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The Golan Heights, a tiny, rocky plateau that was part of Syria till 1967, is back in international headlines. On March 25th, 2019, US President Donald Trump signed a proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the disputed region, reversing decades of American policy. Trump’s move has drawn intense criticism from across the world. Member countries of the UN Security Council have refused to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over Golan Heights, which has been the centre of conflict between Israel and Syria for decades. The Arab countries have even warned of a new wave of tensions in the Middle East.

  • Golan Heights, also called Golan Plateau, Arabic Al-Jawlān, Hebrew Ramat Ha-Golan or Ha-Golan, hilly area overlooking the upper Jordan River valley on the west.
  • The area was part of extreme southwestern Syria until 1967, when it came under Israeli military occupation, and in December 1981 Israel unilaterally annexed the part of the Golan it held. The area’s name is from the biblical city of refuge Golan in Bashan.
  • Syria tried to retake the Golan Heights during the 1973 Middle East war. Despite inflicting heavy losses on Israeli forces, the surprise assault was thwarted. Both countries signed an armistice in 1974 and a UN observer force has been in place on the ceasefire line since 1974.
  • Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the closing stages of the 1967 Six-Day War. Most of the Syrian Arab inhabitants fled the area during the conflict. An armistice line was established and the region came under Israeli military control. Almost immediately Israel began to settle the Golan.

Strategic importance:

  • Southern Syria and the capital Damascus, about 60 km (40 miles) north, are clearly visible from the top of the Heights while Syrian artillery regularly shelled the whole of northern Israel from 1948 to 1967 when Syria controlled the Heights.
  • The heights give Israel an excellent vantage point for monitoring Syrian movements. The topography provides a natural buffer against any military thrust from Syria.
  • The area is also a key source of water for an arid region. Rainwater from the Golan’s catchment feeds into the Jordan River.
  • The land is fertile, and the volcanic soil is used to cultivate vineyards and orchards and raise cattle. The Golan is also home to Israel’s only ski resort

What conflicts have revolved around the heights?

  • Ever since Israel took control of the Golan Heights in 1967 there have been sporadic border skirmishes and exchanges of fire. The only major interstate conflict that’s taken place since the Israeli occupation is the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, know to Arabs as the Ramadan War and to Israelis as the Yom Kippur War.
  • During this conflict, Israel was confronted by two Arab fronts: Egypt on the Sinai peninsula and Syria in the Golan Heights, armed with up-to-date weapons from the Soviet Union. A very tough and bloody battle took place in the Golan Heights between the Syrian and Israeli forces.
  • Had it not received immediate American military aid, Israel could have lost not just the Golan Heights but the entire military campaign. Instead, Israel still occupied the Golan Heights and officially annexed it in 1981. Sporadic border skirmishes occur till this very day.

Is Israel’s occupation of the area legal?

  • Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights is illegal under international law. To understand why, it’s very important to remember three crucial resolutions passed by the UN Security Council: UNSCR 242 (1967), UNSCR 338 (1973) and UNSCR 497 (1981).
  • In its first clause, UNSCR 242 clearly calls for the “withdrawal of Israel armed forces” from territories occupied in the Six-Day War – meaning the Sinai Peninsula, West Bank and the Golan Heights. UNSCR 338, passed during the Yom Kippur/Ramadan War, calls on all parties involved to implement UNSCR 242 “in all its parts”.
  • But UNSCR 497 goes further, and explicitly highlights the illegality of the Israeli occupation: “The Israeli decision to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights is null and void and without international legal effect.”
  • Resolutions 242 and 338 in particular have informed peace initiatives ever since they were passed. Both were used to legitimise Arab demands in peace plans such as the 1982 Fez Plan and the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, both of which Israel rejected.

What changed on recent Policy shift by US?

  • For decades, the United Nations and the United States refused to recognize Israel’s seizure of the Golan Heights and the West Bank in 1967, arguing that the contours of Israel must be negotiated diplomatically.
  • Trump mentioned that, after 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability.
  • Recognition of the Golan Heights could pave the way for US recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Palestinian occupied territories.
  • In a recent state department report on human rights, the administration changed its description of the West Bank and Gaza from “occupied territories” to “Israeli-controlled territories”.

Challenges posed by the recognition:

  • Combined with last year’s Jerusalem declaration, the decision could encourage Israel to begin annexing territory in the West Bank. This would permanently extinguish any remaining possibility for a two-state solution.
  • United Nations Resolution 242 passed immediately after 1967 war and unanimously to endorse a “land for peace” agreement that would exchange Arab peace and recognition of Israel for a return of occupied territory. Neither side wanted to act first. As a result of the diplomatic stalemate, Israel continued the occupations and began building Jewish settlements on the newly controlled lands.
  • Syrians in the occupied Golan face calculated Israeli efforts to restrict their building and land use, destroy their enterprises, cleanse their Arab culture, manipulate their Syrian identity, and suffocate their freedom of movement
  • The decision(to formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to relocate the American embassy to the contested city) reversed decades of consistent U.S. policy that encouraged negotiations as the avenue to resolving territorial disputes, including on the status of Jerusalem.
  • Palestinian leaders have since refused to meet with American officials, meaning that their voices will be notably excluded from Trump’s Middle East Peace Plan.
  • Russian President may use this as a pretext to justify Russia’s annexation of Crimea. China is already claiming South China Sea. Their actions may be emboldened.
  • It may also encourage Pakistan to take similar action in PoK region in India