The Golan Heights in 400 words: Why does the territory matter to Israel and Syria?

A volcanic plateau with rich agricultural farmlands, the Golan Heights, located in south-western Syria, has been a key pillar in the Arab-Israeli conflict. After the initial armistice agreement signed after the first Arab-Israeli war in 1949, the Golan Heights – then a part of Syria - became one of the hottest fronts in the conflict as the Israelis and Syrians fought a vicious border war over water resources during the 1950s and 1960s. The local conflict over water became a catalyst for a major regional war in June, 1967 between Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Syria, during which Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) seized the Golan Heights and initiated a military occupation.

Ninety per cent of the Syrian population fled the Golan Heights during and after the June War, however the fate of the Syrian refugees sparked a fierce debate. Those defending the IDF have argued the conflict was one of self-defence and instigated by the Syrian army targeting Israeli settlement in Galilee, and that the majority of Syrian refugees left of their own accord. Increasingly, however, revisionist historians and critics have argued that the IDF deliberately expelled Syrian civilians to secure its water security, obtain farmland coveted by Israeli settlers and collectively punish the population after a decade of fierce fighting on the border.

In 1973, President Hafez Assad – who had been Syria’s defence minister in 1967 – launched a major offensive to recapture the Golan Heights. The surprise attack, while catching the IDF off-guard, failed, and in 1981 the Likud government under Prime Minister Menachem Begin announced that Israel would annex the Golan Heights. The move by Begin was strongly opposed by the international community and in the 1990s, the Middle East Peace Process opened up a rare opportunity for bringing an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict. For President Assad, the issue of the Golan Heights was non-negotiable, and if relations were to normalise between the two countries, Israel was to withdraw all forces to the 1949 armistice border. After negotiations involving two Israeli prime ministers and two U.S administrations, the talks collapsed in 2000 at the pivotal Geneva Summit between Prime Minister Ehud Barak, President Assad and President Clinton.

Since then, the dispute over the Golan Heights has become increasingly framed in the context of Israel’s regional rivalry with Iran and its long war with Hezbollah. The deepening involvement of Israel, Iran and Hezbollah in Syria’s current civil war have stoked fears of a regional war erupting between Israel and Iran. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has grown fearful that Syria is becoming an Iranian base and in response have been increasing airstrikes whenever they feel Iran and Hezbollah are attempting to turn areas which are close to Israel such as the occupied Golan Heights into a new front. For the IDF, the Golan Heights are a strategic buffer against Iran, and President Trump’s recent recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights in March, 2019 was a decision which factored in Israel’s red-lines on Iranian encroachment from Syrian territory. The conventional wisdom that Israel would one day return the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for peace has been upended by President Trump. With Israel’s peace talks with Syria on hold, the Assad regime surviving the civil war and their firm entrenchment in Iran and Hezbollah’s sphere of influence, Trump’s decision is a move which has extended, not solved, the Golan Heights dispute.