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Golan Heights: History & Overview

Biblical to Contemporary History

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 in 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 (II 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 March 7, 1923. The Heights became part of Syria upon the termination of the French mandate in 1944.

History from Israel's Independence

From the western Golan, it is only about 60 miles – without major terrain obstacles – to Haifa and Acre, and Israel’s industrial heartland. The Golan – rising from 400 to 1700 feet in the western section bordering on pre-1967 Israel – overlooks the Huleh Valley, Israel’s richest agricultural area. In the hands of a friendly neighbor, the escarpment has little military importance. If controlled by a hostile country, however, the Golan has the potential to become a strategic nightmare for Israel.

From 1948-67, when Syria controlled the Golan Heights, it used the area as a military stronghold from which its troops randomly sniped at Israeli civilians in the Huleh Valley below, forcing children living on kibbutzim to sleep in bomb shelters. In addition, many roads in northern Israel could be crossed only after probing by mine-detection vehicles. In late 1966, a youth was blown to pieces by a mine while playing football near the Lebanon border. In some cases, attacks were carried out by Yasir Arafat’s Fatah, which Syria allowed to operate from its territory.

Israel’s options for countering the Syrian attacks were constrained by the geography of the Heights. “Counterbattery fires were limited by the lack of observation from the Huleh Valley; air attacks were degraded by well-dug-in Syrian positions with strong overhead cover, and a ground attack against the positions...would require major forces with the attendant risks of heavy casualties and severe political repercussions,” U.S. Army Col. (Ret.) Irving Heymont observed.

Israel repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, protested the Syrian bombardments to the UN Mixed Armistice Commission, which was charged with policing the cease-fire. For example, Israel went to the UN in October 1966 to demand a halt to the Fatah terror attacks. The response from Damascus was defiant. “It is not our duty to stop them, but to encourage and strengthen them,” the Syrian ambassador responded. Nothing was done to stop Syria’s aggression. A mild Security Council resolution expressing “regret” for such incidents was vetoed by the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Israel was condemned by the UN when it retaliated. “As far as the Security Council was officially concerned,” historian Netanel Lorch wrote, “there was an open season for killing Israelis on their own territory.”

After the Six-Day War began, the Syrian air force attempted to bomb oil refineries in Haifa. While Israel was fighting in the Sinai and West Bank, Syrian artillery bombarded Israeli forces in the eastern Galilee, and armored units fired on villages in the Huleh Valley below the Golan Heights.

On June 9, 1967, Israel moved against Syrian forces on the Golan. By late afternoon, June 10, Israel was in complete control of the plateau. Israel’s seizure of the strategic heights occurred only after 19 years of provocation from Syria, and after unsuccessful efforts to get the international community to act against the aggressors.

Six years later, in a surprise attack on Yom Kippur, the Syrians overran the Golan Heights before being repulsed by Israeli counterattacks. After the war, Syria signed a disengagement agreement that left the Golan in Israel’s hands. [See map] Expecting Israel to return territory to an aggressor only promotes further aggression; after all, if you can fight and lose but then be awarded the territory you conceded, an incentive to fight until you win is created.

On December 14, 1981, the Knesset voted to annex the Golan Heights. The statute extended Israeli civilian law and administration to the residents of the Golan, replacing the military authority that had ruled the area since 1967.

Since 1974, Syria has adhered to the cease-fire on the Golan, largely because of the presence of Israeli troops within artillery range of Damascus. But during this time, Syria has provided a haven and supported numerous terrorist groups that attack Israel from Lebanon and other countries. These include the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP); the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Hezbollah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). In addition, prior to the civil war that began in 2011, Syria deployed thousands of troops – as much as 75 percent of its army – on the Israeli front near the Heights.

As the peace process faltered in 1996-97, Syria began to renew threats of war with Israel and to make threatening troop movements. Some Israeli analysts warned of the possibility of a lightning strike by Syrian forces aimed at retaking the Golan. The Israeli Defense Forces have countered the Syrian moves; however, and – to this point – preserved the peace.

Speaking at the first ever Cabinet meeting to be held in the territory, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated on April 17, 2016, that Israel will never give up the Golan Heights. “It’s time that the international community finally recognize that the Golan will remain forever under Israel’s sovereignty.”

The Golan Heights Today

Druze sector

There are approximately 22,000 Arabs, including at least 17,000 Druze, living in 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 religious establishments.

Jewish sector

Today, there are approximately 26,000 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.)

Economy

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.

Prospects for Peace

Syria never signed a peace agreement with Israel and remains technically at war. For Israel, relinquishing the Golan to a hostile Syria could jeopardize its early-warning system against surprise attack. Israel has built radars on Mt. Hermon, the highest point in the region. If Israel withdrew from the Golan and had to relocate these facilities to the lowlands of the Galilee, they would lose much of their strategic effectiveness.


Israeli Settlements in the Golan Heights (February 1992)

Nevertheless, prior to the beginning of  Syria’s civil war in 2011, every Israeli prime minister except Ariel Sharon engaged in talks with Syria’s leaders. The hope was that peace could be achieved and ties between the countries normalized. Furthermore, with peace treaties with Jordan, Egypt and Syria, the expectation was that the Palestinians would feel more pressure to compromise to reach a deal as well.

In an interview with the Israeli Defense Ministry’s monthly Bitachon, Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh explained the topographical concerns associated with withdrawing from the Golan Heights could be offset by demilitarization. “Our red line needs to be a defensible border,” Sneh said, “a border where the chief of General Staff can come to the government or the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and say: ‘From this line I can defend the State of Israel with minimum losses.’” Sneh added, “the deeper the demilitarization and the better the early warning, the more we will allow ourselves to be flexible topographically.”

Besides military security, a key to peace with Syria, Sneh said, would be the normalization of relations between the two countries. “When an Israeli thinks of normalization he wants to get up in the morning and take his wife and kids on a shopping trip to Damascus and come home,” Sneh said. “The Syrians see normalization as an exchange of ambassadors and flight links – maximum. We need to demand that it be a peace warmer than with Egypt, closer to the type of peace we have with Jordan.”

Sneh also emphasized that Israel could not compromise on water sources. Israel needed to control the Sea of Galilee, he insisted, as well as “the preservation of the water’s quality.”

The three perquisites to peace outline by Sneh, a secure border, normalization of ties and protection of water have been the basis for all Israel’s peace talks with Syria.

For decades the United States believed it could mediate negotiations between Israel and Syria. Jimmy Carter was candid about his dealings with the Syrian President. In his memoir, Keeping Faith¸ Carter quoted from his diary entry on May 9, 1977, about meeting with Assad to discuss the U.S. plan for a peace conference. Carter found Assad “very constructive,” “somewhat flexible” and “willing to cooperate.” Looking back, Carter admitted, “This was the man who would soon sabotage the Geneva peace talks...and who would...do everything possible to prevent the Camp David Accords from being fulfilled.”

Fifteen years later, Secretary of State James Baker visited Assad in Damascus and subsequently informed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin the Syrian president was prepared to make peace “like Sadat.” According to the head of the Israeli delegation, Prof. Itamar Rabinovich, the parties met nearly every month from September of 1992 to August of 1993. Rabin was prepared to withdraw completely from the Golan Heights within five years if Assad agreed to meet Israel’s security concerns and normalized relations. The terms were unacceptable to Assad; he wanted a full withdrawal without making any commitment to the type of peace agreement Sadat signed.

After Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in 1996, he was encouraged by the United States to enter talks with Assad. They were conducted on his behalf by American businessman Ron Lauder. Though the discussions were detailed they did not result in any substantive agreements.

After losing the 1999 election, Netanyahu confirmed reports that he had engaged in secret talks with Assad to withdraw from the Golan and maintain a strategic early-warning station on Mount Hermon. Publicly, Assad continued to insist on a total withdrawal with no compromises. He showed no willingness, however, to go beyond agreeing to a limited “non­belligerency” deal rather than the full normalization Israel demanded.

The election of Ehud Barak stimulated new movement in the peace process, with intensive negotiations held in the United States in January 2000 between Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa. These talks raised new hope for the conclusion of a peace treaty. The Syrians demanded access to the Sea of Galilee but refused to commit to peace in return. Barak balked.

The discussions ended when Assad died in June 2000 and other events took precedence. A new uprising began in the West Bank to occupy Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s attention while the Americans were engrossed in war with Iraq. In fact, Sharon was specifically asked by the United States not to have any contact with the Syrians.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government began negotiations with Bashar Assad’s regime in 2008 with Turkish mediation. Reportedly, the two sides had gotten as far as discussing a new border, but talks collapsed in part because Israel again became distracted by Palestinian violence. This time it was in Gaza and led to Operation Cast Lead.

Though projecting himself as unwilling to compromise with the Syrians, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered secret U.S.-mediated talks with Assad beginning in September 2010. This time the Israelis conducted the talks themselves rather than rely on Lauder. Netanyahu reportedly was willing to discuss the Syrian demand for a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines –  with modifications. The Israelis proposed a land swap between Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in exchange for Israeli settlements remaining in the Golan Heights. The idea was for Jordan to give Syria a swath of territory equal to the area Israel would retain. Jordan would be compensated with land ceded by Saudi Arabia. Amman agreed but Damascus objected.

Netanyahu also added a new condition to Israel’s demands. In addition to normalizing relations, however, he insisted that Syria end its ties with Iran and Hezbollah.

Talks ended in March 2011. This time the main cause was that Assad became embroiled in fighting rebels in Syria, which grew into a civil war that continued into 2019. The Israelis did not take sides in the fighting, but the uncertainty of the outcome made Israel worry whether a more radical regime might come to power.

During the years of negotiation, there was substantial opposition within Israel to withdrawing from the Golan Heights. Still, prior to the Syrian civil war, there was an expectation that public opinion would shift if the Syrians signed an agreement and demonstrated a genuine interest in peace. Ultimately, Israeli public opinion will determine whether a treaty is concluded because a law was adopted in 1999 requiring a national referendum to approve any agreement.

The Syrian Civil War and U.S. Recognition

The Syrian civil war that began in 2011 increased the threat to Israel making Israel’s unwillingness to give up the Golan look prescient. Iran, Hezbollah, and ISIS have fought a war that is so destructive Syria may never be reconstituted as a single nation with its previous borders. Each of those parties pose a risk to Israel, especially Iran, which seeks to build bases in Syria from which it could launch attacks against Israel. Hezbollah has also attempted to establish a beachhead near the Golan to add to the threat they already present from Lebanon. Syria under Assad or a future leader will also be a threat in the absence of a peace agreement.

On March 21, 2019, President Donald Trump announced in a tweet: “After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!” He made it official on March 25 following a meeting with Netanyahu. 

Trump’s announcement was welcomed by Israelis across the political spectrum and the Wall Street Journal noted, “Recognizing the Golan sends a message to Russia, Syria’s patron, that the U.S. recognizes that the civil war has changed Syrian reality. There is no returning to a nonexistent status quo ante.”

Some Arabists and commentators are predicting a cataclysm, just as they did following Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocation of the embassy. Rather than rise up in anger, however, the Arab and Muslim world reacted mostly with resignation, given that the city has been Israel’s capital since 1948. Similarly, the response to the Golan announcement was a collective shrug.

Syria and its Iranian and Russian defenders condemned the decision. The head of the Arab League made a perfunctory statement criticizing the United States and the European Union, predictably, said it would not change its position.

There was no immediate explosion in response to the U.S. decision. Most of the Arab world is prepared to accept the obvious – Israel has controlled the area for decades and has no intention of withdrawing for the foreseeable future, if ever. Several Arab states are more interested in allying with Israel against Iran than condemning it over the Golan. They also have no interest in helping Bashar Assad, whose rule they sought to undermine for the last eight years.


Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
Israeli Government Press Office;
@realDonaldTrump, (March 21, 2019);
Ephraim Sneh, Navigating Perilous Waters, (NY: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002), pp. 45-48;
Aaron Lerner, “Recording President Trump Can Recognize Israeli Sovereignty Over Golan,” IMRA, (March 22, 2019);
Ben Sales, “The Golan Heights, explained,” JTA, (March 21, 2019);
The Editorial Board, “Israel’s Golan Heights,” Wall Street Journal, (March 21, 2019);
Mark Landler and Edward Wong, “In Golan Heights, Trump Bolsters Israel’s Netanyahu but Risks Roiling Middle East,” New York Times, (March 21, 2019);
Sune Engel Rasmussen, “Trump’s Golan Heights Endorsement Draws Ire From Friends and Foes,” Wall Street Journal, (March 22, 2019);
Ben Hubbard, “The Golan Heights Was Once an Arab Rallying Cry. Not Anymore,” New York Times, (March 22, 2019);
Jimmy Carter, Keeping Faith, (NY: Bantam Books, 1982), p. 286;
Noa Landau, “How Secret Netanyahu-Assad Backchannel Gave Way to Israeli Demand for Recognition of Golan Sovereignty,” Haaretz, (March 22, 2019);
Jordan Fabian, “Trump announces US recognition of Israeli claim on Golan Heights,” The Hill, (March 25, 2019).

Maps courtesy of The Jewish Connection and Maps of the Middle East.