The Golan Heights: A Vital Strategic Israeli Asset
When Yitzhak Rabin ran for election as Israel's Prime Minister in 1992, he publicly declared at a giant election rally just two weeks before the election, "Whosoever gives up the Golan Heights, abandons the security of the State of Israel." Ehud Barak, as Chief of Staff, strongly supported retaining the "Golan Heights west of Quneitra" for Israel's strategic survival (i.e., everything Israel presently controls; Israel does not control Quneitra).
Only days after a UN resolution calling Israel's sovereignty over Jerusalem illegal, former US secretary of state James Baker calls for Israel to leave the Golan Heights. It appears the Iraq Study Group (ISG) has an idea to use the Golan inducement for Syrian cooperative behavior in Iraq. They never heard the old Cosa Nostra expression, "They can be bought but do they stay bought?" The Shia rulers of Sunni Syria are direct cultural descendents of the medieval Assassins; they never stay bought, as their only historical allegiance is to themselves and the Alawi tribe.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk a-Shara expressed willingness to negotiate with Israel, stipulating that Damascus is only willing to discuss an agreement with Israel providing the Golan Heights are returned to Syria to the last centimeter. This is the first part of such an agreement; what the other 'parts' are, were not yet mentioned, if that is the first, then additional parts are obviously expected. For Israel, such a move is tactical disaster and strategic suicide. This assessment deals with the Golan issue in light of the Baker-Hamilton ISG report.
Geostrategic Status of the Golan Heights
The Golan Heights is officially designated by law as part of the State of Israel. This is not merely an issue of a few tens of thousands of Golan residents, even those living there now for three generations, but a question of national life and death. This must be and is cause for serious concern; and not just for Israel. To better comprehend this issue, one must first understand what the Golan is, and what it means to Israel's survival.
Topographically, the Golan is a 60 by 20 kilometers mountainous plateau running from the upper Jordan Rift Valley and Lake Kinneret in the west, the Yarmuk Valley in the south, and Mount Hermon in the north. The total area is 1,158 square kilometers, with some 21% a nature preserve (246 square kilometers). About 100 square kilometers is agricultural land, with an additional 500 as open pasture land. There also exists significant industrial activity. On Israel's side of the Golan, there is a steep incline from the Golan plateau down to the densely- populated Hula Valley and eastern shore of the Kinneret. The border with Syria in the Golan is eighty kilometers long.
An escarpment, ranging in altitude from 100-800 meters, rises from the Kinneret, making cross-country movement difficult. The highest point is Mount Hermon (Biblical Sion) a multi-peaked mountain rising to 2,224 meters, dominating observation over the entire region up to the Damascus Basin to the east, some sixty kilometers distant. The "Purple Line" established after the ceasefire of 10 June 1967, provides an excellent defense line. The border, located mostly along the watershed, enables long range observation from a line of volcanic hills, containing strategic electronic surveillance posts. Strategically, the Heights contribute nothing to defense of Syria's capital Damascus; a map glimpse shows that due to topographical features to its west, Damascus can best be defended along the Awaj River near Sasa and the two stony deserts to the south, both practically impassable to military traffic. Any defense further west, including the Golan Heights can be easily outflanked, as the IDF did during the latter stages of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
The Golan would be strategically critical to Israel even if Syria did not have a history of using it for constant shelling and harassment when occupied. Legally, this use of the area made its capture in the Six-Day War not only strategically incumbent upon Israel, but also a legal right by international law . Additionally, the Golan was part of the League of Nations Mandate and was subtracted from Israel illegally.
The Golan Heights: Israel's Strategic Bulwark
Israeli control gives the IDF direct eye and radar contact with the sixty-kilometer plain from the Golan to Damascus. Just 20-30 kilometers from Israel's forward positions are the deployment areas of Syria's missile and armored divisions -- a mere two-hour tank ride to Israel. The Golan Heights is a defensive wall protecting Israel's north. It should be emphasized that all of Northern Israel is within direct artillery strike of the Golan, and Syria used this ability constantly until 1967 -- including several major incursions under artillery cover with the objective of occupying territory. When international 'negotiators' discuss the 4 June 1967 armistice lines, they refer to territory illegally occupied by Syria in cross-border attacks.
Today, a Syrian attack is topographically channeled via only two passes in which armored vehicles can cross. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, some 150 Israeli tanks stopped invading Syrian columns, with more than 1,400 tanks, in the "bottleneck" Valley of Tears pass in the north and the pass through the volcanic hills in the southern heights. Despite the surprise attack on Israel's most Holy Day, and despite being vastly outnumbered, Israeli troops held off the invaders for the 48 hours required to mobilize and deploy the necessary reserve forces that ultimately beat back and defeated the Syrian aggressors.
Israel's northern border has another serious topological and geographic anomaly. What is known as the "Galilee Panhandle" pokes strangely from the Hula valley northward up to the Lebanese border; a mere 5000-7000 meters wide along its northern part. This curiosity was created by hasty, unmandated decisions of the French and British Foreign Offices. On the west, the Panhandle leans on a mountain range, partially under Israeli and partially under Lebanese sovereignty and on its east by the Golan Heights.
Imagine a Syrian repeat performance of the 1973 surprise attack, this time with 4,000 tanks, 700 Scud ballistic missiles (some with chemical warheads), and tens of thousands Katyusha rockets fired upon Haifa and Tel Aviv within a 2-hour span, sowing widespread civilian panic and seriously disrupting Israel's reserve mobilization. Remember the billions of dollars damage done by Hezbollah's 4000 rockets in the summer? That was as nothing compared to Syrian Scuds, plus thousands of Katyusha's from there and additional several thousand from Lebanon, in a coordinated attack.
Other strategic issues and considerations
Population: During the time when the Golan was occupied Syria, no effort was made to populate the region or to use it for anything other then militarily -- staging area for attacking Israel. Almost completely uninhabited before 1967, the area now contains a vibrant, multi-ethnic population with tens of villages and settlements. Today, the Golan is populated by a rich ethnic mixture consisting mostly, but not exclusively of Jews and Druses. The Druze have brethren in both Israel and Lebanon, with also a small number still surviving in Syria. The Druze population of Israel is approximately 115,000 with almost 17,000 (almost 15%) living in the Golan; in four villages. There are a total of thirty-three Jewish settlements; ten kibbutzim, nineteen moshavim, one moshava, two community villages and Qatzrin, the main city (the population of Qatzrin is about 7,000). The Jewish population is about eighteen thousand (18,000). Jewish and Druze populations are about equal.
Water: The Golan is one of three sources of Israel's fresh-water needs -- the largest and most plentiful of the three -- thus it is the source for the majority of Israel's water. It comprises the headwaters of the Jordan River and the mountain streams that flow into the Kinneret. With widespread contamination of the coastal plain's aquifers, resulting from the Oslo Accords giving over control of the aquifers and rain-flow runoff from Judea and Samaria to the Palestinian Authority, the Kinneret becomes Israel's main, almost sole, natural, fresh-water source. This water flows freely into the Kinneret and then, via massive pumps using 5% of Israel's electric power, the National Water Carrier supplies this water to the rest of Israel, down to the Dead Sea.
It was not always so. In 1964, Syria, then occupying the Golan Heights, tried to divert these critical headwaters away from Israel in a blatant attempt to cripple Israel's fresh-water supply. Any damage or interruption to this water supply would strategically cripple Israeli industry and render agriculture over the entire North of the country untenable.
The Baker 'Option'
The idea of Israel depriving itself of its most important strategic hard-asset, for a mere piece of paper, signed by a single leader, would be a catastrophic mistake. This entails serious short-term and long-term consequences. In reality, Syria's national interests are not focused only on the Golan Heights, which represent an insignificant territorial addition. Syria's long-term strategic aims are to exert its hegemony over the entire Lebanon, Israel's northern territory and most of Jordan, which it considers part of "Greater Syria".
One of the options proposed by the ISG-report is placing US forces to monitor a Syrian-Israeli peace deal over the Golan Heights, following Israel's withdrawal. This includes US experts taking charge of the IDF monitoring stations on Mount Hermon and the border hills. Real-time intelligence is imperative for early warning in modern warfare. In relinquishing these highly strategic assets, even were they to remain under friendly monitoring, could become a crucial matter of national survival. For example, US intelligence on Iraqi Scud launch zones in western Iraq during Operation Desert Storm was denied Israel; despite Saddam's missiles impacting on Tel-Aviv. But there exists an additional, stronger reason, for Israel's reluctance to place US forces on the Golan. Placing US forces in harms way to guard Israel against hostile infiltrations and subsequent counter-guerrilla preventive (or punitive) operations by the IDF would inevitably lead to unnecessary tension between the two allied nations. In case of Syrian attack, the IDF would need to hesitate in its response because of the danger of "friendly fire" accidentally hitting US forces; a "Liberty" repetition is clearly unnecessary. To protect its own forces, as well as Israeli forces entering the theater, both would need to ensure much closer coordination between US and Israeli operations than has been necessary. Even the best of friends in tight spaces bump elbows. Open war between Israel and Syria, our most radical and cruelest neighbor, is not a game.
The Golan Heights represents a vital strategic asset for Israel's security, safety and even survival, particularly in lieu of current political configurations in the region.
The danger of the so-called Shiite Crescent engulfing Israel from its north and north-eastern border, with a Hezbollah dominated and Iranian-backed Lebanese Government, places before Israel a major strategic disaster; should it cede the Golan Heights to Syria. This danger is multiplied many-fold. The Golan Heights not only safeguards Israel's north, but deters, by the IDF long-range reach into the Damascus basin, any offensive options, which Bashar Assad may consider under an Iranian umbrella.
Mordechai Ben-Menachem is at Ben-Gurion University in Beer-Sheva; 84120; Israel. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mobile phone at 972-57-743-3231
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