THE GOLAN HEIGHTS: THE FORGOTTEN SETTLEMENTS ISSUE

Stop Building HatredThis is the text of the chapter I contributed to the Labour Friends of Palestine pamphlet, Stop Building Hatred.

THE occupation of the West Bank is rightly seen as central to the campaign for Palestinian rights and has been the main focus for media coverage of Israel’s construction of illegal settlements. But this has led to relatively little attention being paid to Israeli settlements in the Golan Heights, although these are equally in violation of international law and the continued occupation of the Golan stands as a major obstacle to a regional peace agreement.

Like the West Bank, the Golan Heights were seized by Israel in 1967 during the Six Day War, in this case from Syria. Most of the population was expelled (or fled voluntarily, if you believe the Israeli version of events) and Israel systematically destroyed 244 of the 249 Arab villages in the Golan so that the former inhabitants could never return to their homes. The displaced Golan Arabs and their families are now said to number about half a million.

In 1981 Israel passed the Golan Heights Law which annexed the region, declaring it to be subject to the Israeli state’s “laws, jurisdiction and administration”. Syria continues to insist that the Golan is part of its own territory, under foreign occupation, while Lebanon lays claim to a small area known as the Shebaa Farms.

The 1981 annexation was condemned by UN Security Council Resolution 497, adopted unanimously, which stated that “the Israeli decision to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights is null and void and without international legal effect”. The UN has consistently upheld this position and last year the General Assembly voted 161-1 in favour of a motion reaffirming support for Resolution 497 on the “occupied Syrian Golan”.

The issue of Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights hit the news recently when a pro-Israeli website bearing the misleading name of Honest Reporting launched a campaign under the slogan “Golan residents live in Israel not Syria” in protest against Israeli settlers being required to register Syria as their country of origin on Facebook. Regrettably, Facebook appears to have backed down in the face of this campaign, which was plainly aimed at legitimising Israel’s illegal occupation, and Golan residents are now allowed to register their country as either Israel or Syria.

In the years immediately following the Six Day War, Israeli civilian settlement of the Golan Heights proceeded slowly, as the area was seen as a potential future battleground and in 1972 there were still only 77 settlers there. After the end of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War numbers began to increase sharply and by 1989 the figure had reached 10,000. Today there are some 20,000 Israeli settlers occupying the territory in over 30 settlements.

The figures for Golan settlers may seem small compared with the 300,000 settlers in the West Bank or the 200,000 in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem. But the growth of settlements has now reached the point where Israelis constitute over half the population of the Golan Heights – the remainder being members of the Druze community who remained there after the Israeli invasion in 1967. The Israeli-occupied areas include farms, cattle ranches, orchards and vineyards and even a ski resort, in addition to a number of military bases.

The objective of expanding Israeli settlement in the Golan Heights is of course the same as in the West Bank – to establish a permanent Israeli presence as one of the “facts on the ground” that will serve as an obstacle to any re-drawing of borders.

Three years ago settler leaders launched a $250,000 advertising campaign to attract young Israelis to the Golan with the promise of free land, the declared aim of the campaign being to double the Jewish population to 40,000 over the course of the following decade. In 1999, when the settler population stood at 17,000, Israeli treasury officials estimated that, in the event of a pull-out from the Golan, compensation to the settlers for losing their homes would amount to $10 billion. Obviously, existing Golan settlers calculate that the more Israelis they can persuade to join them there, the greater the financial obstacle to withdrawal.

The Syrians have repeatedly stated that if Israel will agree to end its occupation of the Golan Heights they are prepared to join Egypt and Jordan in signing a peace agreement with Israel. But Syria insists on a complete Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 border, which would return the eastern shore of the Sea ofGalilee to Damascus, whereas Israel wants to retain its control of the whole ofGalilee.

Talks between Israel and Syria over the future of the Golan heights have continued on and off over the years but without ever reaching a conclusion. Danny Yatom, who was head ofMossad during Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s first term of office in 1996-99, recently stated that Netanyahu had at that time indicated that Israel was willing to withdraw from the entire Golan heights in exchange for a peace deal with Syria and the normalisation of relations between the two countries.

However, since forming his new administration in March this year Netanyahu has adopted an intransigent position over the Golan heights. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad points out that it is futile trying to pursue negotiations over the Golan when there is no partner for talks on the Israeli side.

Obama has stated that the resumption of talks between Israel and Syria is one of his main foreign policy goals. Certainly, given Israel’s political, economic and military reliance on the US, the Obama administration is in a position to exercise serious pressure on Netanyahu if the political will exists. The future of the Golan Heights therefore hinges on the question of whether Obama, unlike his predecessors in the US presidency, will defy the powerful pro-Israel lobby and confront the Israeli government. Adopting a carrot and stick approach, an Israeli hand-over of the Golan could perhaps be sweetened by the promise of a financial contribution from the US to help underwrite the cost of withdrawal. It’s President Obama’s call.