Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Golan Confronts Attempts to Normalize Israeli Occupation

Despite Israeli efforts, the Golani youth continue to resist initiatives aimed at integrating the Golan into Israel's interior.

Tear gas fumes fill the air as members of the Druze community gather with their flags in a protest against an Israeli wind turbine project. JALAA MAREY / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

In recent years, Israel has focused on normalizing its control of the Golan Heights in southern Syria. Various indicators and recent developments, such as a growing number of Druze individuals from the Golan seeking Israeli citizenship, suggest weakening the political and social bonds between the occupied Golan and Syria.

This trend is seen as paving the way for the potential integration of the Golan into Israel, with the ultimate objective being a gradual and peaceful resolution to the issue of this Syrian region’s occupation by capitalizing on Syria’s ongoing political disarray.

However, local opposition from Golan’s residents remains steadfast. They consistently reject any initiatives aimed at bolstering the Israeli settlement presence in the area or fostering economic and social ties between the region and Israel.

Furthermore, a significant majority of Golan inhabitants continue to refuse to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, posing a significant challenge to Israel’s plans.

As a result, Israel has yet to succeed in assimilating the Golan and implementing a plan to formally annex it despite a law from 1981 that stipulates such a step and despite the 2019 U.S. recognition of annexing the Golan to Israel.

The situation is not solely linked to the United Nations’ refusal to acknowledge Israeli sovereignty over the region, as it considers the Israeli presence there as an occupation without legal merit, but also stems from the Golan community’s persistent rejection of this reality.

The historical bid to merge the Golan Heights with Israel

In June 1967, Israel launched a swift military campaign against neighboring Arab countries – Syria, Jordan and Egypt. In just six days, Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and significant portions of southern Syria, extending to the city of Quneitra.

In July 1967, within five weeks of the war’s end, settlement initiatives began in the Golan Heights. These projects were initially presented as labor camps for managing dispersed cattle in the region. The inaugural Israeli settlement, Merom Golan, emerged, followed by 33 more settlements, now home to approximately 27,000 Israelis.

In 1968, a year after securing the Golan Heights, Israel announced a military order mandating administrative control over 100 water springs in the area, with the intent to construct around 40 water complexes and artificial ponds. These developments aimed to irrigate crops within Israel and the Golan Heights settlements.

Syria subsequently reclaimed the city of Quneitra and other occupied territories through a 1974 disengagement agreement. However, Israel retained control of the Golan Heights, motivated by strategic factors such as its elevated terrain offering panoramic views of Israel’s interior, abundant water resources and fertile agricultural land.

Israel’s intentions to annex the Golan Heights by displacing the original Arab inhabitants and replacing them with Israeli settlers were evident from the outset. Before the occupation of approximately 113 villages and 112 farms were inhabited by around 138,000 Syrian Arabs.

Currently, only six Arab villages remain, inhabited by some 27,000 people. In addition, Israel obstructed efforts by many displaced villagers to return home after the war, designating extensive parts of the Golan as restricted military zones.

Just a few months before the 1974 Disengagement Agreement, Israel established the Regional Settlement Council for the Golan which assumed control over all lands in the region except those within the six Arab villages. The Council was tasked with devising settlement plans for the new Israeli population and connecting these settlements to the national infrastructure, thereby laying the groundwork for annexing the Golan Heights with Israel.

Since occupying the Golan, Israel has treated the area not as a temporary occupation, in contrast to its approach in southern Lebanon, but as a territory it aimed to gradually assimilate, settle and exploit its resources over time. Consequently, Israel rejected serious negotiations for the Golan Heights’ return under Syrian sovereignty, unlike its agreement with Egypt post-withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula.

The “Golan Law,” ratified by the Israeli Knesset in 1981 – merely seven years after the disengagement agreement – imposed Israeli law, judiciary and administration over the Golan Heights, effectively establishing Israeli sovereignty over the region.

The historical Golan Druze resistance to occupation

Despite all these efforts, Israel has continued to face resistance from the residents of six Arab villages over the past decades to its attempts to naturalize them or to establish political and social ties with Israel.

As a result, the Druze population of the Golan stands apart from their counterparts within Israel as following the establishment of the State of Israel, the Arab Druze inside the country gained citizenship and their youth became subject to mandatory conscription, akin to Jewish youth.

In 1982, the Golan Druze adopted a strategy of “nonviolent resistance,” initiating a six-month strike to reject the imposition of Israeli citizenship and challenge Israel’s administration of Golan villages through linked local councils. This resistance was renewed in 1987 when residents of the largest Golan village, “Majdal Shams,” launched an uprising, refusing Israeli identity cards.

Consequently, the proportion of Golan residents who acquired Israeli citizenship remained below 19 per cent, as Israel’s attempts to enforce mandatory nationality proved ineffective. Instead, the option to obtain citizenship voluntarily was left to the inhabitants of the Golan.

At the same time, Israel’s attempts to involve the Golan Druze in local council elections and integrate them into the nation’s political life were met with failure. Notably, in Ain Shams City, a mere 272 out of 12,000 Golan residents participated in the 2018 local council elections, which the Golanis saw as an attempt to legitimize the Israeli occupation.

Thus, the Golanis’ opposition to the occupation has emerged as a primary impediment to Israel’s initiatives, which aim to normalize and perpetuate the region’s occupation. Notably, Israel’s attempts to replicate its approach with the Arab Druze in the territories occupied in 1948 have proven unsuccessful more than 50 years after Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights.

Israel is counting on social and political transformations in the Golan Heights

In recent years, Israel has pursued strategic political and social changes aimed at integrating the Golan into its fold. A notable transformation involves the gradual uptick in Golanis willingly acquiring Israeli citizenship since 2018.

For instance, in 2021, approximately 239 Golanis applied for Israeli citizenship, compared to a mere 75 applications in 2017, marking a 218 per cent surge over this four-year period. The trend continued into the first half of 2022, with 206 applications, surpassing the previous year’s total.

While these figures appear modest in comparison to the Golan’s Arab population of 27,000, they inspire optimism in Israel. The prospect of reshaping Golanis’ stance toward Israel, particularly when coupled with enticing economic incentives, remains promising. Israel’s strategy rests on the anticipation of a gradual, long-term increase in the percentage of Golanis obtaining Israeli citizenship, driven by an ongoing accumulation of applications.

Numerous analyses attempt to explain the surge in Golanis seeking Israeli citizenship. However, the predominant catalyst lies in the military developments witnessed in Syria since 2011 which severed the Golan community’s ties to Damascus, notably in the areas of Deraa and Quneitra.

These regions, serving as vital links between the Golan Heights and the rest of Syria, were focal points of conflict, leading to the four-year closure of the Quneitra crossing, which previously allowed Golanis to study and work in Syrian regions.

On a political plane, the armed conflicts eroded Golanis’ confidence in the Syrian regime, altering their pro-regime stance and support for positions opposing reconciliation with Israel until the Golan Heights issue is resolved. The pivotal shift arises from Golanis recognizing that the fragmented and depleted Syrian state lacks the leverage to negotiate the region’s return, more than 56 years after Israel’s occupation.

At a demographic level, a generation of Golanis has matured since 2012 with minimal connections to Damascus or other Syrian cities, aside from familial stories, due to isolation stemming from the prolonged Syrian conflict. Capitalizing on this, Israel strives to integrate this generation into its labor market, supplanting the traditional economic bonds among Golanis in the Levant, Deraa and Quneitra.

Signs of resistance continue

Despite Israeli efforts, the Golani youth continue to resist initiatives aimed at integrating the Golan into Israel’s interior.

In June 2023, the Israeli military deployed significant reinforcements to the occupied Golan in an attempt to implement a “wind turbine” project within the territories of Majdal Shams and Masada villages. This project aligns with the Israeli government’s vision to transform the Golan Heights into a “technological hub for renewable energy” by 2030, aiming to make the region a primary electricity source for Israel while fostering economic and developmental ties with Israeli infrastructure.

Simultaneously, Israel aims to create more job opportunities through these projects, potentially leading to increased Israeli settlements in the area.

The Golan residents quickly recognized the project’s long-term risks, including its role in normalizing Israeli occupation and initiatives on their lands. Subsequently, vocal protests erupted to hinder progress on the project. Golani farmers also backed out of land leasing agreements for turbine construction after realizing the project’s full scope and objectives.

As a consequence, by July 2023, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conceded to postponing the project, acknowledging its unfeasibility given the opposition from Arab villages.

These events surrounding the turbine project underscore the Golanis’ unwavering opposition to occupation in their region. Golani farmers actively opposed the project for primarily political reasons, even foregoing potential financial gains from leasing their lands for turbine construction.

Despite Israel’s optimism from the uptick in applications for Israeli citizenship, the number of naturalized citizens remains less than a fifth of the total Golan population. This disparity highlights that the vast majority of Golanis still decline the prospect of assimilation into Israel, despite the potential benefits associated with citizenship.

Consequently, it can be deduced that Israel’s attempts to resolve the Golan issue have not succeeded, even in the face of recent political developments that may have weakened the issue’s prominence.

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