Israel’s Occupation of the Golan Heights Is Illegal and Dangerous

A recent article argued the Golan should remain Israeli forever. That would reward aggression and set a dangerous international precedent.

United Nations personnel stand at a lookout point as they monitor the Israel-Syria border in the  Golan Heights, on Jan. 21, 2019.
United Nations personnel stand at a lookout point as they monitor the Israel-Syria border in the Golan Heights, on Jan. 21, 2019. (JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)

Israel has been increasing calls for the international community to recognize its claimed sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan. Some geopolitical pragmatists have argued, including in Foreign Policy, that Israel’s claim should be recognized, because there is no workable alternative. These arguments, however, show complete detachment from the realities of the Golan.

To date, no other country has accepted Israel’s asserted authority over the Golan. Instead, many maintain a status quo whereby they ignore Israel’s occupation while quietly batting away its attempts to seek recognition. This approach ignores Israeli repression in the Golan.

Israel’s motives in the Golan are clear; the region is invaluable for its natural resources and strategic military plateau. Additionally, Israel has, in violation of international law, established 34 settlements and at least 167 settlement businesses in the Golan. Many observers claim that Israel cannot leave the Golan because doing so would starve its economy, threaten its security, and displace its citizens.

Such arguments simply divert attention from Israel’s human rights abuses and expansionist agenda. As recently as 2010, peace negotiations that included the return of the Golan to Syria were ongoing. Perceived threats to Israel are not much greater now than they were in 2010, when Hamas, Iran, and Hezbollah all held strong influence in the region. Additionally, Israel’s utilization of the Golan’s resources and its establishment of settlements are both patently illegal and do not in any way justify Israel’s presence. The fertility and utility of the land cannot validate its unlawful seizure.

The international community’s options in the Golan are limited. Giving in to Israeli pressure would fundamentally undermine international law and set a dangerous precedent that would not only be exploited by Israel in the other territories it occupies, but also in places like Crimea, where Russia’s heavily criticized annexation eerily mimics what Israel has done in the Golan. Any recognition of Israel’s claim would usher in a new world order in which aggression and occupation create sovereignty.

Given that Israel’s existential “need” for the Golan is overstated and the international community has no legitimate legal option to recognize Israel’s claim, what is left for many is the 50-year-old status quo. The status quo, however, ignores perhaps the most important reality: life in the Golan.

Native Syrians’ lives in the Golan are characterized by systematic oppression and rampant discrimination. This manifests itself in Israel’s cultural purge, family separation tactics, land appropriation, settlement expansion, business development manipulation, residency suppression, and militarization of the region.

The starting point is Israel’s “Druze” narrative—which seeks to emphasize religious Druze identity, which Israel finds acceptable, while abolishing Syrian Arab identity, which Israel finds problematic. The Druze narrative is Israel’s smokescreen, and internationally it has worked. The world knows only the Golani Druze, not the Golani Syrians. This narrative equates to the destruction of culture as seen prominently in native Syrian schools, where children are educated through a propagandist curriculum tailored to diminish Arab identity and history.

Today, about 27,000 Syrians live in five villages in the Golan. Israel’s 1967 invasion forcibly displaced over 130,000 Syrians and razed 340 communities. The estimated diaspora of those forced from the Golan now living elsewhere numbers over 400,000. Those displaced residents have the right of return under international law; however, Israel has summarily blocked this right, indefinitely dividing families and friends.

The Syrians remaining in the Golan have been integrated into a system of subjugation. Within weeks of seizing the Golan, Israel began building settlements, sometimes on top of Syrian villages it destroyed. Today, Israel heavily subsidizes and incentivizes settlement growth—the settler population in the Golan has increased by one-third in the last eight years alone—while instituting discriminatory policies that suffocate native Syrian industries. This forces Syrians to work on settlements or in faraway Israeli towns at low-paying jobs where they are often subjected to prejudice.

Israel has unlawfully appropriated 95 percent of the Golan while maintaining restrictive land regulations on the 5 percent left to native Syrians, limiting the possibility for Syrians to expand their villages and profit from their agricultural lands. Since Israel’s illegal annexation, it has issued more than 1,570 demolition orders against Syrians while steadily building up its own settlements.

The overwhelming majority of native Syrians reject Israeli citizenship, preferring to suffer the indignity and problems of having “undefined” citizenship status. Israel has long attempted to change this and validate its authority in the region. Most recently, Israel sought legitimacy by holding municipal elections for the first time. The elections demonstrated a thorough rebuke of Israel’s authority with voter turnout between zero and just over 3 percent across four of the five Syrian villages.

Syrians in the Golan continue to live under Israeli military occupation as well. The region is blanketed by minefields, which have killed or injured dozens of Syrians, most of whom were children. Israel also maintains numerous military outposts in and around civilian population centers despite being asked to remove them for safety reasons.

The Golan, for the most part, has remained untouched by the Syrian conflict. Seeing the violence in Syria, many ask if the Golani Syrians would really prefer to be handed over to a violent dictator. Answers to this question vary dramatically within the community, yet for 51 years the community has unwaveringly answered the inverse question, unequivocally rejecting Israeli control. The lesser of two evils does not legitimize or validate the lesser evil.

The reality of the Golan is not assimilation, acceptance, and progress; it is institutionalized discrimination and oppression. Accepting this by recognizing Israel’s claim over the Golan or maintaining the status quo is irresponsible, unworkable, and unlawful. A comprehensive peace deal that complies with international law is the only feasible way forward.

Nizar Ayoub is the director of Al-Marsad—the Arab Human Rights Center in Golan Heights.

Aaron Southlea is a legal researcher, analyst, and advisor for organizations working on international human rights and rule of law development in the Middle East and East Africa.