Islam House

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Golan Heights, Syria

1967: Six-Day War, Israel occupies the Golan Heights

After the Six-Day War broke out in June 1967, Syria's shelling greatly intensified and the Israeli army 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 (413 sq mi; 1,070 km²) and the slopes of the Mt. Hermon range (39 sq mi; 100 km²). The new border between the two forces was named the Purple Line.

During the war, between 80,000 and 131,000 Arab Druze and Circassians fled or were driven from the heights and around 7,000 remained in the Israeli-occupied territory. Israel has not allowed former residents to return, citing security reasons.Israeli settlement in the Golan began soon after the war. Merom Golan was founded in July 1967 and by 1970 there were 12 settlements. Israeli sources and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants reported that much of the local population of 100,000 fled as a result of the war, whereas the Syrian government stated that a large proportion of it was expelled.

In the 1970s, Israeli politician Yigal Allon proposed as part of the Allon Plan that a Druze state be established in Syria's Quneitra Governorate, including the Israeli-held Golan Heights. Allon died in 1980 and his plan never materialised.

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 almost all the Heights in Israeli hands. East of the 1974 ceasefire line lies the Syrian controlled part of the Heights, an area that was not captured by Israel (500 km²) or withdrawn from (100 km²). This area forms 30% of the Golan Heights.Today it contains more than 40 Syrian towns and villages. In 1975, following the 1974 ceasefire agreement, Israel returned a narrow demilitarized zone to Syrian control. Some of the displaced residents began returning to their homes located in this strip and the Syrian government began helping people rebuild their villages, except for Quneitra. In the mid-1980s the Syrian government launched a plan called "The Project for the Reconstruction of the Liberated Villages". (By the end of 2007, Syria had settled the region with an estimated population of 79,000.)

The Golan Heights had been under military administration since 1967. In 1981, Israel passed the Golan Heights Law, which applied Israeli "laws, jurisdiction and administration" to the Golan Heights. Although the law in effect annexed the territory to Israel, it was not formally annexed. The area was administered as part of Israel’s North District. Although under Israeli civilian law and having the option of Israeli citizenship available, most non-Jewish Druze residents of the Golan Heights, refused to surrender their Syrian citizenship.

Israel's action was not recognised internationally and United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 which declared the Golan Heights an Israeli occupied territory continues to apply. Israel maintains that it may retain the area as the text of Resolution 242 calls for "safe and recognised boundaries free from threats or acts of force".
Syria continued to demand a full Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 borders, including a strip of land on the east shore of the Sea of Galilee that Syria captured during the 1948–49 Arab-Israeli War and occupied from 1949–67. Successive Israeli governments have considered an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan in return for normalization of relations with Syria, provided certain security concerns are met. Prior to 2000, Syrian president Hafez al-Assad rejected normalization with Israel.

During United States–brokered negotiations in 1999–2000, Israel and Syria discussed a peace deal that would include Israeli withdrawal in return for a comprehensive peace structure, recognition and full normalization of relations. The disagreement in the final stages of the talks was on access to the Sea of Galilee. Israel offered to withdraw to the pre-1948 border (the 1923 Paulet-Newcombe line), while Syria insisted on the 1967 frontier. The former line has never been recognized by Syria, claiming it was imposed by the colonial powers, while the latter was rejected by Israel as the result of Syrian aggression. The difference between the lines is less than 100 m for the most part, but the 1967 line would give Syria access to the Sea of Galilee, and Israel wished retain control of the Sea of Galilee, its only freshwater lake and a major water resource.

In late 2003, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he was ready to revive peace talks with Israel. Israel demanded Syria first disarm Hezbollah, which launched many attacks on northern Israeli towns and army posts from Lebanese territory, and cease to host militant Palestinian groups and their headquarters. Talks were not initiated.

After the 2006 war between Israel and Syrian–Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas, the issue of the Golan Heights arose again. Israel heightened its alert over a possible war with Syria after Israeli intelligence assessed that Syria was "seriously examining" military action. Syria reinforced its forces on the Golan while remaining in a defensive position.President Assad stated that Syria was prepared to hold peace talks with Israel but said that if hopes for peace dissolve then "war may really be the only solution". Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dismissed calls within his coalition to consider peace talks and proclaimed that "the Golan Heights will remain in our hands forever".Others, including cabinet minister Shimon Peres and Ehud Olmert's spokesman Assaf Shariv doubted Assad's sincerity and suggested that Assad's statements were a bid at deflecting international criticism of his regime and specifically explaining that the alleged approach by Assad "is coming in the weeks before the decision on Rafik Hariri", referring to the international inquiry on the murder of the former Lebanese prime minister.
In June 2007, it was reported that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had sent a secret message to Syrian President, Bashar Assad saying that Israel would concede the land in exchange for a comprehensive peace agreement and the severing of Syria's ties with Iran and militant groups in the region.On the same day, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the former Syrian President, Hafez Assad, had promised to let Israel retain Mount Hermon in any future agreement.

In April 2008, Syrian media reported Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told President Bashar al-Assad that Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for peace. Israeli leaders of communities in the Golan Heights held a special meeting and stated: "all construction and development projects in the Golan are going ahead as planned, propelled by the certainty that any attempt to harm Israeli sovereignty in the Golan will cause severe damage to state security and thus is doomed to fail".The same year, a plenary session of the United Nations General Assembly voted by 171-1 in favour of a motion on the Golan Heights that reaffirmed Security Council resolution 497 and called on Israel to desist from "changing the physical character, demographic composition, institutional structure and legal status of the occupied Syrian Golan and, in particular, to desist from the establishment of settlements [and] from imposing Israeli citizenship and Israeli identity cards on the Syrian citizens in the occupied Syrian Golan and from its repressive measures against the population of the occupied Syrian Golan." Israel was the only nation to vote against the resolution.

In May 2009, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Israel would never give up the Golan and would keep the heights forever. He believed returning the Golan Heights would turn it into "Iran's front lines which will threaten the whole state of Israel." He said: "I remember the Golan Heights without Katzrin, and suddenly we see a thriving city in the Land of Israel, which having been a gem of the Second Temple era has been revived anew."American diplomat Martin Indyk indicated that the 1999-2000 round of negotiations began through backchannels during Netanyahu's first term (1996–1999), and that Netanyahu's position was not as hardline as he made out. In 2010, warning Syria against drawing Israel into war, Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman said that Syria should abandon its "dreams" of recovering the Israeli-held Golan Heights.

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