The Golan: lest ye forget
Before 1967 the Golan had a population between 140,000 and 153,000. The principal town, Al-Quneitra, was of unsurpassed strategic importance to Syria and its Arab neighbours; it is the only area in the Middle East that provides access to Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria Thus, it is ideally positioned to become an infrastructural and commercial hub of the region. The Golan is also a highly fertile piece of land, with rich volcanic soils and abundant fresh water supplies, thus serving as a crucial agricultural centre for Syria before 1967. Furthermore, the region has wonderful opportunities to develop Syria’s nascent tourism industry. Taken together, these factors indicate that the Golan is perhaps Syria’s most precious asset.
In 1967 the Golan was invaded by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) on the pretext of ending Syrian aggression towards Israeli settlers. However, this is largely dismissed by historians. For example Avi Shlaim states that ‘…it would be nearer the truth to say that the Golan Heights represent one of the most successful of Zionist myths.’ These myths are starkly observable in the following extract from an interview on 18th September 1992 with Netanyahu Peled, a former Head of Intelligence: ‘If we wanted to be honest and speak the truth we need to admit that all incidents of the clashes on the Syrian-Israeli front were initiated by Israel.’
After 1967 around 130,000 Golan residents were either forcibly evicted or decided to flee the violence, while a further 7,000 lived under Israeli occupation. Today there are approximately 346,000 displaced persons living throughout Syria and 20,000 Syrians living under Israeli occupation. Those living under occupation are treated as second-class citizens; workers are never paid and subject to arbitrary dismissal; Syrians are granted restricted access to agricultural resources; furthermore, those who travel to study in Syria are subject to dehumanising and violent questioning and treatment when they return. See this UN report for more details.
The Syrian army pushed the Israeli army back and recaptured al-Quneitra in 1973. However, they discovered that the IDF had completely demolished the town as they retreated. The local hospital was pockmarked with bullet holes; the building had been used for training IDF soldiers to capture large public buildings.
The top of the hospital provides a great vantage point for surveying the surrounding scenery. In the immediate foreground you can see the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force zone, which separates Syria from its occupied land. Beyond this the lush fertility of the Golan is apparent; there is field upon field of different crops. Looking further still, there are obvious IDF military bases which overlook Syria from mountainous vantage points. On the roof of the hospital, you could not help but suspect that someone was watching you.
In stark contrast to the lushness of occupied Syria, a 180 degree turn reveals the dry barrenness of the semi-arid land that Israel left for Syria. Amongst it sits the ruins of Al-Quneitra. Admittedly, the Syrian government has not gone out of its way to rebuild the town; it serves an important role for propaganda. However, the IDF’s destruction remains propaganda notwithstanding.
Observing the contrast in the land on either side of the UN maintained ‘border’, fertility versus aridity, it is easier to suspect the reason for Israel halting the occupation where it did. However, this suspicion is confirmed by Moshe Dayan, then Israeli Defence Minister: ‘There was really no pressing reason to go to war with Syria… The kibbutz residents who pressed the government to take the Golan Heights did so less for security than for the farmland.’
The Golan is a region that is often forgotten in media portrayals of the Arab-Israeli conflict. There is a propensity to focus on the issue as an Arab-Palestinian conflict or to become captivated by the Islamist inclinations of Hamas or Hizbullah. However, beyond Israel’s human rights abuses and flagrant disregard for international law, it is important to recognise the importance of this region for Israel and Syria.
Israel does not want to lose this land. It is fertile, great for tourism (2.1 million a year for ski resorts et al.), and of real strategic significance as stated above. It is important to clarify that Israel attempts to mask these reasons for its occupation behind its alleged security concerns. This manifests itself in the conflation of the Golan with the Golan Heights (a small part of the Golan). Identification of the region as the Golan Heights rather than the Golan is in keeping with Israel’s desire to identify the occupation with security concerns, when in reality the occupation provides an abundance of other benefits. Indeed, the BBC’s ‘regions and territories’ profile refers to Golan as the Golan Heights.
While these benefits are clearly important to Syria, along with the fact that Israeli occupation is an illegal breach of Syria’s sovereignty, it is important to recognise that Syrian foreign policy decisions cannot be detached from regaining the Golan. The full return of the Golan is the only means through which Syria will achieve peace with Israel. As Muhammad Ali (Public Relations Director the Golan Region) said to me: ‘peace can only be achieved when what is rightfully yours is returned.’ Hence Syria’s persistent refusal to accept partial returns of the Golan.
While the importance of the Golan may be at times overlooked in the media, it is important that the Obama administration recognise its significance to their attempts to broker Israeli Syrian talks and to regional security generally. Moreover, it is important that the international community does not forget the plight of Golanis and this unfortunately marginalised example of Israel’s continued defiance of international law.