Why Israel Should Keep the Golan Heights

On Sunday, April 17, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (“Bibi”) convened a cabinet meeting on the Golan Heights stating that the “time has come for the international community to finally recognize that the Golan Heights will remain under Israel's sovereignty permanently.” He spoke these words from Ma’aleh Gamla, next to the ruins of the historic Gamla, a Judean city to which the Romans laid siege in 67 CE during the Great Revolt (also known as the First Jewish/Roman War) (66-73 CE). In this battle, Roman soldiers slaughtered 4,000 Jews, while another 5,000 perished having “thrown themselves down” a ravine to their deaths in either an attempt to flee or in a mass suicide (Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, 4:1:9:80).

Bibi’s statements at Gamla followed reports that the United States and Russia were working on a draft peace resolution to the Syrian Civil War that would label the entire Golan Heights as Syrian territory. On April 19, U.S. State Department John Kirby stated “The US position on the issue is unchanged...Those territories are not part of Israel and the status of those territories should be determined through negotiations.” The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Arab League, Syria, and Germany rejected Netanyahu’s comments.  

Despite most of the world seemingly poised to throw Israel under the bus over this issue, Israel should continue to assert its sovereignty over the Golan. Israel has a stronger claim to the Golan than Syria does, the Golan is of essential strategic value to Israel and the free world, and given increased threats and development of the land, that value has only appreciated.

Israel has a Stronger Claim to the Golan than Syria

Israel gained control of two-thirds of the Golan Heights following Syria’s defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War. (Israel later applied Israeli law to these territories in a de-facto annexation in 1981.) Syria gained independence in 1945. Before that, the Golan was part of the French Empire (1923-1945), jointly administered between the British and French Empires (1917-1923) and part of the (Turkish) Ottoman Empire for approximately 400 years preceding 1917. So, Syria had control of the Israeli-administered part of the Golan for 22 years (1945-1967), while Israel has had it for 49 years (1967 to the present). Israel has a stronger claim to the Israeli-controlled part of the Golan, given that it has been Israeli longer than it has been Syrian.

The Great Strategic Value of the Golan…

Enemies of Israel, both past and present, have used the high elevation of the Golan Heights against her. The ancient, pre-Arab Assyrian Empire literally looked down on ancient northern kingdom of Israel from the Heights. Assyria’s conquest of Israel in 722 BCE was launched from the Golan.

Fast-forward almost 2,700 years, and the Golan served similar aims for Israel’s enemies. Prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, modern Syria, like ancient Assyria, held the high ground over Israel from the Heights. (See cross-section and topographical maps on page 6 and 18, here). This topography enabled Syria to shell Israeli towns with ease, and sponsor Fatah fedayeen attacks from the Golan. Since gaining parity in elevation with the Syrians following the Six-Day War, the Syria/Israel border has been largely quiet. Given the many other conflicts in the Middle East, some of which I list here, that is a good thing for the world as well as Israel.

…Has Only Appreciated Given Current Threats

Israel’s (and the free world’s) enemies have grown stronger, and closer in proximity to Israel since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. Therefore, giving up the Golan would be foolish, and would most likely result in it being controlled by forces hostile to Israel and the West. The Islamic State and other jihadist groups, in addition to forces aligned with Syrian government (including Hizb’allah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG)) are all vying for territory adjacent to the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights (see map). On April 22, the Islamic State captured the Salam al Jawlan Dam, approximately 17 miles away from Gamla. This victory puts the Islamic State closer to Israel than Tijuana, Mexico is to San Diego, California.

Hizb’allah has increased its presence in Syria in the past few years. During the Syrian Civil War, Israel killed Hizb’allah commanders/arch-terrorists Imad Mughniyeh in Quneitra (a town in the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan) and Samir Kuntar right outside of Damascus, in addition to six Hizb’allah fighters in Quneitra. A January 2016 article estimated that Hizb’allah has 8,000 troops in Syria. Hizb’allah is reportedly building a fortified base in Syria housing long-range missiles to use to attack Israel in a future war. Syria has also supplied Hizb’allah with tanks to create an armored division. Despite anti-smuggling efforts by Israel, Hizb’allah currently has between 100,000 to 130,000 rockets total (dispersed in Lebanon and Syria) that are more guided and precise, in addition to up to 12 Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles with which to strike Israel. Hizb’allah is also preparing to invade Israel in a future war. If Israel relinquishes the Golan, there is a greater risk that Israel would be fighting Hizb’allah in both Lebanon and the Heights. On the other hand, Israel’s retention of its share of the Heights would serve as a strategic advantage in a future war.   

Iran has also expanded its presence in Syria, not only through its proxy Hizb’allah. In January 2015, Israel reportedly killed an Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG) general on the Syrian side of the Golan, while in October 2015 the Islamic State killed a senior IRG commander in Aleppo. In October 2015, the Wall Street Journal estimated that approximately 20,000 foreign Shiite fighters were fighting in Syria, backed by Iran and Hizb’allah. These include Afghanis. Since the onset of the Syrian Civil War, Iran is increasingly encouraging its citizens, including those of Afghani origin, to buy property in Syria in strategic places, including Homs and Damascus. Just as Iran transferred populations to settle Lebanon in the 1980s during the creation of Hizb’allah, it is now aiding its people in settling Syria. Rather than seeing Iran as a stabilizing force in the region in the fight against the Islamic State, most Israelis, including Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and Americans alike see Iran as an increasingly destabilizing force. Israel and the world need the Golan to balance against growing Iranian hegemony.

Water Remains a Vital Concern

Giving the Golan to Syria would once again place Israel’s enemies in a position to threaten its water supply via border skirmishes and diversion of water, as Syria did in the 1950s and during the War over Water (1964-1967). Israel relies on Lake Kinneret/the Sea of Galilee as the source of a significant amount of its water, and of its National Water Carrier.

The Golan is now an Integral Part of the Israeli Economy

Israel has developed the Golan to be a vital part of its economy that produces goods and services for both Israel and the world, including several wineries, a brewery, a mineral water distribution company, and a ski resort on Mt. Hermon. It also contains vast lands for agriculture, meat, and dairy production. Israelis and world travelers travel to the Golan for tourism, and about 20,000 Israelis live there. The Golan is also thought to contain a great amount of oil and natural gas deposits. Once tapped into, these resources could make Israel more energy self-sufficient, as well as provide the West with reliable sources of energy. It doesn’t make sense that Israel would uproot all of this only to hand the land over to its sworn enemies.

Israel is the Protector of the Golan’s Rich Archaeological Sites

The Golan also contains several archeological sites greatly cherished by the free world. Many of these sites date back to Antiquity and are painstakingly excavated and safeguarded by Israel, including: Gamla, Hippos/Sussita, Katzrin Ancient Village, the ruins of the Byzantine Christian monastery at Kursi, Nimrod Fortress, Um el-Kanatir, and the ancient Stonehenge-like monument Gilgal Refaim. If these sites were no longer protected by Israel, they could find themselves in the hands of a jihadist group like the Islamic State, which destroyed world-renowned archeological sites like the Temple of Ba’al, Jonah’s Tomb, and the ancient ruins of Nimrud and Nineveh.

To Whom Would Israel Give the Golan Back?

On a practical level, it is difficult for Israel to return the Golan to Syria because Syria effectively no longer exists. It is unlikely that the world powers will succeed in reconstructing Syria as it was before the civil war. The Islamic State controls about half of the country in the east, and pockets in the west. The Kurds control most of the north. The Syrian government doesn’t even control all that remains, with opposition forces (including jihadist groups) and Druze maintaining autonomous regions in the west.

Since the Syrian government does not control all of Syria, it cannot guarantee that other groups won’t use the Golan against Israel. But asking the Syrian government to guarantee such a thing, even if Syria were intact, is ridiculous. Syria is Israel’s historic archenemy, and has supported and harbored jihadist groups such as Fatah, Hamas, Hizb’allah, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG).

Conclusion

Several Israeli politicians have opposed the prospect of increased Iranian and Hizb’allah presence in Syria following a future peace deal, and believe that these two pose a greater threat given their capabilities than the Islamic State. But purging Iran and Hizb’allah from Syria in a peace deal is a pipe dream given Syria’s alliances with Iran and Hizb’allah, Russia’s alliance with Iran, and the United States’ détente with Iran. Unless the goal of a Syrian peace deal is to open up yet another jihadist front against Israel, any final deal should preserve the right of Israel to retain its two-thirds of the Golan Heights. Enshrining this right in international law would strengthen the security of Israel and the free world. Continued Israeli sovereignty in the Golan is of great strategic value to Israel and the West, especially in these troubled times.

On Sunday, April 17, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (“Bibi”) convened a cabinet meeting on the Golan Heights stating that the “time has come for the international community to finally recognize that the Golan Heights will remain under Israel's sovereignty permanently.” He spoke these words from Ma’aleh Gamla, next to the ruins of the historic Gamla, a Judean city to which the Romans laid siege in 67 CE during the Great Revolt (also known as the First Jewish/Roman War) (66-73 CE). In this battle, Roman soldiers slaughtered 4,000 Jews, while another 5,000 perished having “thrown themselves down” a ravine to their deaths in either an attempt to flee or in a mass suicide (Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, 4:1:9:80).

Bibi’s statements at Gamla followed reports that the United States and Russia were working on a draft peace resolution to the Syrian Civil War that would label the entire Golan Heights as Syrian territory. On April 19, U.S. State Department John Kirby stated “The US position on the issue is unchanged...Those territories are not part of Israel and the status of those territories should be determined through negotiations.” The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Arab League, Syria, and Germany rejected Netanyahu’s comments.  

Despite most of the world seemingly poised to throw Israel under the bus over this issue, Israel should continue to assert its sovereignty over the Golan. Israel has a stronger claim to the Golan than Syria does, the Golan is of essential strategic value to Israel and the free world, and given increased threats and development of the land, that value has only appreciated.

Israel has a Stronger Claim to the Golan than Syria

Israel gained control of two-thirds of the Golan Heights following Syria’s defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War. (Israel later applied Israeli law to these territories in a de-facto annexation in 1981.) Syria gained independence in 1945. Before that, the Golan was part of the French Empire (1923-1945), jointly administered between the British and French Empires (1917-1923) and part of the (Turkish) Ottoman Empire for approximately 400 years preceding 1917. So, Syria had control of the Israeli-administered part of the Golan for 22 years (1945-1967), while Israel has had it for 49 years (1967 to the present). Israel has a stronger claim to the Israeli-controlled part of the Golan, given that it has been Israeli longer than it has been Syrian.

The Great Strategic Value of the Golan…

Enemies of Israel, both past and present, have used the high elevation of the Golan Heights against her. The ancient, pre-Arab Assyrian Empire literally looked down on ancient northern kingdom of Israel from the Heights. Assyria’s conquest of Israel in 722 BCE was launched from the Golan.

Fast-forward almost 2,700 years, and the Golan served similar aims for Israel’s enemies. Prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, modern Syria, like ancient Assyria, held the high ground over Israel from the Heights. (See cross-section and topographical maps on page 6 and 18, here). This topography enabled Syria to shell Israeli towns with ease, and sponsor Fatah fedayeen attacks from the Golan. Since gaining parity in elevation with the Syrians following the Six-Day War, the Syria/Israel border has been largely quiet. Given the many other conflicts in the Middle East, some of which I list here, that is a good thing for the world as well as Israel.

…Has Only Appreciated Given Current Threats

Israel’s (and the free world’s) enemies have grown stronger, and closer in proximity to Israel since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. Therefore, giving up the Golan would be foolish, and would most likely result in it being controlled by forces hostile to Israel and the West. The Islamic State and other jihadist groups, in addition to forces aligned with Syrian government (including Hizb’allah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG)) are all vying for territory adjacent to the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights (see map). On April 22, the Islamic State captured the Salam al Jawlan Dam, approximately 17 miles away from Gamla. This victory puts the Islamic State closer to Israel than Tijuana, Mexico is to San Diego, California.

Hizb’allah has increased its presence in Syria in the past few years. During the Syrian Civil War, Israel killed Hizb’allah commanders/arch-terrorists Imad Mughniyeh in Quneitra (a town in the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan) and Samir Kuntar right outside of Damascus, in addition to six Hizb’allah fighters in Quneitra. A January 2016 article estimated that Hizb’allah has 8,000 troops in Syria. Hizb’allah is reportedly building a fortified base in Syria housing long-range missiles to use to attack Israel in a future war. Syria has also supplied Hizb’allah with tanks to create an armored division. Despite anti-smuggling efforts by Israel, Hizb’allah currently has between 100,000 to 130,000 rockets total (dispersed in Lebanon and Syria) that are more guided and precise, in addition to up to 12 Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles with which to strike Israel. Hizb’allah is also preparing to invade Israel in a future war. If Israel relinquishes the Golan, there is a greater risk that Israel would be fighting Hizb’allah in both Lebanon and the Heights. On the other hand, Israel’s retention of its share of the Heights would serve as a strategic advantage in a future war.   

Iran has also expanded its presence in Syria, not only through its proxy Hizb’allah. In January 2015, Israel reportedly killed an Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG) general on the Syrian side of the Golan, while in October 2015 the Islamic State killed a senior IRG commander in Aleppo. In October 2015, the Wall Street Journal estimated that approximately 20,000 foreign Shiite fighters were fighting in Syria, backed by Iran and Hizb’allah. These include Afghanis. Since the onset of the Syrian Civil War, Iran is increasingly encouraging its citizens, including those of Afghani origin, to buy property in Syria in strategic places, including Homs and Damascus. Just as Iran transferred populations to settle Lebanon in the 1980s during the creation of Hizb’allah, it is now aiding its people in settling Syria. Rather than seeing Iran as a stabilizing force in the region in the fight against the Islamic State, most Israelis, including Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and Americans alike see Iran as an increasingly destabilizing force. Israel and the world need the Golan to balance against growing Iranian hegemony.

Water Remains a Vital Concern

Giving the Golan to Syria would once again place Israel’s enemies in a position to threaten its water supply via border skirmishes and diversion of water, as Syria did in the 1950s and during the War over Water (1964-1967). Israel relies on Lake Kinneret/the Sea of Galilee as the source of a significant amount of its water, and of its National Water Carrier.

The Golan is now an Integral Part of the Israeli Economy

Israel has developed the Golan to be a vital part of its economy that produces goods and services for both Israel and the world, including several wineries, a brewery, a mineral water distribution company, and a ski resort on Mt. Hermon. It also contains vast lands for agriculture, meat, and dairy production. Israelis and world travelers travel to the Golan for tourism, and about 20,000 Israelis live there. The Golan is also thought to contain a great amount of oil and natural gas deposits. Once tapped into, these resources could make Israel more energy self-sufficient, as well as provide the West with reliable sources of energy. It doesn’t make sense that Israel would uproot all of this only to hand the land over to its sworn enemies.

Israel is the Protector of the Golan’s Rich Archaeological Sites

The Golan also contains several archeological sites greatly cherished by the free world. Many of these sites date back to Antiquity and are painstakingly excavated and safeguarded by Israel, including: Gamla, Hippos/Sussita, Katzrin Ancient Village, the ruins of the Byzantine Christian monastery at Kursi, Nimrod Fortress, Um el-Kanatir, and the ancient Stonehenge-like monument Gilgal Refaim. If these sites were no longer protected by Israel, they could find themselves in the hands of a jihadist group like the Islamic State, which destroyed world-renowned archeological sites like the Temple of Ba’al, Jonah’s Tomb, and the ancient ruins of Nimrud and Nineveh.

To Whom Would Israel Give the Golan Back?

On a practical level, it is difficult for Israel to return the Golan to Syria because Syria effectively no longer exists. It is unlikely that the world powers will succeed in reconstructing Syria as it was before the civil war. The Islamic State controls about half of the country in the east, and pockets in the west. The Kurds control most of the north. The Syrian government doesn’t even control all that remains, with opposition forces (including jihadist groups) and Druze maintaining autonomous regions in the west.

Since the Syrian government does not control all of Syria, it cannot guarantee that other groups won’t use the Golan against Israel. But asking the Syrian government to guarantee such a thing, even if Syria were intact, is ridiculous. Syria is Israel’s historic archenemy, and has supported and harbored jihadist groups such as Fatah, Hamas, Hizb’allah, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG).

Conclusion

Several Israeli politicians have opposed the prospect of increased Iranian and Hizb’allah presence in Syria following a future peace deal, and believe that these two pose a greater threat given their capabilities than the Islamic State. But purging Iran and Hizb’allah from Syria in a peace deal is a pipe dream given Syria’s alliances with Iran and Hizb’allah, Russia’s alliance with Iran, and the United States’ détente with Iran. Unless the goal of a Syrian peace deal is to open up yet another jihadist front against Israel, any final deal should preserve the right of Israel to retain its two-thirds of the Golan Heights. Enshrining this right in international law would strengthen the security of Israel and the free world. Continued Israeli sovereignty in the Golan is of great strategic value to Israel and the West, especially in these troubled times.