Home News Golan Heights: A 50-year flashpoint for Israel and Syria

Golan Heights: A 50-year flashpoint for Israel and Syria

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An Israeli flag flutters above the wreckage of a tank on a hill in the Golan Heights overlooking the border with Syria. The strategic plateau has long been disputed by Syria and Israel. (AFP)
  • Israel seized the strategic plateau from Syria nearly 50 years ago and still occupies nearly 70 percent of it.
  • During the Israel-Syria wars of 1967 and 1973, more than 150,000 people — most of them Syrians — fled the area.

JERUSALEM: The strategic and disputed Golan Heights sits between Israel and Syria and is a vital source of water in the arid region.
Israel seized the strategic plateau from Syria nearly 50 years ago and still occupies nearly 70 percent of it.

With tensions flaring in the highlands this week after a salvo of rockets were fired across the frontier at Israeli forces in the occupied Golan, here is some background.

Syrian forces used the Golan Heights to fire on Israeli forces during their 1967 war, leading the Israeli army to enter and seize 1,200 square kilometers (460 square miles).
Israel occupied an extra 510 square-kilometer chunk of territory during the next war in 1973, but it was returned a year later in a deal that drew a cease-fire line and created a demilitarised buffer zone monitored by a UN observer force.

In 1981 Israel formally annexed the occupied area, a move never recognized by the international community.

During the Israel-Syria wars of 1967 and 1973, more than 150,000 people — most of them Syrians — fled the area.

Around 18,000 Syrians from the Druze sect — most of whom refuse the Israeli identity card — remain in the occupied Golan.
Around 20,000 Israeli settlers have moved in, spread over 33 mostly agriculture-based settlements.

The fertile volcanic plateau is also key to the region’s water supply, an important issue in stalled peace talks between Israel and Syria, which remain technically at war.
Three tributaries — the Banias, the Dan and the Hasbani — cross the highlands and help form the headwaters of the Jordan River.

The river system, which flows into the Sea of Galilee, provides about 40 percent of Israel’s water supply.

Syria has demanded a return to the pre-1967 border, which would give it a foothold on the shore of Galilee and rights to the lake’s waters.Israel wants guarantees over its control of the vital water source.

After a fairly quiet period, tensions flared in the Golan Heights with the start of the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
That year, on the anniversaries of the creation of Israel and the 1967 war — in May and June respectively — Israeli troops fired on Palestinian refugees living in Syria who had rushed the cease-fire line, killing around 30 people, according to the UN.

The area has since witnessed fierce fighting between Syrian rebels and the regime, with fire occasionally landing in occupied territory and prompting Israeli retaliation.
In 2014 UN monitors were caught up in the conflict when 45 observers were held hostage for two weeks by Al-Nusra Front, then Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.

Clashes have occasionally erupted between Israel and the Syrian regime with its Iran-backed ally Hezbollah in the Golan Heights.
Israel is concerned that Tehran and the Lebanese militia are embedding themselves along its frontier.

In January 2015 an Israeli strike targeted Hezbollah on the Syrian side of the demarcation line, killing Lebanese fighters and Iranian troops, including a general.
Earlier this week, tensions in the Golan boiled over.

On May 10, dozens of rockets were launched across the frontier into the occupied Golan after Israel bombarded the Syrian-held town of Baath across the demarcation line, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Israeli officials said 20 rockets were fired and blamed the Quds force of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards.
In response, Israel launched strikes on dozens of alleged Iranian military targets across Syria.