Golan Heights

Golan Heights
   A zone east of the Huleh Valley and the Sea of Galilee that abuts Mount Hermon. It is a sparse territory some 41 miles long and 15 miles wide. The border between Israel and Syria has been in dispute since the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948. In 1949, the armistice agreement designated small areas on the western side of the border as demilitarized zones. Many of the clashes between Syria and Israel between 1949 and 1967 developed from Israel's efforts to assert control over these parcels of land.
   In the Six-Day War (1967), Israel occupied the Syrian territory known as the Golan Heights and began to establish settlements there, and it was placed under military administration. During the Yom Kippur War (1973), Syria briefly recaptured a portion of the Golan Heights, but Israel quickly took additional Syrian territory. The Israel-Syria Disengagement of Forces Agreement of 1974 resulted in Syria's regaining some territory lost in 1967. A United Nations Disengagement Observer Force was deployed, and no major incidents and only a few minor ones have occurred since 1974. Since the late 1970s, the focus of Israeli-Syrian tension has been in Lebanon because of the use by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and later Hezbollah of Syrian-controlled Lebanese territory for strikes against Israel.
   On 14 December 1981, the Israeli government presented a bill to the Knesset that applied the law, jurisdiction, and administration of the state to the Golan Heights. The bill passed all 3 readings required in the Knesset and was adopted by a vote of 63 in favor and 21 against. Explaining this action, Prime Minister Menachem Begin declared, "In this matter of the Golan Heights there is a universal, or nearly universal, national consensus in Israel." Begin also stated that the law did not alter Israel's readiness to negotiate all outstanding issues with Syria, including the issue of final borders. The government cited several reasons for proposing the bill to the Knesset. After 14 years of administration, the Syrians had rejected all efforts to bring them into a peace process. The Syrians had refused to accept the Camp David peace process, had installed missiles in Lebanon that were a direct threat to Israel, and in their occupation of Lebanon directly aided the PLO in its border attacks against Israel.
   The action by the Knesset changed the status of the Golan Heights from military to civil jurisdiction. The Druze farmers who live there had the option of receiving Israeli citizenship. The population of the Golan numbers about 15,000 Jews in 27 farms and villages, 12,000 Druze in 4 villages, and 1 village of 600 Alawite Muslims.
   Following the Knesset vote on the Golan bill, Washington condemned the act, stating that the swift nature of the Israeli action surprised the United States, was harmful to the peace process, and violated the Camp David Accords and the letter and spirit of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions 242 and 338 calling for the negotiated settlement of disputes based on the land-for-peace formula. The state department spokesman noted: "We continue to believe that the final status of the Golan Heights can only be determined through negotiations between Syria and Israel based upon Resolutions 242 and 338." On 17 December 1981, the UNSC adopted unanimously a resolution holding "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; [and that] Demands that Israel, the occupying power, should rescind forthwith its decision." The United States announced that it was suspending the U.S.-Israel Memorandum of Understanding on Strategic Cooperation. Additionally, the U.S. administration canceled several bilateral economic agreements that would have provided Israel with opportunities to sell Israeli-made arms to nations friendly to the United States using U.S. credit dollars. The administration also canceled several planned purchases of Israeli-made arms.
   Following the Madrid Middle East Peace Conference, Israeli and Syrian officials met periodically to discuss the status of the Golan Heights and related matters. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared that the depth of Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights would be determined by the depth of peace and normalized relations offered in exchange by Syria. Rabin pledged to hold a national referendum on the issue. U.S.-sponsored talks in Washington and at the Wye Plantation in Maryland, involving the chiefs of staff of the Israeli and Syrian militaries and Israel's ambassador to the United States and his Syrian counterpart, were reportedly proceeding well on the eve of Rabin's assassination. The talks stalemated after Rabin's death and broke down in the context of Syria's refusal to explicitly condemn the string of suicide bombings that rocked Israel in February and March of 1996.
   While Syrian officials played an important part in containing the damage caused by violent exchanges between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in Operation Grapes of Wrath (April 1996), Israeli officials continued to contend that Syria chose to permit a level of instability in southern Lebanon in the hopes of compelling Israel to cede sovereignty over all of the Golan Heights to Syria. On 26 January 1999, the Knesset passed a Golan Heights Law that required a majority Knesset vote in order to give up any part of Israeli sovereign territory. The law also required the drafting of a basic law on popular referendums after the 1999 elections (see KNESSET ELECTIONS) that would force any decision to relinquish Israeli land to be put to a referendum of Israeli voters in addition to the Knesset vote.
   After Ehud Barak became prime minister in 1999, the status of the Golan Heights reemerged as a prominent public policy issue. Barak (who as Israel Defense Forces [IDF] chief of staff had participated in talks in the United States with his Syrian counterpart) offered to resume negotiations with Damascus over the Golan from the point where they had left off in the spring of 1996. Barak also reaffirmed Rabin's pledge to hold a national referendum over the future of the Golan. After months of behind-the-scenes indirect diplomacy involving the United States, Israel and Syria resumed direct discussions in Washington, DC, on 15 December 1999. The negotiations, headed by Prime Minister Barak and Syria's foreign minister Farouk a-Sharaa, continued in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. U.S. president William J. (Bill) Clinton met with Syrian president Hafez Assad in Geneva in April 2000 in an attempt to finalize the terms of an agreement with Israel concerning the Golan. This, however, failed to materialize, as did Barak's efforts to link his planned final withdrawal of Israeli forces from their security zone in southern Lebanon to a broader agreement with Syria concerning the Golan.
   Despite periodic rumors and speculation, often related to exercises in public diplomacy undertaken by the Syrians designed to alleviate U.S. and international pressure on the regime of Bashir Assad, little progress has been made toward resolving the dispute over the Golan Heights. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert implied a readiness to resume negotiations with Syria about the status of the Golan Heights within the context of the broader process of regional peace and normalization of relations with Israel envisioned as a derivative of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations initiated at the Annapolis Conference on 27 November 2007.
   See also Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Historical Dictionary of Israel. .

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