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Israel And The Golan Heights

Summary: The Golan Heights have been under Israeli control since the Six Day War of 1967 but Israel's control is again in the spotlight . Amidst a push for an end to the civil war in Syria, will Israel be forced to concede its most strategic and formidable northern buffer zone?

In recent days, Israel has affirmed its sovereignty over the strategic Golan Heights, a plateau and hill range that delineates its nervous border with Syria.

Convening a special meeting of the Israeli cabinet at the ancient site of Jewish Gamla in the Golan, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated unequivocally that the "time has come for the international community to finally recognise that the Golan Heights will remain under Israel's sovereignty permanently."

The UN, EU, Arab League, Syria and other bodies rejected those claims. The United States State Department was quick to brush aside Netanyahu's rhetoric : "The US position on the issue is unchanged. Those territories are not part of Israel and the status of those territories should be determined through negotiations."

Netanyahu's assertion comes in anticipation of resolutions being drafted by Russia and the US toward the future of the Golan Heights. Hopes are pinned on the cessation of the civil war in Syria through negotiation.

Within that talks package, the thorny issue of the Heights could also be resolved and no doubt, global backing for Syrian sovereignty of the Golan would be part of the sweetener in any deal with Assad and his Russian backers.

Assad, if he survives in power, will certainly want the Golan Heights on the table for immediate resolution and return to Syrian control.

What has been a relatively quiet border for Israel since the seventies, has the potential to evolve into a complex and possible renewed war front in the next year or two.

What Are The Golan Heights?

The Golan Heights cover an area of approx 700 square miles. An area of natural beauty, it has been contested many times over the centuries. Fortresses in the region testify to its strategic value in controlling the important Hulah Valley below. It constitutes much of the territory known in the Bible as 'Bashan'.

From the Bible we learn that this land was assigned to the tribe of Manasseh:

29 And Moses gave an inheritance to the half-tribe of Manasseh. It was allotted to the half-tribe of the people of Manasseh according to their clans. 30 Their region extended from Mahanaim, through all Bashan, the whole kingdom of Og king of Bashan, and all the towns of Jair, which are in Bashan, sixty cities, 31 and half Gilead, and Ashtaroth, and Edrei, the cities of the kingdom of Og in Bashan. These were allotted to the people of Machir the son of Manasseh for the half of the people of Machir according to their clans." - Joshua 13:29-31.

The rest of Gilead, and all Bashan, the kingdom of Og, that is, all the region of Argob, I gave to the half-tribe of Manasseh.
Joshua 3:13
O mountain of God, mountain of Bashan; O many-peaked mountain, mountain of Bashan!"
Psalm 68:15
...and Gilead, and the region of the Geshurites and Maacathites, and all Mount Hermon, and all Bashan to Salecah;"
Joshua 13:11

Over time, the Golan Heights passed between vying regional powers. For further historical background, click here.

In the modern era, within the terms of Mandatory Palestine, the Mandate included most of the Golan Heights. However, through the Franco-British Agreement of 1923, the area was ceded to France by the British. Syria became the new landlord when the French Mandate ended in 1944.

After the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948, a hostile Syria controlled much of the Golan Heights. From here, they frequently shelled Jewish villages and communities in the north of Israel, and particularly Israeli communities around the Sea of Galilee.

Syrian state-sponsored terrorism in the region and incursions into Israel were commonplace and were carried out with impunity.

Protests in the international community against this state terrorism were ignored. Matters finally came to a head and a change of ownership, during the dramatic Israeli victory in the Six Day War.

The historic Six Day War returned Jerusalem to Jewish sovereignty for the first time in more than two thousand years. The victory over Syria also led to later Israeli annexation, 1981, and declaring sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Syria is still technically at war with Israel, however, and the Golan Heights has been a continual sore in Syrian pride after the Arab defeat of the Six Day War.

How Strategic Are The Golan Heights To Israel?

Since the establishment of an armistice line after the Six Day War, there has been relative quiet on the Golan Heights. Now, however, the threat of Islamic State, Syrian rebels or Iranian backed Hezbollah militias threaten to change this status quo and are a cause of major concern to Israel's security and regional stability.

Few doubt the strategic importance of the buffer zone the Golan Heights provides Israel. The Jewish state's control of the mountainous region has effectively ensured peace in the north and Galilee regions of Israel since 1967. Knowing how critical to maintain the area is, Israel is unlikely to concede part or all of the Golan, despite sustained pressure for her to do so.

Furthermore, there is another gain that others may be seeking from wrestling control of the Heights away from Israel. Large oil deposits have been located in the area, according to Israeli media and, if proven, is no doubt a major factor in Israel resisting any international pressure to concede any part of the Golan. The security and potential financial risks are too high.

With possible natural oil reserves on the Golan Heights, it is no wonder that Russia would seek to exploit and gain from a deal with Israel over their future.

Who Are The Interested Parties?

The question must be asked of those seeking the Heights repatriation: Returned to who exactly? Syria, from the whom the Golan Heights were captured, are hardly a negotiating partner at present. The civil war rages on and even with Russian backing, the cessation of conflict seems distant.

In fact, many factions lay claim to Syrian territory at present, particularly contesting the southern areas of Syria on what remains of the Syrian portion of the Golan Heights. Would a deal give these terror groups unfettered access to attack Israel?

Other militant Islamic groups fighting in Syria cannot be countenanced by Israel as potential negotiating partners either. All are ideological opposed to any Jewish presence in the region and derive their identities from an endgame of Israel's destruction.

Like most of the Arab world, they relish the prospect of the demise of Israel, and they are working actively to this end - it would be suicide for Israel to contemplate any serious negotiations with these anti-Israel groups.

For many, despised as he is, Syria's embattled president, Bashar Al Assad is still the most realistic route to implementing a peace deal on the ground with Russian endorsement and Western backing and hence the only viable partner for any future agreement over the final status of the Golan Heights.

Despite early insistence that Assad would have to go in respect of any deal concerning Syria's future, it seems unlikely now that he will, given the increased success of his campaign and strong support from Russia and Iran.

Once again, Israel is likely to be cast as intransigent on a regional issue, as equally it is accused of stalling the peace talks with the Palestinians over a two state solution.

But Israel, not Syria would be the major loser, hence the understandable caution in Jerusalem. Giving up the Golan Heights, captured in a totally unprovoked defensive war, would be a catastrophe for Israel's defensive capabilities in keeping its northern enemies in check.

And those enemies grow in number, strength and resolve every day.

Listening posts, surveillance, troop deployment are all necessary - the evidence since 1967 from Syria and now the groups likely to have influence in South Lebanon and south Syria are simply not to be trusted given their stated intentions and hatred toward the Jewish state.

Like Iran, they mean what they say and will exploit any perceived weakness in Israel's diplomacy to force a new war front against Israel, in the hope of also fomenting Arab nationalism and Islamic sentiment.

What Of The Future?

Coming scenarios are complex but Hezbollah, Iran, Syrian opposition groups and factions of what remains of Islamic State aligned militias in the south of Syria will doubtless try to penetrate Israel from the north, via the Golan Heights.

Prophetically this is feasible from Scripture in the 'Gog Magog' scenario but equally before that too. Israel has undergone at least 8 major conflicts, none of them in any way fulfilling the Gog Magog scenario. I contend more will come before that prophetic fulfillment is manifest.

Sadly, behind the scenes, many elements both spiritual and political are working to undermine the existence of Israel and will do all they can, regardles of Israel's security considerations, to attempt to force a concession upon the Israeli people.

Assad, if successful in getting the Golan Heights in any future deal, would doubtless reward Russia and Iran with military advantages on the Heights and in south Syria. That is a nightmare scenario Israel's military establishment fears most.

What if, under Syrian control, another major insurgency broke out across Syria after a peace deal? With radical jihadist groups on the ground again, the Golan Heights would be the most obvious and prized target for such groups and a commanding overlook for provoking Israel into a confrontation.

If we believe in the end time restoration of Israel to her land, then that fulfillment must also contain the conviction that all the land God alloted to the tribes must come into their inheritance, now or some point in the future.

Pray that Israel remains resolute on the issue - having control of the Golan Heights has prevented war and Syrian animosity has been contained. If Syria were to be gifted the Golan, proof from Syria's antagonistic historical stance toward Israel almost certainly indicates another costly war would be forthcoming.

Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep."
Psalm 121:4

About Ian Jupp

Ian Jupp is Executive Director of Return To Zion Ministries.
Ian's experience as a communicator, pastor, writer, teacher and his understanding of the Middle East, Israel, The Church and God's purposes, place him in a unique position to provide timely commentary on the urgent, prophetic events that are unfolding in our day.
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