Lt. Colonel Avigdor Kahalani, commander of the IDF’s 77th tank battalion, stared eastward into the growing darkness from the turret of his Centurion tank, on the evening of the Day of Atonement, October 6, 1973. Atop the northern Golan Heights, he had ordered his men to turn off their headlights and locate, by moonlight, advancing Syrian tanks, coming across the frontier, destination: Israel.
Rebuffed in their daylight assault on Israeli forces, the Syrians opted for a night attack, making use of their Soviet-made night fighting equipment. Israeli tank telescopes worked well during daylight, or on illuminated targets at night, but couldn’t locate and target tanks using infrared lights. The advancing Syrian T-55 tanks were using infrared scopes to locate Israeli tanks; few Centurions had them.
Taking a grave risk, Kahalani turned on his own infrared scope but quickly realized that a Syrian tank had his Centurion targeted. Shouting at his driver to back up, the Israeli tank quickly rolled backward down a hill, out of the line of fire. Outnumbered more than seven to one – the Syrians had at least 1,200 battle tanks – and taking heavy casualties, Israeli tank crews nonetheless destroyed a large number of T-55s, halting the Syrian advance. Daylight revealed the blackened hulks of the Syrian tanks scattered over the Golan landscape, in a valley that became known as the “Valley of Tears” [i].
During this first Syrian offensive, Israel lost 75 tanks, with hundreds killed and wounded, while Syria lost over 100 tanks, with thousands killed and wounded. The Syrians were more successful advancing on Israel through the southern Golan’s open ground, but they were repulsed by Israeli reserve tank battalions. They failed to reach Israel’s entry points, two bridges spanning the Jordan River. By October 23, Israel had defeated the Syrians and the Egyptians, winning the War of Atonement. The “barren volcanic escarpment” known as the Golan Heights had played a key role in the victory. Had Syrian forces occupied the entire Golan early on October 6, their tanks likely would have overrun Israel [ii].
The Golan Heights is 40 miles long and from 7 to 16 miles wide, with a total area of 720 square miles. Israel presently controls about 460 square miles of the Golan.
The region is bordered by the slopes of Mt. Hermon on the north, the Yarmouk River on the south, the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River on the west, Wadi Ruqqad on the east, and the Hauran region on the southeast. Even today, much of the Golan is undeveloped, and as late as 1990, the region had few asphalt-paved roads [iii]. Particularly in the northern Golan, the landscape is hilly, resisting easy egress. Hermonit, Avital, and Bental, three 3,900-foot-high extinct basalt volcanoes, dominate the area. However, there has been a continuous Jewish presence on the Golan, almost uninterrupted since ancient times, and the Golan is the source of much of Israel’s water.
Jewish presence in the Golan began with Israel’s entry into Canaan and underscores the Golan’s timeless importance to Israel. Continuing through the rule of King Saul, Jewish presence expanded at the end of the 6th century BCE, continuing well past the return of the exiles from Babylon, a century later. In 67 C.E., three years before the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, there occurred a revolt against the Romans, at Gamla, in the Golan. About 9,000 Jewish soldiers fell during the siege of Gamla.
Afterward, Jews continued living in the Golan for at least another 500 years, and the ruins of 25 synagogues attest to a strong Jewish presence through the Muslim conquest of the mid-7th century. Muslim rule ended more than 1,600 years of continuous Jewish presence in the Golan and resulted in forced religious conversion of the Golan’s Jews. However, evidence exists that shows a Jewish presence after Muslim rule ended. The Zionist movement considered the Golan an integral part of the land being reclaimed as Eretz Israel, and Jewish presence in the Golan, including the Hauran region, resumed with the Bnei Yehuda Society’s 1886 purchase of lands east of the Sea of Galilee and Baron de Rothschild’s lawful 1891 purchase of 60 square miles of land, about 12 miles east of Ein-Gev. The baron’s purchase was supported by Kushans – title deeds to the land, issued by the region’s Ottoman rulers. However, by 1901, attacks by local Arabs, the hostility of Ottoman officials, and isolation had forced the Hauran’s Jews to abandon their settlements and retreat closer to Jerusalem and the Mediterranean coast of Ottoman Palestine [iv].
Jewish settlement of the Golan became more complicated with the fall of the Ottoman empire at the close of World War I. Beginning in 1917, the British Mandate over territory set aside for a Jewish homeland included the Golan and the Hauran regions. However, in 1923, the British violated the terms of the 1920 San Remo Conference, and their own mandate over Palestine, by transferring oversight of the Golan to the French Mandate over Syria. In return, the British received oil rights in Iraq. Uncertainties as to the location of the border between British mandate Palestine and Bedouin tribal lands in the Golan also played a role in this act of betrayal. Thus, the Golan became subject to French authority and, later, Syrian rule, and various Jewish settlements in the region suddenly found themselves without protection, subject to Arab attack. Nevertheless, the 1923 border became the recognized international border between Syria and Israel until Israel’s 1948 War of Independence [v].
The French Mandate had ended in 1946, and the French left behind a fragile, newly formed independent Syria, riven with tribal loyalties and sectarian conflict. This conflict would burst into violent civil war in 2011, destroying any semblance of Syria as a viable nation-state. However, in 1948, Syria enthusiastically contributed to the all-out Arab attack on the newly declared State of Israel, conquering additional territory east of the Sea of Galilee, at the head of the Banias River, and at moshav Mishmar HaYarden, in far northern Galilee.
Between 1948 and 1967, Syria controlled the Golan, using the steep cliff escarpment, towering 1,700 feet above Israel, as a vantage point for constant sniper and shell-fire attacks on Jewish farmers in the Jordan Valley and the Galilee. Ever creative with different ways to attack Israel, in 1964, the Syrians attempted to dam up various streams flowing from the Golan into the Sea of Galilee. This was pursuant to the Arab states’ plan of diverting the Banias and Hasbani Rivers, which supplied Israel with 35% of its water.
The IDF stopped the Syrian dam project, but in 1965, there were three serious border clashes between Israel and Syria, provoked by Syrian shootings of Israeli farmers. The IDF responded by destroying heavy earthmoving machines the Arab states were using in their diversion project. The diversion project was eventually abandoned. Nevertheless, the water issue was one cause of the 1967 Six-Day War and also caused the collapse of the 1999-2000 Israel-Syria peace talks, when Syria demanded ownership of a water-critical piece of land near the Sea of Galilee. Currently, 40% of Israel’s beef cattle, 30% of its fruit, and 38% of Israeli wine come from the Golan [vi].
Taking back control of the Golan in 1967, Israel has provided protection not only for itself, but for another U.S. ally, Jordan. In 1970, at the request of President Richard Nixon, Israel used its position overlooking Damascus to block Syria’s attempted invasion of Jordan. More recently, Israel launched “Operation Good Neighbor,” providing needy Syrians who made the southward trek to the Syrian border with home aid kits, which contained food, medicine, and basic hygiene products. This was accomplished at the Mazor Ladach field hospital in the southern Golan. During their time at Mazor Ladach, the Syrians also received hot meals and playroom time for their children [vii].
In December 1981, after more than 14 years of Israeli military rule over the Golan, Israel’s parliament (Knesset) ratified the Golan Heights Law, extending Israeli civilian law over the region. The declared purpose of this democratic law was to end military administration over the Golan, replacing it with a civilian administration, to grant and preserve the basic rights of all the Golan’s residents, Jew and Druze alike. This law had no time limit, nor was further negotiation prohibited. However, international reaction to the Golan Heights Law was uniformly hostile, with Syria, Jordan, and Egypt accusing Israel of unlawful annexation of the Golan. POTUS Ronald Reagan adopted U.N. Security Council Resolution 497, which nullified the application of Israeli law and justice to the Golan, specifying that Israeli law in the region was without international legal effect. Reagan then suspended the strategic agreement between the U.S. and Israel. However, Israel’s Golan position didn’t change, demonstrating the security importance of the Golan Heights once again [viii].
U.S. policy regarding the Golan Heights during the past 50 years has been largely based on the sanctity of existing borders, but Syria isn’t stable enough to maintain those borders. Among the causes of Syrian instability is that Syria, historically, has been a crossroads area for various invaders. Currently, the Alawite regime of president Bashar Assad is supported by the Alawites, who constitute only 12% of Syria’s population. Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and Christians constitute most of the rest and are often at odds with Assad’s frequent use of brute force.
Thus, various groups have rebelled against Assad. One of these, Jabat al-Nusra, in August 2014 attacked the Golan’s U.N. peace-keeping force, kidnapping 45 peacekeepers, releasing them two weeks later. However, Syria’s situation, critical enough by itself, has been aggravated and exploited by Iran. Shi’ite Iran’s goal is to establish a corridor to the Mediterranean Sea, through Iraq and Syria, with the Golan as the corridor’s west end.
Since the beginning of Syria’s civil war, indications are that Syria is becoming a puppet state of Iran. Iran created a Syrian division of Hezb’allah in 2014. With an arsenal numbering more than 100,000 rockets, Hezb’allah’s regional military strength is now second to only the IDF, and it also controls Lebanon. Iran’s presence in Syria poses an ever growing threat to Israel and Jordan, both U.S allies. Thus, formal recognition by the U.S. of Israel’s sovereignty over the indispensable Golan would act as a deterrent to Iran, strengthen U.S. ties to Israel and Jordan, and ensure that the Golan’s Druze population would remain loyal to Israel. Such recognition, despite the opposition of the European Union, would make the region more stable and have a positive effect on world peace [ix].
And Israel shouldn’t forget to help its own cause. Currently, the Golan’s population numbers about 50,000 – an anemic 22,000 Jews and 27,000 Druze. Israel needs to encourage more Israeli Jews to settle in the Golan by developing the region’s job opportunities and local institutions and infrastructure. As Avigdor Kahalani said, Israel should never give up the Golan. And the U.S. should formally recognize Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan to ensure that Israel never has to [x]. (American Thinker)
[i] The Heights of Courage: A Tank Leader’s war on the Golan, by Avigdor Kahalani (New York: Praeger Publishers 1992), p. 43-73
[ii] 1973 Greatest tank battles: Israel and Syrian tank battle, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hdw0x5q_Lv0
[iii] “Recognition of Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” policy paper by Zvi Hauser and Issac Zarfati January 2018, p. 5; Defensible Borders on the Golan Heights, by Major Gen. Giora Eiland, p. 1
[iv] “Recognition of Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” pp. 6-7
[vi] Klein, ZOA statement on the Golan Heights, 7/17/2018, p. 27; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_over_Water_(Jordan_river)
[vii] EMET Newsletter 09/06/2018; ZOA statement, p. 21
[viii] “Recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” p. 19-20
[ix] “Syria’s Al-Nusra Front releases UN peace keepers in Golan,” Reuters World News 09/11/2014; “Time to recognize the Golan as part of Israel, once and for all,” Jerusalem Post editorial, 05/26/2018; “Recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan,” p.3
[x] EMET Symposium, 07/23/2018; Jerusalem Post editorial, 05/26/2018.
By: Steven Bernstein
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