By Richard Lightbown
Many media reports of confrontations on the Golan Heights on 5 June did not accurately represent the background to the protests. The Guardian reported on 6 June that the clashes occurred “on the Syrian border” and their analysts referred to “deliberate antagonism of Israel by the Syrian regime”. On the same day a report on BBC’s Today programme referred to “a disputed border” before stating that Syria “had lost the Golan Heights to Israel”. A review of the history and current status of the area appears required reading for some foreign correspondents.
The Syrian Golan Heights (as the UN refers to the region) were recognised as Syrian sovereign territory by an Armistice Agreement signed between Israel and Syria under UN auspices in 1949. Because of its rich volcanic soils and water resources the Golan has long been coveted by Zionists. Attempts were made starting in 1891 to buy land there, and Zionist President Chaim Weizmann wrote to British Prime Minister Lloyd George in 1919 expressing designs for the region to form part of the Jewish National Home in Palestine. (Dr Weizmann wrote to oppose the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 by which Britain and France had agreed the carve up of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. These imperial designs interfered with Zionist schemes for the Levant.)
Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter requires the respect of every state’s territorial integrity. Newly admitted to the UN in 1949, Israel began almost immediately to encroach beyond its boundaries agreed under the 1949 Armistice. Fortifications were built in the UN-administered demilitarized zone, while illegally deployed Israeli soldiers obstructed UN observers and even threatened to kill them on one occasion. Arab residents of the area were evicted and their homes looted and destroyed. The UN Security Council (UNSC) passed a resolution in May 1951 demanding that Israel allow the resident’s return. Other resolutions against Israeli violations of International Law followed in 1953, 1956 and 1962, all to no avail.
Prior to the 1967 invasion there were many clashes between Syrian and Israel forces. The former Israeli Defence Minister, Moshe Dayan, later opined that more 80% of these clashes were deliberately provoked by Israel, explaining that kibbutzim covetous of Syrian land had pressed the Israeli Government to invade the Golan Heights. Another Israeli, former Head of Intelligence Netanyahu Peled, also stated in a newspaper interview that all the incidents were Israeli initiated.
At the time of the invasion during the Six Day War there were 137,000 Arab residents in the area that was occupied. Following the attack 130,000 of them were expelled from their homes in two cities, 130 villages and 112 farms, all of which were destroyed. (The Golan capital of Quneitra had been a city with 25,000 population. When liberated by Syrian armour in 1973, troops discovered all the buildings destroyed or uninhabitable. This included houses, shops, mosques and the hospital.)
UNSC Resolution 242 of 1967 requiring “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” was ignored by Israel. On 14 December 1981 the Knesset passed the Golan Heights Law which extended Israeli laws to occupied Syrian areas. The UN Security Council responded to this breach of customary International Law by passing Resolution 497 declaring the Israeli legislation “null and void and without international legal effect”. The Resolution demanded that the legislation be rescinded. No other country has recognised this de facto annexation, but Israel made no attempt to comply with its legal obligations.
However the remaining local population had no intention of being absorbed into the occupying state. Following the invasion some 7,000 residents occupying six villages in the north of the Golan were permitted to stay. This was part of a divide and rule policy by Israel. The Arab residents of the villages are mostly of the Druze religion and the rulers of the Zionist state have been trying to develop a Druze buffer zone subservient to Israel in the border region between Lebanon and Syria. These people were required by Israel’s rogue legislation to give up their Syrian citizenship and adopt that of Israel. A six-month general strike followed, and most of the new Israeli identity cards were publicly burned. The Israeli Government eventually gave way to the protests and most of the residents still retain their Syrian nationality. Israeli attempts to eliminate the Arab national identity have also been opposed. Indoctrination by unqualified teachers instructing the Hebrew language, Israeli literature and Israel’s version of history is still strongly resisted within this community. The long-standing Zionist greed for the Golan has been realised by the establishment of 33 settlements in the region, and a programme is ongoing to extend this process of colonisation (in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions and the Fourth Geneva Convention). Only these settlements are allowed to irrigate their crops, giving the colonisers a major competitive advantage over the Arab farmers. Israel also extracts more than its fair share of water from the Jordan River System. Studies published in 2006 indicate that while Israeli territory contributed 11.4% of the total water to the System, the Israeli state extracted 50% of the total. (Syria contributed 31% and extracted 18.5%. Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon all extracted less than their contributions.) The study found Israeli abstraction to be inequitable and unreasonable, and in contravention of International Water Law.
Within Israel it is generally held as an article of faith that holding the Golan is a guarantee of Israeli security. It is true that in both the wars of 1967 and 1973 the Golan was conquered by armour. Yet this does not take account of modern warfare methods. During the war between Israel and Lebanon in 2006 Merkava tanks were destroyed by Lebanese missiles. (In 2004 the then Israeli Chief of Defence Staffs said in a newspaper interview that the Israeli army would be able to defend any border. Israeli air power, after all, is omnipotent in the region and can inflict serious damage.)
Unrest at the boundaries of Israeli-occupied territory may well serve a Syrian government under pressure for regime change. But the roots of this unrest are long-standing genuine grievances against the expansionist and tyrannical policies of the Israeli state. Western media sources seldom comment or reflect this reality, nor do they seem to be aware of the legality of the occupation and its artificial boundaries. In so doing they render a disservice to the victims of criminality, while failing to uphold the highest standards of professional journalism.
(Much of the data for the article are derived from papers presented to the London International Conference on the Golan – 2007)
– Richard Lightbown is a researcher and writer. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.