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The Golan Heights: Why it matters

The resource-rich, strategic Golan Heights has long been prized asset for both Syria and Israel
Israeli soldiers take part in a mobile artillery exercise near the border with Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights (AFP)

The Golan Heights have officially been recognised as part of Syria since the state acquired independence in 1944 and, despite numerous wars, claims and counter-claims, the international community continues to regard the scenic resource-rich region as part of Syria.

According to Israel's intelligence minister, however, that may change soon - in an interview with Reuters, Israel Katz said the US was being pressured to recognise the Israeli government's 1981 annexation of the area and that a move to do so was only months away.

Formally recognising the annexation of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, would mark a break in decades of US foreign policy.

What is the status of the Golan Heights?

The Golan Heights is a strategic plateau straddling Israel and Syria, which was captured by Israel during the Six Day War of 1967 and subsequently annexed.

The occupied portion of Golan refers to the western two-thirds of the geological Golan Heights, as well as the Israeli-occupied part of Mount Hermon.

The Golan is recognised as part of Syria by the UN. UN Resolution 242 calls for Israel to withdraw from Golan and other occupied territories including Gaza and the West Bank.

However, Israel has repeatedly refused to do so and in 1981 declared the territory formally annexed to Israel, along with East Jerusalem.

French-built Israeli tanks in action in this photo taken June 1967 during the six-day war on the Golan Heights (AFP)

Since 1974, the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) has monitored the ceasefire between Syria and Israel and controls the UNDOF Zone in the Golan. 

Following the establishment of a ceasefire in 1967, Israel began the construction of settlements in the Heights and moved settlers there, much as in the rest of the occupied territories.

In the late 2000s, secret talks began between Syria and Israel which reportedly included the possibility that Israel would return the area to Syria in exchange for a peace deal.

However, negotiations collapsed when Israel launched its war in Gaza in 2009.

Who lives in the Golan Heights?

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians fled the Golan into other parts of Syria in the aftermath of the 1967 war. The population of the region is now a mix of Syrian Arabs and Israeli settlers.

Until 2012, the vast majority of Golan Syrians - who are mostly Druze - refused offers of Israeli citizenship. However, the Syrian civil war has led to many applying for citizenship.

Druze residents of the Ein Qiniye village in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights hold Syrian national flags as they march during a rally marking Syria's Independence Day (AFP)

Non-citizen Druze are regarded as having "permenant residency" status by the Israeli government, but cannot participate in elections or travel on an Israeli passport.

Many of the Druze in the Golan support the government of Bashar al-Assad, although since the beginning of the civil war a number have also shown support for the Syrian opposition.

Why is the Golan Heights so important?

The Heights are thought to provide around one third of Israel's fresh water supply. Water from the Golan travels to the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River.

Compared to other regions occupied by Israel which may have primarily strategic or cultural significance, the conflict over the Golan is heavily driven by resources.

As Israel's only land border with Syria, the territory is also important in terms of defence.

In early May, a number of positions in the Golan were struck by what Israel said were Iranian missiles fired from Syria.

The strikes were the latest in a number of confrontations in the Golan since the beginning of the civil war.

Israel has claimed the continued threat from Iran, Syria and Lebanese ally Hezbollah has meant maintaining control of the Golan is vital for security.

"The most painful response you can give the Iranians is to recognise Israel's Golan sovereignty," said Katz, speaking to Reuters.

"With an American statement, a presidential proclamation, enshrined [in law]."