By Ramzy Baroud
With Syria still embroiled in its own war, Israel has been actively rewriting the rule book regarding its conduct in this Arab country. Gone are the days of a potential return of the illegally occupied Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty in exchange for peace, per the language of yesteryears. Now, Israel is set to double its illegal Jewish settler population in the Golan, while Israeli bombs continue to drop with a much higher frequency on various Syrian targets.
Indeed, a one-sided war is underway, casually reported as if a routine, everyday event. In the last decade, many ‘mysterious’ attacks on Syria were attributed to Israel. The latter neither confirmed nor denied. With the blanket support given to Israel by the Donald Trump administration, which recognized Israel’s illegal annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights of 1981, Israeli reluctance to take credit for the frequent and increasingly destructive and bloody air raids has dissipated.
Briefly, some in the Israeli government were concerned by the possible repercussions of the advent of Joe Biden to the White House in January 2021. They worried that the new president might reverse some of the pro-Israel decisions enacted by his predecessor, including the recognition of the “Sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” due to the “strategic and security importance to the State of Israel”. Biden, a long-time supporter of Israel himself, did no such thing.
The initial concern about a shift in US policy turned into euphoria and, eventually, an opportunity, especially as Israel’s new Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, is eager to break the Right’s historic dominance over the Jewish settlement movement in occupied Palestinian and Arab lands.
“This is our moment. This is the moment of the Golan Heights,” Bennett declared triumphantly at an Israeli government cabinet meeting held specially to officiate plans regarding the further colonization of the Golan on December 26.
The following statement by Bennett speaks volumes about the context of the Israeli decision, and its future intentions: “After long and static years in terms of the scope of settlement, our goal today is to double settlement in the Golan Heights.” The reference to ‘static years’ is an outright rejection of the occasional freezing of settlement construction that mostly took place during the so-called ‘peace process.’ Bennett – who, in June 2021, was embraced by Washington and its western allies as the political antithesis to the obstinate Benjamin Netanyahu – has effectively ended any possibility of a peaceful resolution to Israel’s illegal occupation of the Golan.
Aside from predictable and clichéd responses by Syria and the Arab League, Israel’s massive push to double its settlement activities in the Golan is going largely unnoticed. Not only Israel’s right-wing media, but the likes of Haaretz are also welcoming the government’s investment – estimated at nearly $320 million. The title of David Rosenberg’s article in Haaretz tells the whole story: “Picturesque but Poor, Israel’s Golan Needs a Government Boost to Thrive.” The article decries government ‘neglect’ of the Golan, speaks of employment opportunities and merely challenges Bennett’s government on whether it will “stay the course”. The fact that the occupation of the Golan, like that of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, is illegal under international law is absent from Israeli media coverage.
Namely, Israel’s main focus currently is to normalize its occupation of Arab land entirely. But if that mission has failed over the course of 54 years, can it succeed now?
For Israel, the illegal settlement enterprise, whether in the Syrian Golan or in occupied Palestine, is synonymous. It is inspired by deep-rooted ideological and religious beliefs, compelled by economic opportunities and political interests and assuaged by the lack of any meaningful international response.
In the case of the Golan, Israel’s intention was, from the onset, to expand on its agricultural space, as the capture of the fertile Syrian territory almost immediately attracted settlers, who set the stage for massive agricultural settlements. Although the home of merely 25,000 Jewish settlers, the Golan became a major source of Israeli apples, pears and wine grape production. Local tourism in the scenic Golan, dotted with numerous wineries, thrived, especially following the Israeli annexation of the territory in 1981.
The plight of the steadfast Golan Arab Druze population of nearly 23,000 is as irrelevant in the eyes of Israel as that of the millions of occupied Palestinians, whether under siege in Gaza or living under a perpetual occupation or apartheid in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Golan population is equally isolated and oppressed but, like the Palestinians, continues to resist despite the heavy price of their resistance. Their hardship, however, is likely to increase with the expected doubling of the Jewish settler population.
Israel is, of course, aware that popular uprisings will eventually be mounted in response to its latest colonial endeavors, but various factors must be giving Bennett the confidence to continue with his plans. A major source of reassurance is that it could take Syria years to achieve any degree of political stabilization before mounting any source of challenge to the Israeli occupation. Another is that the Palestinian leadership is in no mood for confrontation, especially that it is, once again, on good terms with Washington, which has resumed its funding of the PA soon after Biden’s inauguration.
Moreover, in Israel, the anti-settlement movement has long subsided, crystallized mostly into smaller political parties that are hardly critical in the formation or toppling of government coalitions.
More importantly, Washington has no interest to initiate any kind of diplomatic efforts to lay the ground for future talks involving Israel, the Palestinians and certainly not Syria. Any such attempt now, or even in coming years would represent a political gamble for Biden’s embattled administration.
Israel understands this absolutely and plans to take advantage of this opportunity, arguably unprecedented since the Madrid talks over thirty years ago. Yet, while Bennett is urging Israelis in their quest for settlement expansion with such battle cries as “this is our moment’, he must not underestimate that the occupied Palestinians and Syrians are also aware that their ‘moment’, too, is drawing near. In fact, all popular Palestinian uprisings of the past were initiated at times when Israel assumed that it had the upper hand, and that people’s resistance has been forever pacified.