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‘Gift’ of the Golan?

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29 Mar 2019 (All day)
‘Gift’ of the Golan?
Israelis received very heartening news last week when US President Donald Trump announced his official recognition of the Golan Heights as part of Israel. Many called it a surprise “gift” for Purim. But it would be amiss to claim that Trump just “gave” the Golan to Israel, because God already did that long ago. And besides, Israel has been in possession of the Golan fair-and-square for decades and the Israeli public will never give it back to Syria, as the rest of the world so maddeningly demands.

Now the powers that be will tell you Israel has illegally “occupied” the Golan Heights ever since it captured the area from Syria during the Six-Day War of June 1967. This makes it sound like it was always Syrian territory.

In fact, the Golan is included within the boundaries of the land divinely promised to Abraham and his descendants in Genesis 15:18-21 and elsewhere in Scripture. Also known by its biblical name “Bashan,” it was conquered under Moses and Joshua when the Israelites entered the land some 3500 years ago (Deuteronomy chapters 3 & 4), and was allotted to the tribe of Manasseh. There is ample evidence of a continuing Jewish presence there over the ensuing centuries.

In modern times, the Golan became a bone of contention between France and Great Britain as they sorted out how to divide the Ottoman territories about to fall into their hands during World War One. An elevated plateau, it was valued more at that time for its water resources, as water was a scarce commodity in the region. In the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, Britain caved to French demands that the Golan be included in its mandate for Syria, arguing that they needed the water more than Mandatory Palestine. This was despite the fact that Jewish benefactors, acting mainly through the Jewish National Fund, had already purchased large tracts of land on the Golan in anticipation of settling Jews there, since they considered it historically part of biblical Israel.

But Syria wound up with the Golan, and when it gained independence the rulers of Damascus turned it into one massive military base, brimming with bunkers, trenches and artillery positions all facing down on northern Israel. The Syrian regime did not permit civilians to live there, save for the three ancient Druze villages at the foot of Mt. Hermon. From their fortified positions with commanding views of Israeli towns and villages below, Syrian gunners routinely took target practice at Jewish farmers in their fields and fisherman on the Kinneret. This constant harassment fire tested Israeli resolve throughout the 1950s and early 60s, but tensions ratcheted up to a new level in 1964 when the Syrians started digging channels along the western slopes of the Golan to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River. Some historians say this actually was the original spark of the 1967 conflict.

In the Six Day War, Israel indeed captured the Golan Heights from Syria, as well as the West Bank from Jordan and the Sinai and Gaza from Egypt. But they did so only after Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser blockaded the Straits of Tiran, kicked the UN observer forces out of the Sinai Peninsula and flooded it with Egyptian troops – thus creating a casus belli, an act provoking war. With Egypt and Syria unifying under Nasser’s command and openly threatening a war of extermination, Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol spent several tense weeks exhausting all avenues of diplomacy to avert war, before ordering a pre-emptive strike. It is still a highly disputed matter, but Israel has every right and reason to contend they took the Golan in a war of self-defense and thus are entitled to keep it.

After gallantly holding onto the Heights in the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, Israel has transformed the Golan into a peaceful, prosperous agricultural region and popular tourist destination. Israelis, left and right, are proud of what they have made of the Golan, with its vineyards, wineries, fruit orchards, dairy farms and wind turbines. In winter, Israeli families flock to the Golan’s log cabins and Hermon ski resort. They repel and hang glide off its cliffs, hike its scenic trails, and soak in its warm sulfur springs. And they camp, swim and jet ski under its shadow on the tranquil Sea of Galilee.

The vast majority of Israelis also know the Golan has tremendous strategic value due to its commanding terrain, and that this advantage should never be voluntarily surrendered. Imagine if Syria were still ensconced on the Golan over the past eight years of the Syrian civil war. No doubt Assad’s troops, rebel forces, Sunni jihadists and even Hezbollah would all have fought each other for the chance to fire away at Israel from the lofty heights above. Israel’s ability to strike Iranian positions inside Syria also would have been greatly compromised.

The Israeli public also knows that, unlike the West Bank, there are no Arab refugees waiting to return to their homes on the Golan, because the Assad regime made sure those homes never existed in the first place.

So whether the rest of the world agrees with Trump’s decision or not, the consensus in Israel is that the Golan always has and always will belong to them.

 

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