Just over 54 years ago, Syria joined an Arab-coalition comprised primarily of Egypt and Jordan in the Six Day War against Israel, launching artillery attacks against targets in the Galilee.
While false reports abounded of a crushing Egyptian victory against Israel, and the imminent destruction of the 19-year-old Jewish State, Israel defended itself, and in the process, secured new land at the expense of its aggressors, including the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza, Judea & Samaria, and the Golan Heights.
Though much of the land was given – Sinai in the 1979 peace agreement to Egypt – and in the 2005 disengagement which saw Israel give Gaza to the Palestinians, today, the Golan Heights, which was captured from Syria after the country attacked Israel, unprovoked, remains in Israeli hands.
Today, 1,200 of the 1,800 square kilometres of the Golan Heights are in Israeli control, and the rest are under Syrian control, and about 27,000 Israelis now make their home in the region. But it is more than just a bucolic and rural part of northern Israel teeming with wineries; due to its elevation and the region’s topography, it also serves as an important defense against any future potential of Syrian aggression against Israel.
In 1981, Israel’s government passed the Golan Heights Law, where it applied its sovereignty over the area, but despite that de facto annexation, in the half century since the Golan changed hands, Israel has offered to return the strategic plateau to Syrian control in exchange for a peace deal, but nothing ever came of that offer.
And despite frequent Syrian rhetoric to ‘liberate’ the Golan Heights, the Assad regime in Damascus has shown little interest in retaking the region.
But just this past week, the Golan Heights was in the news again, with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announcing that Israel would seek to solidify Israeli control, and increase the population there to 100,000.
Almost immediately after Bennett made the announcement, media outlets were already describing Israeli residents in the Golan Heights as “settlers” living in “illegal settlements.”
Despite such knee-jerk rhetoric claiming Israel’s presence in the Golan Heights is illegal, in reality, Israel’s claim to the plateau is very legitimate.
Firstly, Israel won the land in question during the Six Day War, in an act of self defense. Israel did not seek conflict with Syria, but the Syrian Arab Republic under then-dictator Hafez el Assad gambled – and lost – in deciding to attack Israel. In its aggressive gamble against Israel, it lost the Golan Heights. There is a robust basis in international law which backs up Israel’s claims to the region, having won it in a defensive war.
Secondly, there are very real and practical concerns which preclude Israel from simply giving the Golan Heights to Syria, or even trading it with the regime of Bashar Assad, even in a peace deal.
The Syrian regime is a brutal, authoritarian power which has brutalized its own people for more than a decade during the Syrian Civil War, which began in the spring of 2011 and has seen an estimated 500,000 Syrians killed. It has gassed its own citizens, massacred civilians and shown little respect for even basic human rights. It has also sought a close relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose fundamentalist leaders have called repeatedly for the destruction of Israel, and which actively funds, arms and trains terrorist groups like Hezbollah in their ongoing war against the Jewish State.
Any suggestion that Syria, then, would respect any quid pro quo or even a formal peace deal with Israel in exchange for the Golan Heights, is tragically fanciful. Israel simply cannot accept at face value any potential Syrian promises of peace in exchange for giving up this strategically important plateau. Ceding the Heights could give terrorists the strategic high ground to put major Israeli population centres in their rocket’s crosshairs.
Thirdly, notwithstanding the oft-repeated claim that Israeli control over the Golan Heights is illegal and should not be recognized, the international community in fact recognizes many situations where countries have acquired land, in arguably less defensive circumstances than Israel’s.
For example, the Vietnam War, which began as a civil war between the north and south, was won by the North, and today, it governs the country of nearly 100 million people. Yet Vietnam’s legitimacy – and control over the entire country, including the south – is widely held by the international community.
Israel’s presence in the Golan Heights is no less legitimate than Vietnam’s claim to South Vietnam, and as such, its recognition should be at least as widespread. These reasons were factors in explaining why the United States under then-president Donald Trump recognized Israeli control over the area in 2019.
Despite the ongoing chorus of voices claiming that the Golan Heights is illegally occupied by Israel, the facts simply not support this assertion. Israel has ample legal and moral rights to the Golan Heights, and the news media should be far more circumspect about simply repeating anti-Israel canards.