The Syrian Golan Heights Under The Israeli Occupation
Visitors to the Golan Heights will see mostly empty area, an expanse of
rolling grassland interlaced- if one looks closely- by crumbled stone
fences. Occasionally, an Israeli settlement, new and well-tended, will
appear at a crossroad.
But a visitor who looks more carefully will see other signs. A line of
stone structures on a hilltop, without roofs or windows, a small cluster
of stone walls in a grove of trees, or simply an area where the grass is
suddenly, rhythmically hummocked.
These are destroyed Syrian Arab villages, where once nearly 130,000 people
lived and farmed. They were blown up or razed by Israeli forces, after
Israel took over the heights in the war of 1967. Their Arab inhabitants
were forced out by the fighting or by orders from the Israeli army. Those
who remained were forced by the occupational authorities to leave within
the first week after the occupation. Most now live in Syria, separated
from their homes and land by the fences and no-manís-land of the
Syrian-Israeli cease -fire line, and by the enduring conflict.
Israelís invasion. Of these, 134 were systematically destroyed. The vast
network of stone fences, which still carves the grassy landscape, marked
their pastures, orchards and wheat fields.
Inside Israel, during the1948 war, hundreds of Palestinian villages were
similarly demolished, but most are now difficult or impossible to see. In
the Golan, far from Israelís urban centers along the coast, most of the
old villages are still visible, in varying degrees of destruction and
decay. They stand as monuments to history and to a society erased One
hundred and thirty-nine Arab villages flourished in the Golan Heights
before by invasion.
The Golan Heights are located in the southwestern part of the Syrian Arab
Republic. The region is 1,850 Square kilometers, and includes mountains
reaching an altitude of 2,880 meters above sea level. The heights dominate
the plains below. The Jordan River, Lake Tiberias and the Hula Valley
border the region on the west. To the east is the Raqqad Valley and the
south is Yarmok River and valley. The northern boundary of the region is
the mountain Jabal al- asaheikh (Mount Hermon), one of the highest in the
Middle East. It is a rich agricultural area, traditionally farmed by an
Arab society encompassing 108 private farms and 163 villages and towns.
The 1967 War and the Israeli Occupation of the
In six days of war, Israel
accomplished the expansionist aims that pre-state diplomatic efforts and
previous wars had failed to achieve. The war was a devastating blow to the
Arab regimes. In its conquest of the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza
Strip from Egypt, the remainder of historic Palestine came under Israeli
control. Sinai Peninsula was occupied from Eygept. Syria suffered the loss
of 1,250 square kilometers of the Golan Heights, including the provincial
capital city of Quainter.
Israel could not effect a mass expulsion of the Palestinian population of
the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, but it repeated expulsion tactics
,it had used against Palestinians in 1948, against inhabitants of the
Golan. Israeli minister of Defense Moshe Dayan ordered his troops to expel
the population of the Golan. As of June 10, 1967, only 6,396 of the
pre-war population of 130,000 remained. After the war all that remained of
the two cities, 139 villages and 61 farms were six villages (Majdal Shams,
Masadah, Buqatha, Ain Qinya, Ghajar and Síheita). All of the others had
been destroyed. On 1970 Síheita was also destroyed and its population were
transferred to Masadah.
Israeli interest in the
Golan Heights dates to diligent Zionist efforts, in the 1910s, to have the
rich agricultural area included in the new state of Palestine, where the
Zionist movement hoped to establish the Jewish state. But Europeís
division of the region in 1919 included the Golan as apart of Syria.
It was not until the Six-Day War in 1967 that Israel succeeded in seizing
the Golan, and promptly began a settlement program to affirm its control,
establishing the Marom Golan settlement one month after the warís end. By
December1967, the World Zionist Organization had designed a plan to
establish 17-22 settlements, with 45,000-50,000 Jewish settlers, within
ten years. Due to a lack of settlers, the plan fell short: by 1991, the
settlers population was only 11,000 in 30 settlements.
Under the Shamir government, Housing Minister Ariel Sharon announced plans
to increase the population to 22,000 by the end of 1992, mostly by
settling Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. By
spring 1992, the population had topped 13,000. Nowadays the total number
of settlers is estimated to be 18000 in 34 settlements.
Jewish Settlement: The Annexation Strategy
As in the West Blank and
Gaza Strip, Israelís settlement program is an elaborate and effective
strategy to annex land through social engineering. Israeli settlements in
the Golan are designed to secure Israelís claim to the land both by
boosting the Jewish civilian population and by erasing the indicting
evidence of prior Arab habitation.
The Tactic Erasure
strategy employs several techniques to veil its nature. The most effective
is the placement of Jewish settlements directly over the site of the
destroyed Arab villages, often using the stones of Arab homes to construct
the new Jewish residences and physically overwhelming the foundation of
the original village. The Arab village is erased to all but the best-
trained eye, and a visitor would never know it existed.
A second technique is to name such settlements with the Hebrew version of
the Arab name, which comes over time to suggest a continuity of the site
and to obscure the destruction and displacement of the original Arab
community. Many Israeli
maps show only the Hebrew names of such sites, although for the previous
thousand or more years they held Arab towns.
A third device is to
landscape new settlement construction with shrubbery and trees imported
fully-grown from the Jordan Valley, to convey a sense both to residents
and visitors that the settlement has been in place for a far longer
period. Settlements can be visually transformed from raw construction
sites to comfortable, verdant communities within a year.
Expulsion of a People Before the 1967 war, the Golan Heights was
administered as the Syrian province of Quneitra, which embraced 1750
square kilometer. In 1966, the Arab population of the province was 147613.
Israel occupied 70 percent (1250 square kilometer) of the Golan Heights in
the 1967 war. The area, which Israel seized, contained 61 Arab farms and
139 villages and towns, which had held a population of 130000 Arabs
(including 9000 Palestinians who had fled from northern Palestine in the
war 1948). Many of these residents were evacuated by the Syrian army or
fled during the fighting, but Arab accounts and UN reports also document
an Israeli program to expel those who remained, one similar to that
conducted in the West Blank:
terror attacks, threats of death, and forced signatures of documents
agreeing to the residentsí own expulsion. The program was successful: an
Israeli census after the war found only 6296 Arabs, indicating that
approximately 124000 Syrian civilians were expelled.
Within three months, the Israeli army, including the city of Quneitra, the
provincial seat that had held a population of some 25000, had bulldozed
131 of their villages.
Only five Arab villages in the northern highlands by Mount Hermon
remained. With a population of 6392 immediately after the 1967 war, the
Arab villages today hold around 18000. The Arabs maintain control over
only about 6 percent of the original territory: the rest has been
confiscated by Israel for military use or settlement.
Israel extended its civil law and administration to the Golan Heights in
1981. However, the Syrian residents of the Golan have refused annexation,
and insist on reunification with Syria. Their resistance has included
extensive agricultural projects to secure their land from Israeli
confiscation, and they continue to strive to develop their own basic
services to compensate for Israeli neglect, like sufficient health care.
Water: The Key to Israelís Hold?
With Israelís annual water
consumption of nearly two billion cubic meters already depleting local
resources, water is one of Israelís principal interests in the Golan
The Golanís territory itself provides one o the water source for Israel;
before the war, the total output of Syrian groundwater wells in the Golan
was only about 12.5 millions cubic meters (mcm). These days the settler
output from the underground water is more than 30 mcm, in addition to more
than 45 mcm that they get from artificial water reservoirs. However, the
Golanís relatively high rainfall (averaging 1000 mcm annually) supplies
two aquifers, one draining into Lake Tiberius, Israelís principal
reservoir, and the other rising to form the headwaters of the vital
Jordanís headwaters (about 500mcm) from Lake Tiberius south to irrigate
settlements in the Negev desert, through a pipeline system known as the
National Water Carrier.
This diversion has resulted in both the depletion and the salinization of
the Jordan River below Lake Tiberius, with devastating effects on
Jordanian agriculture in the Jordan Valley. Jordan has only partly
compensated for this loss by diverting part of the Yarmuk River southward
via a canal. Other Arab engineering efforts have been forestalled by
Israelís strategic dominance over the Yarmuk, from the proximate bluffs of
the Golan Heights.
Israelís occupation of the Golan also eliminated all Syrian access to Lake
Tiberius. Prior to 1967, Israel asserted complete control over the lake,
where Syrian Arabs had traditionally fished, by patrolling the
northeastern shore of the lake with armored boats and launching occasional
raids on nearby Syrian villages.
Israeli control of the Golan Heights therefore gives Israel strategic
control over major water sources. Israel is unlikely to relinquish such
control; peace negotiations may find the issue is one critical stumbling
Israel has taken several
measures to limit the remaining Arabs use of the Golanís water supply. The
Water Law of 1959 made all water resources the property of the state, and
all water use subject to government approval. The drilling of pools or
artesian wells is forbidden. Rainwater collection tanks, built by the
Syrian Arabs in the northern villages for irrigation, were metered and
taxed, and further construction forbidden in 1986. Ram Pool, lying in the
heart of Arab agricultural land near the village of Masíada and holding
between two and three mcm annually, is closed to Arab use; its water is
piped to Jewish settlements as much as 70 km away.
Israel cannot justify such policies on grounds of general conservation; as
in the West Blank and Gaza Strip, Jewish settler water consumption in the
Golan Heights has been greatly higher than that allowed to the Golani Arab
villagers: as much as 17 times higher per capita.
The Political Power of Suffering
Israeli guides to the Golan Heights will say that the stone ruins which
litter the countryside are old Syrian army emplacements, dating from the
inter war period between 1948 and 1967. If they admit to the existence of
the former Syrian residents, they will say they fled on orders from the
Syrian army. They will not admit to knowing the numbers.
Israeli settlers will even claim that, prior to Israelís invasion in 1967,
very few people lived in the Golan Heights. They will say that the land
was basically empty and unused, and that the Jewish settlements are
filling a void. Syriaís interest in the region, they claim, is purely
hostile, a launching point for an attack on Israel, from the Heightís
higher elevations overlooking the Galilee.
But the ruined villages bear mute testimony to Israelís interest in
obscuring the truth. They are ruined because they were deliberately
destroyed; they are empty because their residents are not allowed to
return. The sprinkling of new Jewish settlements have no relation to the
stone fences, the organic division of the land effected by centuries of
Syriaís interest in the Golan Heights is complex: military strategic
concern is a factor, as is the political legitimacy of President Asad in
resisting a permanent loss of Syrian territory. But that legitimacy rests
not on pride, but on a fundamental issue: popular Syrian concern for the
loss of a rich land, which sustained a thriving society. If the inter
national community, absorbed by the complexities of the Palestinian
problem, tends to forget the Golan Heights, or to imagine it an empty area
or a purely strategic issue, this does not erase the memories of the
130000 who lost their homes, their farms and their livelihoods to Israeli
basis can they be asked to forget?
Too often, the forces of
international diplomacy look over the heads of the people to solutions
made of maps and missile agreements. If we have learned any lesson in the
last half-century, it is that such oblivion has its bitter costs. Care
must be taken with people whose pain and resentment form a smoldering
political force in itself, simple compassion aside. Someday, even the
political elites must come to redefine real-politic to include the
experience of the people on the ground, whose needs have been defined as
rights party because of the political power of their suffering.