Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government approved one billion shekels ($320 million) in spending on Sunday to build homes, develop infrastructure and create jobs in the Golan Heights, which could give the region a long-awaited, and badly-needed boost.
For most Israelis, the Golan Heights is an idyllic place of breathtaking scenery, open spaces, grazing cattle and some of the country's best wineries. But the area has suffered decades of government neglect. Salaries are low and prices are high, and access to basic services like medical care and supermarket shopping is poor.
Prof. Doron Lavee, who teaches economics and is dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at Tel-Hai College, said the Golan’s woes are not much different from the rest of Israel’s periphery, mainly a lack of good jobs.
But these issues are compounded by being so far away from the center of the country. By car, a trip from Katzrin, the capital of the Golan, takes at least two hours; a bus takes even longer, and a train isn’t an option.
“Everywhere outside the center of the country, there’s a problem of job opportunities – jobs themselves and good salaries, which are 30 percent less than in the center,” he said. “So even if you had the same job in the Golan Heights, you’ll get paid less. But, of course you don’t have those same job opportunities.”
Lavee said the average monthly income for Golan residents in 2019 was just 7,614 shekels – or about $2,440 at current exchange rates – about 80 percent of the nationwide average. Nearly half of the region’s wage earners are making the minimum wage.
Meanwhile, even Katzrin, the capital of the Golan and the only full-fledged urban settlement in the region, ranks just four out of 10 on the government’s index of socioeconomic parameters. The region’s Druze villages rank either two or three.
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Like the rest of Israel’s north, the Golan’s job market is skewed toward employment in low-paying sectors like agriculture, construction and low-tech industry. The best-paying jobs, typically found in professional services, finance or high-tech, are scarce. Only 13 percent of the Golan’s industry is high-tech, compared with 43 percent in Tel Aviv.
While there are government tax benefits and other assistance for businesses in the Golan, its distance from the center and poor infrastructure outweigh the benefits.
Low salaries aren’t balanced out by a lower cost of living. Lavee’s consulting firm, Pareto Group, found that even if the cost of buying a home in the northern Israel and Golan Heights is about 25 percent less than in the center, the cost of almost everything else is steep. He estimated that prices, on average, were 20 percent higher than in the center of Israel. All told the cost of living is as much as 15 percent more.
The high cost of living is the downside of the Golan’s biggest lifestyle asset – wide-open spaces and a scattered population. There are fewer businesses and services, so there’s less competition between them. Katzrin has one supermarket and the closest hospital is in Safed, a 40-minute drive away.
Politics and pandemic
Prof. Eyal Zisser, who teaches Middle Eastern history at Tel Aviv University, in a recent article attributed the government’s hesitancy to invest in the Golan to the political question mark that has hovered over the region in the decades after it was captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Israel effectively annexed the area in 1981, but over the following decades, successive governments signaled a willingness to return it to Syria in exchange for peace. During talks with the United States in 1999-2000, then Prime Minister Ehud Barak discussed returning the region to Syria in exchange for a peace agreement.
The Syrian civil war and Donald Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the region in 2019 (as well as the Biden administration’s failure to rescind it) now makes any such land-for-peace deal more unlikely, Zisser said.
European countries and businesses will likely continue to refrain from doing business in the Golan Heights because they still regard it as occupied territory. But, Lavee said, for the rest of the world, the Golan’s political status has long ceased to be an obstacle.
Despite all the drawbacks of living there, the Golan’s population has grown relatively quickly. Since 2008, it has increased by 30 percent and its Jewish population has grown by 39 percent. For Israel as a whole, the population has grown 25 percent in the same time period.
More people move into the region each year than move out. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics,1,300 people settled in the Golan in 2020 and 1,000 picked up and left. That said, the rate of turnover is very high – the entire population is about 53,000.
The high turnover is a function of high expectations followed by dashed hopes, Lavee said. “The Golan is attractive – the problem comes when people try to build up a life there, find a lack of opportunities and that they can’t manage to make a good life there,” he explained. “So there’s very high levels of immigration into and out of the Golan Heights.”
The coronavirus pandemic may help the Golan solve that problem, as more and more Israelis are working either full- or part-time from home.
Bennett said as much when he unveiled the Golan initiative this week: “In the last two years, Israelis have discovered that they can work from home and don’t need to live in the center [of the country]. The Golan Heights could be a wonderful option for people who want clean air and a high quality of life.”
Beyond the effect of working from home, the government’s plan seems designed to fill in the lifestyle gaps that deter more Israelis from living there.
Some 576 million shekels of the new budget will be spent on housing-related investment. Although the Golan does not suffer from a housing shortage, the government’s plan paves the way to nearly double the number of homes for Jewish residents in the area to 15,000 in an attempt to double the Jewish population over the next decade. The move could give the Golan enough population heft to attract more businesses and services.
Another big item in the new budget is the 160 million shekels allotted to improve quality of life, such as better medical services and transportation. Another 162 million will be spent on economic development – building on the existing tourism industry and encouraging research and development in agriculture and alternative energy. This should be buttressed by the construction of more wind farms and solar farms.
With so few voters in the Golan – the entire population amounts to one Tel Aviv neighborhood – it has never stayed on politicians’ radar for long. Aid has been promised in the past, never to arrive. It is left to be seen whether the government will stay the course.