In a move early last week that attracted very little international attention, Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced that his government plans to invest 1 billion shekels ($310 million) in a plan to double the number of people living in the Golan Heights. Under the plan — which is designed to transform the Golan into the technological capital of renewable energy in Israel — two new neighborhoods will be built in the town of Katzrin and two new settlements will be established.
Israel conquered the Golan Heights in 1967 and annexed the territory in 1981. While most of the international community still considers the region “Syrian territory occupied by Israel,” the Trump administration recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights in 2019 and the Biden administration has expressed no interest in changing that position.
Some 50,000 people currently live in the Golan Heights — with roughly half of them Jewish Israelis and half in Druze Arab villages. Some of the Druze population opposes Israeli control. But the nature of the Druze opposition, its intensity and the size of the affected population are very modest in comparison to the more familiar rancor and emotion of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza. Nonetheless, in the only reported public condemnation of Israel’s Golan Heights announcement — from the Syrian government, which harbors hope of recapturing the territory it lost five and a half decades ago — the Syrians criticized the plan with many of the same words used by Palestinians and others to oppose settlements and Jewish population expansion in contested West Bank territories. Syria’s protest gained virtually no traction. And that’s no surprise.
Prior to the 1967 war, the Golan Heights was viewed as a significant strategic vantage point from which Syria threatened the security of the state of Israel. Upon its capture, Israel was able to secure its northern boundary and protect its citizenry. More recently, however, the area is seen as a strategic buffer between Israel and the civil war-torn world of Dictator Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, which has been engaged in painful to watch self-destruction for most of the past decade.
Assad has become an international pariah. There is little hope or expectation that Israel will engage or negotiate with the Syrians. But until now, Israel has not invested in the Golan Heights region to the same extent it has elsewhere in the country. That is going to change. The announced development plan is consistent with a promise made by Bennett last October to develop the region, and the approach fits nicely in the range of noncontroversial undertakings that the fragile, yet surprisingly durable governing coalition led by Bennett and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid is comfortable doing.
The Golan Heights has been a valued part of Israel for 55 years. We are pleased to see the development of plans to enhance housing, business and technological activity in the area and to make the Golan Heights more than just one of the country’s most attractive places to visit. JN