What’s Driving Israeli Claims to the Golan Heights?

Israel Wants the Region’s Water

Druze people take part in a rally near Majdal Shams near the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, October 2018 Ammar Awad / REUTERS

In 1981, Israel extended its law and administration to the Golan Heights, a region it had captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. The move amounted to unilateral annexation. For six months, the region’s largely Syrian Arab residents protested. But neither the platitudes of the international community nor the displeasure of the United Nations stopped Israel from building settlements, kibbutzim, wineries, and even a ski resort deep into the territory. After all, although the region is small, it is strategically significant: located a mere 31 miles to the west of Damascus, the Golan Heights overlooks southern Lebanon, northern Israel, and much of southern Syria.

Now Israel has gone a step further and called for the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump to formally recognize the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Given the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital in December 2017 along with the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, Israel’s hard-line government has reason to believe that the moment is advantageous. Indeed, Israel is presenting recognition of the Golan as a natural extension of the Jerusalem declaration, as demonstrated by a subcommittee hearing held in July brazenly entitled “A New Horizon in U.S.-Israel Relations: From an American Embassy in Jerusalem to Potential Recognition of Israeli Sovereignty over the Golan Heights.”

So far, the Trump administration has sent mixed signals in reply. In early September, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman remarked, “I cannot imagine, frankly, a circumstance where the Golan Heights is not a part of Israel forever.” But just a month earlier, National Security Adviser John Bolton saidthere was “no discussion” of recognition.

How Washington decides this issue could have far-reaching repercussions. Although U.S. recognition of the occupied Golan Heights would have no international legality, it would threaten regional stability and further entrench Israel’s chokehold on the occupied territories. But even beyond the geopolitical implications and the matter of regional security, there is still a more fundamental issue at stake: the Golan Heights

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