The Golan Heights: An Ongoing Conflict

Imagine living in a little village in the mountains, surrounded by your parents and friends. About 10 kilometers east is another village. In that village lives the rest of your family. You have never met them in real life, nor attended your grandfathers funeral when he past away.
This is the situation for many Syrian people who are living in the Israeli occupied territory of the Golan Heights (Golani’s). Separated by a minefield and a heavily armed border from both sides, relatives and friends can only see each other by waving on a mountain called the ‘shouting hill’. This has been the situation since 1967. As this is a very unique situation in the world, I want to explore how this situation was created and why there hasn’t been a solution yet.

The Golan Heights is a narrow plateau on Israel’s northeastern border. Its about 12 by 20 km wide and is characterised by its many hills overlooking northern Israel making it a great militant outlook. It also serves about 30% of Israel fresh water revenue, making this area for both Israel and Syria very attractive (Barnes-Daisey, 2009). Israel gained the Golan Heights in the 1967 from Syria. Before this war, the entire Golan Heights were under Syrian rule and expanded to the lake of Galilee. Disputes were fought between Syria and Israel, mainly about the use of water and the demilitarized zone, but no real war broke out (Daoudi, 2008). This changed in 1967 during the Six-Day War. Israel launched a pre-emptive attack against Egypt, Syria and Jordan, and during the fighting, gained the strategic Golan Heights. In 1973 during the Yom Kippur war Israel gained even more land on the Golan Heights, but returned a small strip back to Syria. Ever since, a disengagement zone has been created where United Nations troops are stationed, and on either side of that zone, limited Israeli and Syrian forces are positioned (Barnes-Daisey, 2009). This area has been relatively free of incident since the signing of the 1974 agreement. Today, over one thousand members of the United Nations peacekeeping forces (officially called the UN Disengagement Observer Force or UNDOF) monitor the cease-fire line in the no man’s land which separates Syrian and Israeli checkpoints. As of May 2010, Syria and Israel are still in a state of war; a peace agreement has never been signed.

With ties to three enemies, Iran and the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, Syria says it can moderate in the peace process in the Middle East between Israel en the Arab world, thus making Syria a key player in this whole. In return Syria wants one thing: the Golan Heights (Barnes-Daisy, 2009). But this makes the situation very difficult, since Israel is not planning to return the Golan Heights back to Syria (Raid, 2009).
Another very important factor in the conflict is the use of water. Water has for both parties been a permanent concern in their negotiation strategies (Daoudi, 2008). Both Israel and Syria lack enough fresh water sources, and as the Golan Heights is rich on water it serves for both parties a great deal of water revenues. But since 1967, this water goes only to Israel, serving 30% of Israel’s fresh water resources.
Both land and water are thus very important factors during peace negotiations. Unfortunately, the parties’ mistrust of each other makes the negotiations even harder. Several peace attemps have been made in the past two decades, but neither has been successful. Optimism was there until 1995 when the peace talks were symbolized by progress and came to a very close deal. The bargaining space included full withdrawal of the Golan Heights and there was a reasonable expectation of a mutually beneficial deal, which would also lead to water cooperation (idem). But with the assassination of Rabin in 1995 the peace talks were turned upside down. With the death of Bashar al Assad and the rise of power to his son, the September 11 attacks and the start of the ‘War on Terror’, the forced withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005 and the investigation of Syria’s account in the assassination of the Lebanese president Hariri have severely deteriorated the prospects for peace even more.

Experts point that Damascus wants to remove the spotlight from the ongoing hearings on Syrian nuclear activities and the U.N. investigation into Syrian involvement in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri (Daoudy, 2008). It is also questioned if Syria is truly serious about cutting ties with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, which would be necessary for any peace agreement (Baghdadi, 2010). Within Israel, public opinion polls reflect the Israeli public’s opposition to a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a key Syrian demand (Galili, 2008). Thus, there lies a big responsibility for the International community, mainly the US. The United States might find it expedient to adopt a more neutral role as arbitrator between Israel and Syria and more actors in the negotiations, Europe and Turkey for instance, could also give peace a better chance (Daoudi, 2008).

For the Golani’s, who are still separated, one can only hope that both Israel and Syria will come to a peace agreement after 33 years very soon, so that families can be reunited.

References

Baghdadi, G (2010), Syria Dismisses Calls to Cut Ties to Iran. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503543_162-6242319-503543.html viewed in May 2010

Barnes-Daisey, J (2009), Yearning for the Golan Heights: why Syria wants it back. Christian Science Monitor 9/28/2009, p6

Daoudi, M (2008), Journal of International Affairs Spring/Summer2008, Vol. 61 Issue 2, p215-234

Galili, L (2008), "Poll: More Israelis object to Golan accord than to Jerusalem deal" http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/985866.html viewed in May 2010

Ravid, B (2009), Netanyahu: Israel will never withdraw from Golan. Prime Minister tells Russian-language reporters he is ready to stand up to Obama. http://www.haaretz.com/news/netanyahu-israel-will-never-withdraw-from-go... viewed in May 2010