusalem, Israel is pressing the Trump administration to "recognise its sovereignty over the Golan Heights to end the historic controversy."

An Israeli flag is seen placed on Mount Bental in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on May 10, 2018. ( Reuters )

Israel turned its diplomatic attention to the Golan Heights, following US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the opening of a new US embassy there in May.

Last week, Israeli Minister of Intelligence Yisrael Katz said the endorsement of Israel's 51-year occupation of the Golan Heights tops the agenda of current Israel-America bilateral relations.

Since the creation of Israel 70 years ago, Israel and Syria have fought in three wars, two of them were on the strategic plateau which sits between Syria and Israel.

In 1967, Israel fought the Six-Day War with the armies of neighbouring Egypt, Syria and Jordan and the outcome of it changed the map of the Middle East for the foreseeable future.

Israel captured the Golan Heights during the war and has occupied two-thirds of the strategically important territory since then. The move has never been recognised by the international community.

Israeli Sherman M4 tanks are seen moving towards the Sinai during Israel’s invasion of the Sinai in the Six- Day War of Israel on June 6, 1967.(AP Archive)

What is the strategic importance of Golan Heights?

The topography provides a natural buffer against any military thrust from Syria. The Golan is more than 1,000 feet above sea level and Israel’s highest mountain, Mt Hermon, is located to the north of it. Damascus is clearly visible from the top.

Israel also says it is necessary to keep the Golan Heights under control to protect from any threat from Iran-backed forces, particularly Hezbollah and Shia militias who have consolidated their presence on and around the Golan Heights since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

Additionally, the area provides one-third of Israel's entire water supply from the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. The land is also fertile, with the volcanic soil creating a rich resource for agriculture and stockbreeding.

Israeli cowboy, Yehiel Alon, rides on horseback as he rounds up some 650 head of cattle in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights near the border with Syria on April 21, 2016.(Reuters)

Which conflicts have revolved around the Golan?

Ever since Israel took control of the Golan Heights in 1967, the conflict between Syria and Israel has never ended.

In 1973, Egypt and Syria decided to launch an attack during the Yom Kippur religious holiday to regain the territory which was lost to Israel in 1967. As the Yom Kippur War continued, units from the Iraqi, Saudi and Jordanian armies joined the fight on the Syrian front against Israel.

Israel counterattacked, mostly by the help of the US, and recaptured the territory. In 1974, Syria and Israel signed an armistice and a UN observer force has remained on the ceasefire line since then.

In 1981, Israel unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights. The move was not recognised internationally.

Today, Golan is administered by the Golan Regional Council, based in Katzrin, an Israeli settlement in Golan Heights. There are around 46,000 people living in the area, 25,000 of them are Syrians who are mostly members of the Druze sect. The rest of the population consists of more than 21,000 Israeli settlers.

US President Bill Clinton (C) escorts Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (L) and the Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al Shara (R) along a bridge to the US Fish and Wildlife Service Center on January 3, 2000, in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, US.(Getty Images)

Why did Syrian-Israeli peace deals fail?

Syria is still looking for a peace deal to secure the return of the Golan Heights. Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad called Israel to revive peace talks in late 2003.

In 1999, when the former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and the Syrian foreign minister, Farouk al Shara, held high-level talks, Barak offered to return most of the Golan to Syria.

But the US-brokered negotiations collapsed in 2000, after Syria wanted a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 border. Israel refused the demand which would give Syria total control of the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, a key water source for Israel.

Indirect talks between Israel and Syria resumed in 2008, under Turkey’s mediation, but later the talks stagnant as a result of the Israeli incursion into Gaza.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office in 2009, he vowed to take a tougher line over the Golan Heights. Syrian regime leader Assad, at the same time, said there was no person for talks on the Israeli side.

How did the Syrian civil war affect Golan Heights?

Iranian forces moved into Syria after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 to back the forces of regime leader Bashar al Assad. 

And in 2013, two years after the civil war began in Syria, the fight reached the Golan ceasefire lines. 

As the war winds down and Assad appears to be headed toward victory, Israel fears that Iran, along with tens of thousands of Iran-backed Shia militiamen who are based close to Golan Heights, will carry out attacks against Israel.

Israel has been on heightened alert since late April this year, anticipating an Iranian attack following Iranian vows to retaliate to what it says are recent Israeli strikes in Syria targeting Iranian outposts.

In April, an attack on Syria's T4 air base in Homs province killed seven Iranian military personnel. On April 30, Israel was said to have struck regime outposts in northern Syria, killing more than a dozen pro-regime fighters, many of them were Iranians.

In February, Israel shot down what it said was an armed Iranian drone that entered Israeli airspace. Israel responded by attacking anti-aircraft positions in Syria, but an Israeli warplane was shot down during the battle.

Mid-May, Israel's military went on high alert and bomb shelters were ordered open in Israeli-controlled Golan Heights following reports of "irregular activity of Iranian forces in Syria." 

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Israeli Minister of Intelligence, Yisrael Katz attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on September 4, 2016(Reuters)

How occupation of Golan violates international law?

In terms of international law the occupation of the Golan Heights, which is planned to be protected by the UN forces, is illegal.

In 1967 a resolution (UNSCR 242) passed by the UN Security Council urged Israel to withdraw its troops from the strategic territory along with the Sinai Peninsula and West Bank.

During the Yom Kippur War, the council adopted a new resolution (UNSCR 338) in 1973 and called all parties involved in the war to implement UNSCR 242.

Three days after Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, the council declared its resolution UNSCR 497, saying that “the Israeli decision to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights is null and void.”

However, at a meeting with the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in February, Netanyahu said that the occupied Golan Heights would “forever” remain under Israeli control.

And today, Israel wants to legalise the annexation of Golan Heights with support from the US. Israeli Minister of Intelligence Yisrael Katz claims the goal of the international recognition is not limited with the current Israeli government.  

Yair Lapid, the head of Israel’s prominent opposition party, the Yesh Atid, said: “it is absurd to think that Israel will ever withdraw from the Golan Heights.”