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Israel plans to quadruple settler population in Golan Heights

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett says the development is in the 'national interest'
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during a conference on economics and regional development in the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights, 11 October 2021 (AFP)

Israel plans to build two illegal settlements in Syria's occupied Golan Heights and double its settler populations in the name of "national interest", the Israeli prime minister said on Monday.

The Golan Heights was captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, which led to the expulsion of 131,00 Syrians from the cities of Quneitra and Fiq, and some 137 villages and 112 farms, according to official Syrian figures

Currently only four Syrian villages remain under occupation, where almost 20,000 Syrians from the Druze community are facing numerous Israeli settlement projects, including building wind turbines on their farming lands.

Addressing a conference about the Golan's future, Naftali Bennett said that his government would hold a special cabinet meeting on the occupied territory next month.

"The Golan Heights is Israeli, full stop," he said.

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He added that Israel would be presenting a plan to double and eventually quadruple the Israeli settler population in the Golan Heights, from almost 27,000 to 50,000, and then increase it to 100,000 settlers. 

"The development of the Golan is in [Israel's] national interest," Bennett said. "It is not enough to say, 'The people are with the Golan,' the government also has to support the Golan."

He said he would build two settlements in the Golan Heights, create jobs, and invest in infrastructure and public services.

Druze protest

On Monday, Syrian Druze in the Golan Heights protested against Israeli settlement policies over their land. Almost 22,000 Syrian Druze live in Majdal Shams, Buqata, Masada, Ein Qiniyye, and a similar number of Israelis live in almost 30 settlements and agriculture outposts in the area.

Israel annexed the Golan Heights and applied Israeli laws over the territory during the government of the rightwing Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1981, in a unilateral move never recognised by the international community.

In 2019, the administration of former president Donald Trump announced it would recognise Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights. As a result, Israel has named a small settlement of 20 mobile houses after Trump.

President Joe Biden's administration affirmed in June that the current policy over the Golan Heights will not change, denying media reports that it was planning to reverse the recognition of Israel's claim over the area.

Israel said it would also start planning to build a total of 7,000 settlement units in the Golan Heights by 2026.

A source in Syria's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Bennett's remarks "are aggressive and will not change the eternal truth that the Golan was and remains a Syrian Arab and will return to the motherland, sooner or later," the official SANA agency reported.

Several Arab states, including Jordan, United Arab Emirates and Algeria, have taken recent subtle steps to ease the diplomatic isolation of the Syrian government following a decade-long civil war, in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed.