The Golan Heights:
Geography, Geology and History
Geology, Geography and Natural History
The Golan Heights Today
The Golan Law
The area in the north which came under Israeli control
as a result of the 1967 Six-Day War
and is popularly referred to as the "Golan Heights," is actually
composed of two geologically distinct areas (divided by Nahal Sa'ar): the
Golan Heights proper (approx. 1.070 sq. km.) and the slopes of the Mt.
Hermon range (approx. 100 sq. km.).
GEOGRAPHY AND NATURAL HISTORY
While the Mt. Hermon range is mostly limestone, the
Golan Heights proper is mostly basalt and other types of volcanic rock,
forming a plateau that drops off to the west, to the Jordan River and Lake
Kinneret (in the Syrian-African Rift Valley), and to the south, to the
Yarmouk River. The plateau is crossed by a number of seasonal streams which
run through valleys, sometimes very deep, and flow west into the Jordan or
the Lake. The Golan proper may be divided into three regions: northern
(between Nahals Sa'ar and Gilabon), central (between Nahals Gilabon and
Dilayot), and southern (between Nahal Dilayot and the Yarmouk Valley).
The northern Golan has double the average rainfall of
the southern Golan, and often receives snow in the winter, as does the Mt.
Hermon area. Hydrologically, nearly the entire Golan lies within the Lake
Kinneret catchment basin, which supplies 30% of Israel's water requirements. Two of the Jordan
River's main sources, the Dan and the Banias Rivers, rise on the slopes of
Mt. Hermon -- in addition to many seasonal streams that rise on the Heights
and flow into the Lake, either directly or via the Jordan. In 1964, Syria
sought to divert the sources of the Jordan and prevent their waters from
reaching Israel, provoking a series of border incidents; the Syrian plan
was ultimately thwarted by IDF
operations in the spring of 1965.
In ancient and classical times, the Golan was heavily
forested (see Ezekiel 27:5-6). Today, small remnants of these forests
survive near Odem and Mt. Avital in the north, and near Yehudiya in the
central Golan. Half of Israel's mammal and reptile species, and all of its
amphibians, can be found on the Heights.
In Biblical times, the Golan Heights was referred to as
"Bashan;" the word "Golan" apparently derives from the
biblical city of "Golan in Bashan," (Deuteronomy 4:43, Joshua
21:27). The area was assigned to the tribe of Manasseh (Joshua 13:29-31).
In early First Temple times (953-586 BCE), the area was contested between
the northern Jewish kingdom of Israel and the Aramean kingdom based on
Damascus. King Ahab of Israel (reigned c. 874-852 BCE) defeated Ben-Hadad I
of Damascus near the site of Kibbutz Afik in the southern Golan (I Kings
20:26-30), and the prophet Elisha prophesied that King Jehoash of Israel
(reigned c. 801-785 BCE) would defeat Ben-Hadad III of Damascus, also near
Kibbutz Afik (11 Kings 13:17). In the late 6th and 5th centuries BCE, the
region was settled by returning Jewish exiles from Babylonia (modern Iraq).
In the mid 2nd century BCE, Judah Maccabee and his brothers came to the aid
of the local Jewish communities when the latter came under attack from
their non-Jewish neighbors (I Maccabees 5). Judah Maccabee's grandnephew,
the Hasmonean King Alexander Jannai (reigned 103-76 BCE) later added the
Heights to his kingdom. The Greeks referred to the area as "Gaulanitis",
a term also adopted by the Romans, which led to the current application of
the word "Golan" for the entire area. Gamla became the Golan's
chief city and was the area's last Jewish stronghold to resist the Romans
during the Great Revolt, falling in the year 67 (see Josephus, The Jewish
War, Chap. 13, Penguin edition). Despite the failure of the revolt, Jewish
communities on the Heights continued, and even flourished; the remains of
no less than 25 synagogues from the period between the revolt and the
Islamic conquest in 636 have been excavated. (Several Byzantine monasteries
from this period have also been excavated on the Heights.) The decisive
battle in which the Arabs under Caliph Omar, crushed the Byzantines and
established Islamic control over what is now Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and
Syria, was fought in the Yarmouk Valley, on the southern edge of the
Heights, in August 636. Organized Jewish settlement on the Golan came to an
end at this time.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Druze began to settle in the
northern Golan and on the slopes of Mt. Hermon. During the brief period of
Egyptian rule (1831-1840) and in the ensuing decades, Sudanese, Algerians,
Turkomans and Samarian Arabs settled on the Heights. The Turks brought in
Circassians in the 1880's to fight against Bedouin brigands.
The Jewish presence on the Golan was renewed in 1886,
when the B'nei Yehuda society of Safed purchased a plot of land four
kilometers north of the present-day religious moshav of Keshet, but the
community -- named Ramataniya -- failed one year later. In 1887, the
society purchased lands between the modern-day B'nei Yehuda and Kibbutz Ein
Gev. This community survived until 1920, when two of its last members were
murdered in the anti-Jewish riots which erupted in the spring of that year.
In 1891, Baron Rothschild purchased approximately 18,000 acres of land
about 15 km. east of
Ramat Hamagshimim, in what is now Syria. First Aliyah (1881-1903)
immigrants established five small communities on this land, but were forced
to leave by the Turks in 1898. The lands were farmed until 1947 by the
Palestine Colonization Association and the Israel Colonization Association,
when they were seized by the Syrian army. Most of the Golan Heights were
included within Mandatory Palestine
when the Mandate was formally granted in 1922, but Britain ceded the area
to France in the Franco-British Agreement of 7 March 1923. The Heights
became part of Syria upon the termination of the French mandate in 1944.
After the 1948-49 War
of Independence, the Syrians built extensive fortifications on the
Heights, from where they systematically shelled civilian targets in Israel
and launched terrorist attacks (in gross violation of Article III of the Israel-Syria Armistice Agreement of 20
July 1949). 140 Israelis were killed and many more were injured in these
attacks between 1949 and 1967; heavy property damage was also inflicted.
During the 1967 Six-Day War, the IDF captured the Golan
Heights -- in response to Syrian attacks -- in just over 24 hours of
intense fighting on 9-10 June. Nearly all of the Golan's Arab inhabitants
fled as a result of the war; four Druze villages remain, three
on the slopes of Mt. Hermon and one in the northern Golan.
The renewal of the Jewish presence on the Heights almost
immediately followed the war. Kibbutz Merom Golan was founded in July 1967,
at the initiative of kibbutzim in the nearby Upper Galilee and Hula Valley.
By 1970, there were 12 Jewish communities on the Golan. On 6 October 1973,
Syrian forces attacked across the 1967 cease-fire line and made their
greatest gains in the central Golan, almost reaching the escarpment, before
being pushed back beyond the 1967 line by the main Israeli counterattack,
which began on the morning of 8 October. Israel and Syria signed a Separation of Forces Agreement on 31 May 1974; this
agreement remains in force.
There are approximately 17,000 Druze inhabitants on the
Golan Heights today. In contrast to 1948-1967, when civilian infrastructure
and services were almost completely neglected by successive Syrian
governments, Israel has invested substantial sums in either installing or
upgrading electric and water systems, in agricultural improvements and job
training, and in building health clinics, where none had existed
previously. The inhabitants also enjoy the benefits of Israel's welfare and
social security programs. Israel has built or refurbished schools and
classrooms, extended compulsory education from seven years to ten, and made
secondary education available to girls for the first time. The Golan's
Druze residents enjoy complete freedom of worship; the Israeli authorities
have made financial contributions and tax and customs rebates to the local
Today, there are approximately 14,000 Jewish residents
in 33 communities (27 kibbutzim and moshavim, 5 communal settlements and
the town of Katzrin) on the Golan Heights and the slopes of Mt. Hermon. (Katzrin
has its own mayor and local council; the other 32 communities form the
Golan Heights Regional Council.)
The economy of the Golan Heights is based on both
agriculture and industry, including tourism. 8,100 hectares of land are
under cultivation, producing a wide variety of crops, including wine
grapes. A further 46,575 hectares are dedicated to natural pasturage,
supporting 15,000 head of cattle and 5,000 sheep, for both meat and dairy
production. The Golan's dairy cattle produce approximately 60 million
liters of milk per year. The are approximately 30 industrial enterprises on
the Golan, mostly based in the Katzrin Industrial Zone.
There is a substantial tourist infrastructure on the
Golan, including the Mt. Hermon ski slopes, archaeological sites, hotels,
restaurants, bed-and-breakfast/guest room facilities in many communities,
and three Society for the Protection of Nature Field schools. There are
also facilities for jeep and bicycle tours, as well as horseback riding.
Israel has established 13 nature reserves -totaling 24,908 hectares -- on
the Heights. The Golan Archaeological Museum is located in Katzrin.
On 14 December 1981, the Knesset passed The Golan Heights Law by a vote of 63-21. Its first
paragraph states: "The law, jurisdiction, and administration of the
state shall apply to the Golan Heights." Following the passage of this
law, the Israeli military administration on the Heights was dismantled and
regular civilian authorities were established. The Golan's Druze residents are
permitted to maintain their previous citizenship, but were given the option
of becoming full Israeli citizens. For various reasons, few have done so.
Source: Israeli Government Press Office