Middle East

At-a-glance: The Golan Heights

The Golan Heights is a region on the border between northern Israel and southwest Syria. It is a flashpoint in the Arab-Israeli dispute.

The Golan Heights is a region on the border between northern Israel and southern Syria, and is a flashpoint in the Arab-Israeli dispute, with complexities typical of the conflict throughout the region.

It has been occupied and administered by Israel since the 1967 Six Day War, and its return to Syria is a crucial point in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Its position and climate make it of extreme strategic importance. It overlooks northern Israel, and the Sea of Galilee, and is one of the most fertile pockets in the region. It constituted 0.65 per cent of Syria's territory, and now makes up six per cent of Israel's.


Unlike the West Bank, few of the Golan's original Syrian inhabitants remain, and those who do are Druze - an ethnic minority that has suffered centuries of persecution by Arab nationalists and Muslims.

It is for this reason that many Druze did not adopt Arab nationalism. Around 10 per cent of Golan Druze accepted Israeli citizenship when it was offered in the late 1970s.

The remainder still hold Syrian citizenship, though support for President Bashar al-Assad's regime varies from village to village. In April 2011, some held rallies against Assad's violent crackdowns on anti-regime protests, while others held rallies in support of him.

A Lebanese paper quoted a protester who said some Druze believe Israel was behind the protests against Assad. The man, who was protesting in support of the Syrian president, reportedly said the Druze would "rather live under an Arab dictatorship than under an Israeli occupation.”

Analysts said the protesters may have arrived for one of two reasons. Either because Assad was too busy with internal battles to prevent them from approaching the border, or because he encouraged them to do so in order to provoke a bloody showdown with Israel and detract attention from his own violence


Most estimates put the pre-1967 the population of the entire area between 130,000–145,000 including 17,000 Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA.

It is estimated that between 80,000 and 130,000 Syrians fled or were driven from the region during the Six Day War.

Around 7,000 remained in six Druze villages: Majdal Shams, Mas'ade, Buq'ata, Ein Qiniyye, Ghajar and Shayta. They are estimated to number 20,000 today.

It is the remaining 10,000 refugees and their descendants who have tried several times to cross the border back into the Golan Heights in protest, and who were met with lethal fire from the IDF in May and June 2011.

The Golan Heights was occupied on June 5, 1967, at the same time as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

That day is known by many Arabs in the region as the 'Naksa' - or 'setback'. This is not to be confused with the 'Nakba' - or 'catastrophe' - which is how Palestinians refer to Israel's foundation in May, 1948.


A dispute over the lead up to the Six Day War is at the heart of the bitter conflict in the region.

By many Arab accounts, Israel started the war by attacking neighbouring Jordan, Egypt and Syria (the latter two at the time making up the short-lived United Arab Republic) with the aim of gaining territory.

Israeli accounts of the same period cite aggressive statements and actions from the neighbouring states that led Israel to believe it was promptly to be attacked on three fronts, because the Arab states refused to accept a Jewish presence in the Middle East.

In May 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser received reports from the Soviet Union that Israel was massing troops on its border with Syria. The reports later turned out to be false.

Nasser mobilised his forces on the Sinai Peninsula and in Gaza, expelling a UN force that had been acting as a buffer between Israel and Egypt since the 1956 Suez Crisis.

The UN offered to redeploy the force on Israel's side of the border, but Israel rejected the idea. It reiterated a warning to Nasser that closing the Straits of Tiran - the body of water between the Red Sea and the Suez Canal - would be considered an act of war.


Israel's Indian Ocean seaport of Eilat is reliant on the Straits of Tiran, and their closure in 1956 was what sparked the Suez Crisis.

Nasser closed the Straits again on May 22-23, and the war began. One week later, Jordan and Egypt signed a defence pact, and Jordan invited Iraq to send troops to its border with Israel.

Egypt sent more than 100,000 troops and 950 tanks to the frontier. Jordan sent 55,000 and 350 tanks.

Syria mobilised 75,000 troops along its border with Israel in what is now called the Golan Heights, an extremely advantageous position due to its elevation and proximity to Israel's major water source, the Sea of Galilee.


As much as a false report had sparked the war, two misleading ones helped to end it.

Egypt left its armed aircraft on the runway after a double agent allegedly supplied it with false intelligence that Israel would begin with a ground offensive.

This allowed Israel - using almost its entire airforce - to completely destroy Egypt's within three hours of war being declared. Pakistan, Libya, Kuwait, Algeria, Morocco and Saudi Arabia sent aircraft and pilots to help the Arab forces rebuild after the devastation of Egypt's war planes.


Mistakenly believing Israel had been crushed on its other fronts, Syria launched an intense offensive from the Golan Heights, using the strategic advantage of the plateau to intensively shell Israeli towns and kibbutzim (socialist agrarian communities) in the north.

It also attempted several ground incursions which were beaten back by Israel's troops.

On June 5, Israel's air force destroyed two thirds of Syria's planes, then turned its attention to Syrian ground troops, breaking up reserves and reportedly sinking several tanks in the Jordan River.


As Israel's troops captured the Golan Heights, tens of thousands of Syrians and Palestinians fled into Syria, many believing they may suffer at the hands of the Israelis.

Some Druze communities opted to stay, having suffered at the hands of various Syrian regimes.

At the request of community leaders, Israel defines them as a distinct ethnic group. Around 102,000 Druze live in Israel, not including the 20,000 in the Golan Heights.


Returning the Golan Heights to Syria has become a major point in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Israel made an offer to return part of it shortly after the war, but this was rejected by Syria, which was at the time following a policy of 'three nos' adopted at a summit in Khartoum in 1967 by Jordan and Egypt as well.

They were: 'no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiation with Israel concerning any Palestinian territory.'

In 1973, Syria attempted to regain the territory but was beaten back again. In 1981, Israel unilaterally implemented laws essentially annexing the region, that were not recognised by the international community.

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