Listening to political debates or reading media coverage about the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, you could be forgiven for not realizing that Israel is also occupying the Syrian Golan Heights.
Late last year, for example, the United Nations Security Council adopted a landmark resolution condemning settlements on Palestinian territory. Days later, then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry argued that those settlements threaten the peace process and the two-state solution.
Yet the occupation of the Golan Heights – captured by Israel in 1967 – and the establishment of illegal settlements there attracted relatively little attention.
Indeed, Israel’s occupation of the Golan is often referred to as the ‘forgotten occupation.’
Following the start of this situation in 1967, over 130,000 native Syrian inhabitants were forcibly transferred or displaced. The Israeli military began a widespread campaign to demolish Syrian homes, destroying the city of Quneitra in 1974, as well as 340 villages and farms. These were replaced by Israeli agricultural settlements, using the same stones from the villages and farms that had been wiped out. In 1981, Israel enacted the Golan Heights Law which purported to annex the territory into the state of Israel, an illegal action condemned by the UN Security Council as “null and void and without international legal effect.”
Today, over seventy percent of the Golan is occupied by Israel, a land mass slightly smaller than Greater London, and only five percent of the original population remains. There are at least 23,000 Israeli settlers in the Golan, living in thirty-four illegal settlements. The remaining native Syrian population numbers approximately 25,000, and live in five villages located in the extreme north of the Golan.
Settlements and Tourism
The first Israeli settlement, Merom Golan, was established in the Golan within just one month of the 1967 war. Shortly after the war, various delegations of Israeli experts, including civil engineers, rural planners, agricultural advisers and hydrologists, visited the Golan to evaluate its potential, particularly to find ways Israel could profit from the area’s abundant natural resources.
An early project was the development of Mount Hermon. In 1968, Israel’s Nature Reserves Authority informed the military high command that the mountain’s snow makes it ‘a unique site for the citizens of Israel’ and an ‘exceptional treasure not found anywhere else [in the country]’. A new government body, the Hermon Authority, operating under military jurisdiction and comprised of officials from the Ministry of Tourism, Israel Land Administration, Nature Reserve Authority, and the Settlement Department of the World Zionist Organization, was established and initiated plans for the development of a ski resort.
This development project involved designating the main Syrian village on the mountain’s slopes, Jubata ez-Zeit, a military zone and then destroying it; the village’s population of at least 1,500 people was forcibly transferred and forbidden from returning.
An Israeli settlement, Neve Ativ – described by the Lonely Planet as the “closest thing Israel has to a Swiss Alpine village” – was built on the ruins of Jubata ez-Zeit.
Since the occupation began, Mount Hermon, and the Golan in general, have become a popular destination for Israeli tourists. The Golan received 150,000 visitors in 1968, increasing to 500,000 during the 1970s, and reaching approximately 1.5 million in 2005. Advertisements encourage Israelis to spend a weekend in the Golan so they can ‘feel like being in Europe while remaining in Israel’.
Tourism is a staple of the settlement economy in the Golan. The Israeli government and businesses promote the area’s natural beauty as a site for hiking, camping, biking, horseback riding, outdoor sports, sightseeing, wine-tasting, and picking fruit. Travel websites that advertise accommodation in the Golan list a plethora of ‘rural guesthouses’, cabins, Bed and Breakfasts, and camping sites. These promoted activities and accommodation are almost all either located in settlements or owned by settlers.
Exploitation of Agriculture and Water
Aside from its natural beauty, the Golan has fertile soil and abundant water resources. As a result, a substantial agricultural industry has developed in Israeli settlements, that includes beef, vegetable, fruit, wine, and mineral water production. In 2009, the revenue generated by agriculture produced in the Golan was estimated at USD 143 million.
Major businesses in the territory include the Golan Heights Winery and Eden Springs / May Eden mineral water, based in Katzrin settlement (population 8,000), the largest settlement in the Golan and considered the ‘settlement capital’. Katzrin was built over the destroyed Syrian villages of Qasrin, Shqef, and Sanawber. In October 2016, the Israeli Finance Ministry approved plans for the construction of 1,600 new settlement units in Katzrin. This follows an announcement in 2015 that the Israeli government would encourage 100,000 new settlers to move to the Golan over the next five years.
Katzrin is also close to one of the sites Israel has illegally authorized for oil exploration. The exploration is being conducted by an Israeli company, Afek Oil & Gas, which is owned by Genie Energy, a U.S. company that has Rupert Murdoch, Dick Cheney, and James Woolsey (the former head of the CIA) on its advisory board.
The Syrians of Golan
Due to discriminatory land, housing, and development policies, the Golan’s five remaining Syrian villages have been unable to expand outwards and are severely overcrowded. It is close to impossible for the native Syrian population in the Golan to obtain building permits, forcing them to build homes without permits, in order to meet their housing needs. Consequently, Syrian home owners risk having their homes destroyed. In 2016, the home of Bassam Ibrahim, in the Syrian village of Majdal Shams, was demolished by Israeli authorities. Currently, the Syrian owners of between eighty to ninety houses have been notified that their homes are due to be demolished.
On top of all this, under the guise of the ‘Hermon National Park’ plan, Israeli authorities are seeking to appropriate 20,000 acres of land used since Ottoman times, by the residents of Majdal Shams and Ein Qynia, for agriculture and housing. If approved, the ‘Hermon National Park’ plan would, in particular, surround Majdal Shams in the north and west.
The designation of land by Israeli authorities as a ‘national park’, ‘abandoned property’ or for ‘military or public needs’ is an oft-used tactic to either prevent the expansion of Syrian and Palestinian communities under occupation, or to appropriate land for settlement construction.
The Forgotten Occupation
Despite the substantial displacement and illegal settlement building in the Golan Heights, the territory has rarely received attention from the international community. There are several reasons for this.
First, the Syrian government has historically failed to ensure the Golan is part of the international community’s agenda, in particular, at the United Nations. This situation has been further aggravated by the absence of civil society in the Golan and the rest of Syria, which advocate for the rights of the territory’s remaining Syrian population.
Indeed, Al-Marsad is currently the only human rights organization based in the Golan and faces significant challenges operating under the Israeli occupation. Israel has, for example, repeatedly blocked Al-Marsad’s application for consultative status at the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
Second, there have been various rounds of peace talks over the last thirty years between Israel and Syria, regarding the Golan’s status. This, in part, has led some members of the international community to assume the Golan’s future would be resolved between these two states, without involving outside actors.
Finally, while the Golan has a significant population of Israeli settlers, their numbers are not as large as in the Occupied West Bank; in the Golan Heights, settlement expansion typically occurs on a smaller scale. This is partly due to the Golan’s geographic remoteness from large population centers in Israel, as compared to the West Bank.
There is also an understanding among Israeli settlers in the Golan that Israel may at some point withdraw from the territory, as part of a long term peace deal with Syria.
With the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, this assumption has changed, however. Israel is cynically taking advantage of the civil war in Syria, as well as a distracted international community, to create new facts on the ground. It is rapidly increasing the settler population in the Golan and extracting natural resources, while at the same calling for international acceptance of its annexation of the territory. Indeed, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met recently with U.S. President Donald Trump, he urged recognition of Israeli ‘sovereignty’ over the Golan Heights.
This highly alarming situation requires the international community to overhaul its approach to the Golan Heights. Israeli settlements are a clear violation of international humanitarian and human rights law. The presence of Israeli settlements and their continued expansion in the Golan not only has a devastating impact on the remaining Syrian population, but also represents a major obstacle to lasting peace in the Middle East.
The international community must take concrete action to stop settlement expansion and protect the rights of the Syrian population in the Golan, before they are forgotten forever.