Israel's quiet annexation of the Golan Heights

A sign for tourists shows the direction to Damascus and Baghdad among other destinations at an army post on Mount Bental in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on February 10, 2018. -
8 min read
17 January, 2022
Analysis: With little international resistance, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is seeking to deepen Israel's control of the Golan Heights in a way that marks Israel's presence there as a point of no return.

On the clifftop Israeli settlement of Kibbutz Mevo Hama in the Golan Heights, Israeli cabinet members posed for a photo-op in December ahead of a special meeting led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

Behind them was the stunning, misty horizon where the Israeli-occupied Golan plateau met Syria proper. The scenery gave a sense of geographical congruity and natural serenity but concealed a grim political reality.

Soon after the meeting, Bennett declared that his government plans to invest millions of dollars to double the number of Jewish settlers in the Golan Heights within five years.

“An addition of 23,000 people in the area," according to a statement issued by Bennett's office, eventually outnumbering the roughly 27,000 native, mostly Druze Syrian Arab population. 

A cabinet-approved blueprint revealed that most of the new housing units will be concentrated in Katzrin, Israel's main settlement in the area.

"The recognition of Israel's sovereignty over the area by the Trump administration - and Biden's apparent unwillingness to reverse the decision – has encouraged new investment in the Golan"

The plans come as a partial fulfilment of Bennett’s pledges six weeks earlier at the Makor Rishon Conference in the Golan settlement of Hispin, where he vowed to quadruple the Jewish settler population in the occupied territory, initially from 27,000 to 50,000, and eventually to 100,000. 

After the Mevo Hama meeting, Bennett was forthcoming about the fact that the recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the area by the Trump administration - and the Biden administration’s apparent unwillingness to reverse the decision – had encouraged the new investment.

In February last year, shortly after Joe Biden was sworn in as president, Secretary of the State Anthony Blinken said the Golan Heights were of “real importance to Israel’s security,” implying the new administration would not seek to change the new status quo

Bennett added that the war in Syria made Israel’s control of the territory more acceptable to his country’s international allies, and that the alternative would be much worse. Though, in the Makor Rishon Conference, the Israeli PM stated: “our position on the Golan Heights has no connection to the situation in Syria.”

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Within the government coalition, only Eissawi Freij, the Palestinian-Israeli Minister of Regional Cooperation from the left-wing Meretz party, was absent from the cabinet meeting, reportedly in protest against the plan. His fellow party member, Nitzan Horowitz, the Minister of Health, declared his support.

Bennett also took the step confident that a regional and international reaction was going to be minimal and ineffective. His announcement came only one month after the UN adopted by a sweeping majority a resolution condemning Israel’s settlement activities in the occupied territories, including the Golan Heights.  

The Syrian government’s response did not go beyond the usual condemnations and reiterations that the Golan Height are part of Syria under international law, describing Bennett’s plans as “unprecedented escalation…that amounts to war crimes.” 

Building to this moment

Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem, and in the Syrian Golan Heights are equally illegal under international law. From an Israeli perspective, the two territories have different legal statuses and serve somewhat different purposes. 

In the occupied West Bank, settlements are viewed through two primary lenses: the religious/ideological and the geopolitical/strategic. It’s estimated that at least one-quarter of the West Bank settlers, albeit a highly vocal and visible minority, are religious fanatics who see their presence in the territory as a fulfilment of God’s will in “Judea and Samaria,” allegedly the heart of ancient Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel). 

For others, this is complemented by economic incentives. The Israeli government encourages Israelis to move to the West Bank by subsidising 50% of land development costs and providing tax breaks and access to cheap labour.

Golan Heights Trump settlement - Getty
In 2019, the US became the first country to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights. [Getty]

Ultimately, a deepening Jewish presence in the territory serves to provide Israel with strategic depth, compensating for the country’s narrow and presumably vulnerable central part.  

The religious/ideological element in the Golan Heights, however, rarely provokes consensus among Israelis, despite the existence of some, albeit weak, Biblical references to the area. Instead, security is seen as the major drive in Israel’s insistence on keeping the plateau.

In the late 19th Century - shortly after the 1897 first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland - groups of Jewish immigrants unsuccessfully tried to settle in the southern part of the region. In 1919, the Zionist movement lobbied the post-World War I Versailles Peace Conference to include the Golan within the future Jewish state. They cited as a reason the plateau’s strategic value as a natural barrier and rich irrigation source.

Despite the Zionist territorial claims, the 1,750 sq. km plateau was put under French custodianship and, later, Syrian rule when the country finally gained its independence from France in 1946. The 1949 Syrian-Israeli armistice agreement, following the 1948 war and Israel’s inception, placed the Golan Heights outside Israel's recognised sovereign territory.

Between 1948 and 1967, much of the Israeli-Syrian tensions concentrated along the Golan Heights’ borders. Israeli citizens in the neighbouring Kibbutzim constantly demanded that the Israeli government pacify the Golan, despite being a predominantly civilian area. 

"Bennett has declared that his government plans to invest millions of dollars to double the number of Jewish settlers in the Golan Heights within five years"

As such, security concerns became a major pretext in the run-up to Israel’s 1967 war and the occupation of the Syrian plateau. By the end of the war, Israel had occupied a total of 1,250 sq. km of the territory. Roughly 100 sq. km were returned to Syria following the 1973 war.

On the eve of the 1967 war, the plateau contained an ethnically diverse population just under 150,000, distributed among 163 villages. Most were Arab Sunni Muslims but with Alawite, Druze, and Kurd minorities, as well as 9,000 Palestinian refugees who fled to the region after the 1948 Nakba. 

Two months after the occupation, a census conducted by Israel found that only 6,396 residents remained – mostly Druze. It is uncertain the percentage of those who fled vis-à-vis those who were removed by Israel’s army. What is certain, however, is that there were documented cases of Syrian residents being denied the right to return to their homes. 

In September 1967, Haaretz reported that following the July ceasefire, people were forced to leave Quneitra, the Golan’s main province, after signing "voluntary departure" forms. In other cases, villagers took refuge in the Druze village of Majdal Shams, which was somewhat sheltered from Israeli attacks.

After weeks of demands, the Israeli government allowed the villagers to return, only to be shot at by the Israeli army, forcing most of them to flee into Syria.

Of the 163 villages, only four remain today - all are Druze majority. To weaken the remaining community - in a fashion similar to Palestinians who remained in their homes after Israel’s inception - the villages’ lands were confiscated and the population spread around the other villages, eventually leading to further departures.

In fact, employing the tactic of “physical elimination from public sites” used against the ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages in 1948, the Israeli government has since invested heavily in remaking the landscape and transforming the plateau into a tourist attraction, removing traces of its native Arab population. 

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The occupation as security

From the outset, the Israeli government emphasised the Golan Height’s value as a security buffer and strategic asset. Israeli control of high grounds on the plateau theoretically provides protection to the Galilee “panhandle’ along the Israeli-Lebanese border and the area around Lake Tiberias. It also deters any Syrian hostilities and ensures Israeli access to the plateau’s rich water resources.

Disregarding UN resolutions 242 and 338 of 1967 and 1973, respectively, demanding a full Israeli withdrawal from the territories, the Menachem Begin government in 1981 was forthright in annexing the Golan and extending Israeli civil law to it and its native population, unlike the Palestinian West Bank, which - apart from East Jerusalem - is yet to be officially recognised as a sovereign part of the Israeli state.

Since then, playing on collective trauma and fear, the Israeli governments used Israel’s withdrawal from the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula following the 1979 peace talks with Egypt to emphasise the high price of possibly giving up the Golan Heights.

Soon after Egypt and Israel had signed the 1975 interim peace agreement, Rabin told the BBC that the Golan, unlike the Sinai, had a very limited scope of manoeuvrability. PM Begin did in fact put a throttle on then Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s move to link the Golan problem with that of the Sinai. 

Riding on the back of this political tradition, and, today, armed with US recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan, PM Bennett seeks to deepen Israel’s control of the territory in a way that marks Israel’s presence there as a point of no return.

"For those closest to the conflict, the Palestinians, this signals that the annexation of swathes of the occupied West Bank could only be a matter of time"

Bennett’s approach bears additional credibility - in Israeli eyes - once put against the backdrop of the 1990s failed Israeli-Syrian negotiations and the current Syrian civil war, emphasised by the growing Iranian presence on Israel’s immediate borders on the Syrian side of the plateau.

These considerations provide the Jewish state not only with the pretexts to perpetuate its occupation of the territory, but also to further legitimise the notion of “the occupation as security.”

From this perspective, legitimacy is conceptualised as superior to the question of legality. This is also helped by the Israeli belief that the international legal system is biased against the Jewish state, painting the international community as lacking a moral mandate whilst, simultaneously, adding a moral dimension to Israel’s expansionist policies.

But there are concerns that the Israeli steps could have detrimental consequences for the international legal system. It sets a dangerous precedence for other territorial disputes. Think of India’s ambitions in Kashmir and Chinas claims to the islands in the South China Sea.

For those closest to the conflict, the Palestinians, this signals that the annexation of swathes of the occupied West Bank could only be a matter of time. After all, it almost happened in 2020 with then-president Trump’s blessing. 

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa