The Golan Heights - The Politics of Water
August 2000

Commentary by Rick Francona

Golan HieghtsThe Golan Heights (Ramat Hagolanim in Hebrew; Al-Murtafa’at Al-Jawlan in Arabic) are the key to the Syria-Israel track of the Middle East Peace Process.  Syria's primary, and non-negotiable, demand has always been the return of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since June 10, 1967.*  On December 14, 1981, Israel formally annexed the Golan Heights, complicating matters, since Israeli law does not allow annexed territory to be returned to its previous owners. 

The Israeli rhetoric 

"We have always insisted on the self-evident claim that the Land of Israel must include the sources of the Jordan all the way to Mt. Hermon . . . " -- David Ben-Gurion, 1920
The Golan Heights hold tremendous emotional appeal for the Israelis. Prior to 1967, Syrian artillery units bombarded settlements in northern Israel from positions in the Golan. The heights enjoy a commanding view over the Sea of Galilee and the entire northern plains of the Jewish state. Many Israelis claim that the heights should remain in Israeli hands to prevent a reoccurrence of the shelling. However, technology developed since 1967, especially the advent of ballistic missiles, render the heights much less important militarily. If it wished, Syria can place high explosives, or chemical munitions, almost anywhere in Israel from locations north of Damascus.

In 1996, following the election of the Netanyahu government and the collapse of the Syria-Israel talks, the Israeli public relations machine revived the “cold start” theory, that Syrian forces could launch an attack to seize the Golan without warning. Given the dismal state of Syria’s armed forces and the state-of-the-art Israeli intelligence and surveillance stations on the Golan ridge and the 9,000 feet high peak of Mt Hermon (Jabal Al-Shaykh) – both of which can observe as far north as Damascus – a “cold start” is unrealistic. 

The reality 

The Golan Heights is home to many rivers and streams that are the major source of water for the Sea of Galilee, as well being a major source of water for the Yarmuk River on the Syria-Jordan border, and the Ruqad River in Syria. These constitute the headwaters of the Jordan River. The Sea of Galilee basin supplies as much as 40 percent of Israel's water requirements. There are two underground water sources – the Sea of Galilee is the country’s only surface catchment area – but all three together barely meet Israel’s needs. The situation will worsen as the population increases, and as neighboring Jordan expands its exploitation of the Jordan River that forms the border between the two countries. Israel has fully exploited the Jordan on its side of the river. 

If Israel were to return the Golan Heights to Syria, virtually all of the headwaters of the Jordan would fall under Syrian control – they are in Syria proper or in Syrian-controlled Lebanon. In the early 1960’s, Syrian engineers attempted to divert the some of the waters that feed the Sea of Galilee into the Yarmuk basin. Israel regarded this as a threat to its security, claiming that Syria had plenty of water and that these actions were aimed at causing water shortages in Israel. 

Israeli hardliners believe that only Israeli sovereignty, or at the very minimum, Israeli control of the Golan Heights will guarantee Israel’s water supply. 

* On October 6, 1973, Syrian forces overran the Golan Heights, but were unable to retain control for more than a few days. Israeli forces pushed to within 18 miles of Damascus before a United Nations-brokered ceasefire took effect. 

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