The Golan Heights, previously known as the Syrian Heights, are a plateau on the border of Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. Syria and the international community considers the Heights to be part of the governorate of Al Qunaytirah. Israel captured the land from Syria during the Six-Day War and still occupies it, although Israel objects to the international use of that term. (See Current Status below).
Geographically, the Heights are bordered on the west by a rock escarpment that drops 1700 feet (500 m) to the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River; on the south by the Yarmouk River; on the north by the international border with Lebanon, and on the east by a largely flat plain, called the Hauran. The Golan is usually 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).
Geologically, the Golan Heights are a plateau, and part of a Holocene volcanic field that extends northeast almost to Damascus. The entire area is scattered with inactive cinder cones such as Majdel Shams . Mount Hermon is in the northern Golan Heights but is geologically separate from the volcanic field. Near Hermon is a crater lake called Birkat Ram ("Ram Pool") which is fed by underground springs.
Sites on the Golan in blue are Israeli settlement communities. Sites on the Golan in black are Druze and Circassian communities. The Golan Heights are surrounded by four countries: Lebanon
The Israeli army captured the heights and placed it under military administration from 1967 until 1981, when the Knesset annexed the land with The Golan Heights Law. Neither the UN or any country has recognised this annexation and they officially consider the Heights to be Syrian territory under Israeli military occupation. This view was solidified when the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 497 stating that "Israel's annexation is null and void and against international law." Additionally, Lebanon claims a small portion of the area known as Shebaa Farms on Mount Dov in the area of Mount Hermon. Syria's official position is that the farms are Lebanese territory. However, a UN team sent to confirm Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 has certified the same, therefore indirectly designating the farms as part of the Golan, and therefore part of Syria. The 1981 law assigned Israeli citizenship to the Syrian citizens who remained in the area after the 1967 war. Some Jews and Zionist organizations consider the Golan Heights to be liberated Jewish land; this view has very little support internationally.
UNDOF (the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force) was established in 1974 to supervise the implementation of the agreement and maintain the ceasefire with an area of separation. Currently there are more than 1000 U.N peacekeepers there trying to sustain a lasting peace.
Syria and Israel still contest the ownership of the Heights but have not used overt military force since 1974. The great strategic value of the Heights both militarily and as a source of water means that a deal is uncertain.
The area has been contested for thousands of years. During the 3rd millennium BCE the Amorites dominated and inhabited the Golan until the 2nd millennium, when the Arameans took over. Later known as Bashan, the area was contested between Israel (the northern of the two Jewish kingdoms existent at that time) and the Aramean kingdom from the 800s BCE. King Ahab of Israel (reigned 874–852 BCE) defeated Ben-Hadad I in the southern Golan.
In the 700s BCE the Assyrians gained control of the area, but were later replaced by the Babylonian and the Persian Empire. In the 5th century BCE, the region was settled by returning Jewish exiles from Babylon (modern Iraq).
In the 4th century BCE, the area came under the control of Alexander the Great and remained under Hellenistic rule until captured by the Romans. In the mid 2nd century BCE, Judah Maccabee aided the local Jewish communities when they came under attack, although the area itself was not in Jewish hands.
The area was named Golan following the Roman occupation—the Greeks referred to the area as "Gaulanitis", the term used by the Romans, which led to the word "Golan". During the First Revolt against Rome by the Jews of Judea, a number of Jews captured a hilltop at Gamla, which later fell; the hilltop is today called the "Masada of the Golan". The Nabataeans gained control of the area in 85 BC. In about 250 CE, the Ghassanids immigrated to the modern-day Golan and built their capital at Jabiyah. After the partitioning of the Roman Empire in 391 CE, the Golan Heights fell under the sphere of the Byzantine Empire, under the rule of their vassals, the Ghassanids. The area came under a short-lived Sassanid occupation that started in 614 and ended in approximately 628. In 636, the area was conquered by Muslim Arabs under the Caliph Umar I. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Druze began to settle the northern Golan and the slopes of Mount Hermon. In the 16th century, the Ottoman Turks came in control of the area, and remained so until the end of World War I.
In the 1880s, a Jewish community called Ramataniya was started; it failed within a year.
History since World War I
The boundary between the forthcoming British and French mandates was defined in broad terms by the Franco-British Boundary Agreement of December 1920. This placed most of the Golan in the French sphere. However, the joint commission formed to demarcate the border precisely did not complete its work until 1923, so the actual transfer of the Golan to French control did not occur until the year after the British Mandate of Palestine came into being. In accordance with the same process, a nearby parcel of land that included the ancient site of Dan was transferred from Syria to Palestine early in 1924. The Golan Heights thus became part of the French Mandate of Syria and, when that mandate ended in 1944, part of Syria. Syria retained control of the Golan Heights for 23 years from 1944 to 1967.
After the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli War, the Syrians fortified on the Heights, from which they shelled civilian targets in Israel and launched other attacks for the next eighteen years. 140 Israelis were killed and many more were injured in these attacks from 1949 to 1967. The Mixed Armistice Commission (which oversaw the implementation of the Israel-Syria Armistice Agreement) reported violations of the agreement by both sides.
After the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli War, the Golan Heights were partly demilitarized by the Israel-Syria Armistice Agreement. Over the following years the Mixed Armistice Commission reported many violations by each side.
During the Six-Day War (1967), the IDF captured the Golan Heights on 9-10 June. The area which came under Israeli control as a result of the war is two geologically distinct areas: the Golan Heights proper (1,070 km²) and the slopes of the Mt. Hermon range (100 km²).
Before the Six-Day War the strategic heights of the Golan, which are approximately 3000 ft. above pre-1967 Israel, were used to frequently bombard civilian Israeli farming communities far below them, although Moshe Dayan (Israeli Defense Minister during the 1967 war) would later state that it was most often the result of Israeli provocations in the demilitarized zone.
Most of the Golans' inhabitants, mainly Circassians, fled during the Six-Day War. For various political reasons, they have not been allowed to return. This has led to the splitting of many families.
Israel began settling the Golan almost immediately following the war. Kibbutz Merom Golan was founded in July 1967. By 1970 there were 12 Jewish communities on the Golan and by 2004 there were 34 settlements holding around 18,000 people.
During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Syrian forces overran much of the southern Golan, before being pushed back by an Israeli counterattack. Israel and Syria signed a ceasefire agreement in 1974 that left the Heights in Israeli hands with a demilitarized zone in Syrian civil, but not military control.
Syria has always demanded a full Israeli withdrawal from all of the Golan Heights, to the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee (the 1949 armistice line). Successive Israeli governments have expressed support for some Israeli withdrawal from the Golan without specifying the extent of this withdrawal. In return for this withdrawal, Israel demands that the area of the Golan falling under Syrian control become demilitarized and that other security measures are implemented to prevent a potential surprise Syrian attack.
Israel has always insisted that any agreement with Syria must include fully normalized diplomatic and economic relations.
Regarding the Golan Heights, Yitzhak Rabin stated:
Words are not enough about the Golan Heights. We must put them into actions... Withdrawal from the Golan is unthinkable, even in times of peace. Anyone considering withdrawal from the Golan Heights would be abandoning Israel’s security. Let us invest, all of us together, in order to fulfil our obligations to the Golan Heights. And to you residents — those who made the Golan Heights what it is — you have all my respect.
When interviewed about an upcoming conference on American TV networkABC on September 16, 1991, Syrian president Hafez al-Assad said:
The efforts currently exerted are based on the Security Council Resolutions N° 242 and N° 338 on the basis of realizing a comprehensive peace in the region. The Golan, as an occupied Syrian territory, shall be reinstated, within the framework of such comprehensive peace, to its natural status as part of Syrian territory. Upon implementing the comprehensive solution for the two Arab and Israeli sides, comprehensive peace will prevail and documents will be achieve peace process. This as you know will be decided within the Conference, the Israeli side on the one hand and the Arab side on the other.
Also regarding the Heights, when asked about military conflict in the area, Moshe Dayan stated :
It would happen like this: We would send a tractor to plow someplace of no value, in the demilitarized zone, knowing ahead of time that the Syrians would begin to shoot. If they did not start shooting, we would tell the tractor to keep going forward, until the Syrians in the end would get nervous and start shooting. And then we would start firing artillery, and later also the airforce, and this was the way it was. I did this, and Laskov and Tzur [two previous commanders-in-chief] did it. Yitzhak Rabin did it when he was there , but it seems to me that it was Dado, more than anyone else, who enjoyed these games.
However, Dayan also noted regarding the Israeli farmers who lived at the base of the Heights:
They suffered a lot because of the Syrians. Look, as I said before, they lived in the kibbutzim, they farmed, raised children, lived and wanted to live there. The Syrians opposite them were soldiers who shot at them and they certainly did not like this. But I can tell you in absolute certainly: the delegation that came to convince Eshkol to attack the Heights did not think about these things. It thought about the land on the Heights. Listen, I am also a farmer. I'm from Nahalal, not from Tel-Aviv, and I recognize this. I saw them, and I talked to them. They did not even try to hide their greed for that soil. That's what guided them.
During US-brokered negotiations 1999-2000, Israel offered to return most of the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for peace and full recognition. Syria refused. Syria offered full recognition and peace in exchange for a complete return to the pre 1967 borders. Israel refused.
In late 2003, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he was ready to revive peace talks with Israel. Peace talks were not initiated. The population of the Golan is now half Druze and half Jewish.
See also: United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242, 452, 465, 471, and 497. Also the Six Day War, Yom Kippur War and Israeli settlement.
There are four Druze and Circassian villages on the Golan Heights in the area of Majdal Shams . Jewish communities consist of the town of Katzrin, built in the 1970s, and a number of kibbutzim and moshavim (collective agricultural settlements). No other country has accepted the legality of the Israeli settlements in the Golan Heights.
Last updated: 06-02-2005 01:47:52