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Monday, September 13, 2010

The people are with the Golan

Michael Totten spent some time in the Golan Heights when he was here this summer, and he files a lengthy report here. I want to highlight a few things he writes, and then you should read the whole thing.

Though the West Bank is technically disputed territory rather than occupied territory—it hasn’t belonged to anyone according to international law since the British left—parts of it feel like occupied territory, and it’s not exactly wrong to describe them that way. Iraq under American military rule felt occupied in a different way. Hadar and Reuven’s house on kibbutz Kfar Haruv just felt like Israel. There are no Palestinians on the Golan. And the Israelis who settled it come from a completely different part of the Zionist movement than the settlers in the West Bank. They are an entirely separate ideological species.

“I’ve never voted for a party to the right of Meretz,” Hadar said. Meretz, in many ways, is to the left of Israel’s left-wing Labor Party.

Reuven chuckled. “She’s not really that far to the left,” he said.

“Yes, I am,” she insisted.

Aside from her love for the democratic socialism of Israel’s kibbutzim, she didn’t actually sound all that left-wing to me, either. She even sounded to the right of Reuven in some ways.

“Before the first Intifada we didn’t think much of the Palestinians,” Reuven said. “They were just low-wage workers who commuted to Tel Aviv from refugee camps in Gaza or wherever. They didn’t have equal rights, and we didn’t care. It wasn’t until after the first Intifada that we saw them as human beings. We got what we deserved if you ask me.”

Hadar agreed in principle, but she wouldn’t go as far as he did. “I was nearly killed by Palestinians who threw rocks the size of small boulders at my car,” she said. “So don’t tell me the first Intifada was non-violent.”
There are some 'settlers' with similar political views to their brethren in Judea and Samaria on the Golan as well. For the most part, those are the religious revenants on the Golan and they have a small number of Moshavim (a Moshav is like a Kibbutz). But the population of the Golan is overwhelmingly Labor voters, so it's ironic that the two Prime Ministers who came closest to giving the Golan to Syria both came from Labor: Yitzchak Rabin and Ehud Barak. And when Michael writes later in the article that more Israelis favor dividing Jerusalem than favor giving the Golan to Syria, that is unfortunately correct.
Syria is only two years older than Israel. Like the Jewish state, it was forged upon the ruins of the Turkish Ottoman Empire after interim European powers withdrew from the region.

What is now Israel was still under the control of the British Mandate when Syria declared independence from the French Mandate in 1946. The British had control of the Sea of Galilee and wanted to keep it. So while the Golan Heights—which rises above the sea’s eastern shore—went to Syria, Britain kept control of the actual shoreline. The border was set at ten meters from the edge of the water. If the sea level rose or fell and the shoreline moved, the border moved with it.
Actually, 25 years earlier, the British had control not only of the shoreline but of the Golan itself. The Golan is the biblical area known as the Bashan, and the British actually had it and gave it to the French.
In 1920, Great Britain was given the responsibility by the League of Nations to oversee the Mandate over the geographical territory known as Palestine with the express intention of reconstituting within its territory a Jewish National Home.

The territory in question stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the eastern boundary of Mandatory Palestine, which was a border that would separate it from what was to become the future state of Iraq.

The League of Nations created a number of articles, which were in line with the original intent of the Balfour Declaration of November 29th, 1917. At the last minute, however, a new article was introduced by the British Colonial Office: article number 25.

At first the sudden addition of this article was not a cause for alarm but gradually it became apparent that its inclusion directly enabled Great Britain in 1921 to tear away all the territory of geographical Palestine, east of the River Jordan, and give it to the Arab Hashemite family; the territory to become Trans-Jordan and led by the emir Abdullah.

Britain presented this gift to Abdullah, the son of the Sherif of Mecca, as a consolation prize for its awarding of the Hedjaz territory and Arabia, which included Mecca, to the rival Saud family: That vast territory is now Saudi Arabia.


Shortly after, in 1923, the British and French colonial powers also divided up the northern part of the Palestine Mandate. Britain stripped away the Golan Heights (ancient biblical Bashan) and gave it to French occupied Syria.

The Balfour Declaration issued by Lord Balfour, British Foreign Secretary, never envisaged that the Jordan River would be the eastern boundary of the reconstituted Jewish homeland. Indeed, the Zionist leadership had put forward in February 1919 its first submission that the eastern boundary would run well east of the Hedjaz railway. The incorporation of the railway would be an economically essential requirement for the Jewish community living east of the River Jordan as well as providing it with vital security.
Back to Michael again:
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to return the Golan in 2000, but Syria’s Assad said no. Most Middle Eastern political analysts assume Assad never wanted a deal, that he merely went through the motions because it suited him at the time. Syria’s secular non-Muslim Alawite-dominated government needs a permanent state of war with Israel to survive in a country with a hostile Sunni majority. Resistance temporarily lends the regime the legitimacy it would otherwise lack. Assad needed an excuse, though, to say no when the Israeli government agreed to return the Golan for peace. And his excuse was that Israel would not give him the eastern shore of the sea.

Syria’s internationally recognized border never included an inch of that shoreline, but Assad knew Israel would refuse to sign over the title, and he knew his own “street” would applaud him for insisting upon it. Israel can’t give back the Golan unless Syria will say yes. And Syria will not say yes. So the Golan remains in Israel’s hands, and Assad’s son Bashar still has a much-needed grievance to nurse.

The territory has now been in Israel’s hands twice as long as it was in Syria’s.

“The Alawite regime is the best guarantor that Israel will be able to keep the Golan,” Israel Eshed, head of the Golan Tourism Association, told me. He’s one of Hadar’s neighbors in a village up the road, and she took me to his house to meet him.

While the nature of the Alawite regime and its interests may well be the ultimate guarantor of Israeli control of the Golan, it wasn’t always this way. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Syria almost took it back.
I never quite thought of it in those terms, but yes, that makes sense. But if people are so confident that Assad will never say yes, you have to wonder why there is panic in the Golan every time a Prime Minister talks about giving it to Syria (and every one since Rabin has). Perhaps the fear is that someday an Israeli Prime Minister will actually offer to give up the shores of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) as well.
“What happened to Israeli civilians on the Golan who lived in the areas that were captured?” I asked.

“They were evacuated,” Eshed said, “before the Syrians took them. Otherwise the Jews here would have been massacred. There were Jewish villages on the Golan in ancient times, and again since the 1800s, but the Syrians massacred them in 1948, and they would have done it again in 1973 if they could.”
I wasn't aware of this, and given that the 1973 war started with a surprise attack on Yom Kippur, that must have been one heck of an evacuation.

This is from Michael's interview with former MK Yehuda Harel, with his hostess Hadar sitting in.
“Tell me,” I said, “is the Golan Heights still strategically important for Israel?”

“Arab armies have started wars with us again and again since 1948,” he said. “They despise us, but we’re stronger, and we won all of them. Syria doesn’t believe it can win a war against Israel with tanks or a regular army. So it’s buying missiles, big missiles. And if Syria fires them at us, what can we do? We can shoot back at Damascus. A lot of Syrians would be killed, yet they’d win the war against Israel just like Hamas and Hezbollah won their wars against Israel.”


“But we do still have a deterrent,” Yehuda said. “Our tanks can reach Damascus in 48 hours from the Golan Heights. We can destroy the Alawite ruling class. We can drive right through the Valley of Tears down below us. Damascus is only 60 kilometers from the border. My house is closer to Damascus than it is to Haifa. We could drive there in my car in less than an hour.”

“At the end of the Yom Kippur War,” Hadar said, “our army was less than thirty kilometers from Damascus.”

“You know what Syria is like,” Yehuda said. “Syria is a country with a strong center. Syria is Damascus just like Israel is Tel Aviv. Everything that matters is in Damascus.”

“Well, what would happen if you did give the Golan back?” I said. “Do you really think the Syrians would shell the Galilee again?”

“No,” Yehuda said. “They would shoot Tel Aviv.”

“They’d shoot Tel Aviv from the Golan Heights?” I said.

“No,” he said. “They’d shoot Tel Aviv from Damascus.”

“But they can do that right now,” I said. “So if you gave the Golan back to Syria, what would you lose? Okay, you’d lose the ability to get tanks into Damascus in 48 hours, but you could still get tanks into Damascus. It would just take you a bit longer. And it wouldn’t be dangerous for you if they were here, would it?”


“They are prepared to pay with the lives of thousands of people,” Yehuda said, “but they are not willing to pay with Damascus or the regime.”
Michael plainly isn't buying that we need the Golan for security, and he says so outright in the next paragraph.

But there's a far better argument that can be made for Israel's need for retaining the Golan for its own security. This is from a paper prepared by former National Security Adviser Giora Eiland (36-page pdf link) for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

On the Golan Heights, the distance from the front line to the rear is minimal. More importantly, due to the structure of the terrain, any westward movement of the contact line from its present location would significantly degrade the ability to defend the territory.

Nevertheless, one can delineate two hypothetical border lines west of the current defense line. The first line could rest on the “rear ridge line” – located 3-5 km. west of the present border. It begins in the north at Jebel Keta (south of Majdal Shams) and continues southward to Tel Shiban, Mt. Shifon, Tel Fazra and Givat Bezek. There is little diplomatic logic to this line, but it would permit the transfer of three of the four Druze villages to Syria (not including Ein Kinya).

The second line is the “cliff line” 2-5 km. from the Jordan River. This is the last high area before the steep westward descent towards the Jordan, the Hula Valley, and the Sea of Galilee. From a diplomatic standpoint, an Israeli withdrawal to this line means forfeiting the entire Golan, including almost all the Jewish communities there.
From a military standpoint, there is some advantage in a stance on this line as opposed to a full withdrawal to the western side of the Jordan River. Continued Israeli control of both sides of the Jordan would increase the likelihood that the passage of forces to the Golan could be performed more expeditiously. In addition, Israeli possession of this line would diminish the exposure of Israeli force concentrations in the Hula Valley and the vicinity of the Sea of Galilee to flat trajectory Syrian fire.

To sum up, the present border line is the only one affording plausible defense for the State of Israel. It creates strategic depth, albeit minimal, and, in addition, this line exerts eastward control deep into Syrian territory. Any movement westward by Israel would create a considerable depreciation of Israel’s defensive capability, owing to the nature of the terrain that descends from east to west.

The two other possible defense lines mentioned here (the “rear ridge line” and the “cliff line”) are far worse, but they are still preferable to a border line located west of the Jordan River.

When the issue of a possible Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights was raised in the 1990s, the first question discussed by the Israeli defense establishment was:

Can Israel begin its defensive battle in the Hula Valley? The answer was negative. There was a unanimity backed by the political echelon, led by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, that in order to defend itself, Israel had to begin its defensive battle at the line where it was presently stationed.

How could this conclusion be reconciled with the understanding that a peace agreement with Syria mandated a concession of the entire Golan Heights? The response was based on security arrangements that were intended to bridge the gap between conceding the Golan and creating a situation that would guarantee that in case of war, IDF forces could return to the place where they are currently stationed. This was an attempt to “do without but feel satiated.”

The idea was based on two components:
1. Israel would indeed concede the Golan and its most forward forces would take up positions below the Heights, but the territory itself would be totally demilitarized and the Syrian divisions would be moved back, eastward to the region of Damascus and even further.

2. Israel would retain an early warning intelligence base on Mt. Hermon and in this manner could identify any serious violation of the agreement.
On the basis of this security concept, as soon as the IDF would comprehend that Syria intended to go to war, or the moment that the movement of Syrian forces westward was identified, IDF forces could move rapidly eastward onto the demilitarized Golan Heights.


The security arrangements proposed in the 1990s was flawed in a number of ways. First, it relied on five dangerous assumptions, discussed below. Second, it addressed the single threat posed by mechanized Syrian divisions, while ignoring other threats whose gravity is increasing.


Five Problematic Assumptions

1. “When the war erupts, it will begin with a situation in which both sides are located where they are obligated to be.”


2. “The warning will be issued in real time.”


According to what was discussed in the year 2000, there was to be one warning station on Mt. Hermon. Currently, Israel has two large stations on Mt. Hermon that provide backup and an additional three stations along the entire length of the Golan Heights. There is no possibility that one station on Mt. Hermon will provide sufficient intelligence coverage. Additionally, it is clear that even with the station on Mt. Hermon manned by Israelis, there will always be various sorts of limitations on their number and their freedom of action.

3. “A correct interpretation will be made with regard to any Syrian violation.”


4. “The Israeli government will react speedily and vigorously to any serious violation.”


5. “The IDF will fulfill its plan by outracing the Syrian force and arriving at its positions on the “ridge line.”


With all due respect to the importance of Syrian ground forces, the major Syrian threat is predicated on two other components: ground-to-ground missiles and large quantities of chemical weapons. In discussions that took place in 1999-2000, no attempt was made to reduce the presence of these two capabilities. It is possible that this approach was foredoomed, but it is still important to realize that in return for a concession on a strategic asset of the first order – the Golan Heights – no reciprocal concession was made in terms of a reduction in Syrian strategic capabilities.


A forfeiture of the Golan Heights would create a situation where the IDF’s assembly areas in the Hula Valley would be within the effective range of Syrian mortars and artillery. The structure of the terrain also ensures that these areas would also be within the effective range of Syrian anti-tank missiles. We are no longer dealing with the Sagger missiles of Yom Kippur War vintage, but with advanced missiles with an effective range of 5 km., both day and night.

Additionally, improvements in anti-aircraft missiles and especially the existence of advanced shoulder-launched missiles will allow the Syrians to conceal them in built-up areas prior to the war and launch them from the most forward line at the beginning of the war.


Should a Sunni revolution occur in Syria, particularly if it is carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood, it is totally unclear that the new regime will honor any agreement that was made by the “apostate” Bashar al-Assad.

Indeed, a peace agreement with Israel could serve as a catalyst for this revolution. Hafiz al-Assad and Bashar rule Syria with the aid of emergency security laws whose existence is justified by the “Israeli aggression.” If peace was made with Israel, this excuse would disappear and it would be hard for the regime to continue to repress the Sunnis in the same manner.
There's a lot more to Michael's post (and lots of great pictures as always - the only one I stole from him in this post is the map that shows the difference between the 1923, 1949 and 1967 borders), and you really should read the whole thing. But I wanted to raise two other points.

First, when he discusses the water issue (which is really critical in this area), Michael gives the impression that the only significance the Golan has is its control over the Kinneret. It is at least as important that the Golan controls the sources of the Jordan River (to the extent that the war gets here without being diverted in Lebanon), which in turn feeds the 'West Bank acquifer' from which we also get a large portion of our drinking water.

Second, Michael gives the impression that the Golan Druze side with the Syrians, and correctly points out that most of them have not taken Israeli citizenship. However, many Golan Druze would rather be part of Israel than of Syria.


At 1:19 PM, Blogger Y.K. said...

"But if people are so confident that Assad will never say yes, you have to wonder why there is panic in the Golan every time a Prime Minister talks about giving it to Syria (and every one since Rabin has)."

I beg to differ slightly. AFAIK, Sharon never did offer the Golan. What Nethanyahu did in his first term is highly disputed, but the current government is at most interested in a "territorial compromise" in part of the Golan (per interview of national security advisor in Haaretz).

At 8:07 PM, Blogger Michael T said...

"Michael plainly isn't buying that we need the Golan for security, and he says so outright in the next paragraph."

That isn't quite right. I pressed them because they had not yet convinced me, but they made a decent case in the end.

At 2:47 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

I don't see an argument for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.

No one can make a demographic argument for it... there are no Palestinian Arabs there and the Druze and Jews are almost equal in population.

And the area's strategic significance precludes a handover to the Syrian dictatorship.

A peace agreement with Syria won't happen in our lifetime.


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