No one in the city of Katzrin on the Golan Heights seemed particularly impressed when the cabinet held a special session in the Golan on April 17, in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech in the community of Ma’aleh Gamla with the region’s gorgeous scenery in the background.
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“First, the border will not change. Second, the Golan will remain under Israeli sovereignty forever,” said Netanyahu.
The truth is the residents of the Golan had nothing to be excited about. After all, Netanyahu’s declaration was not aimed at them, but mostly for the benefit of the foreign ministers of the European Union countries. Even Dmitry (Dimi) Efrazev, head of the local council of Katzrin – the only sizable town on the Golan – sounded underwhelmed.
“I don’t know what all the drama was. True, the cabinet came here. But we have been here for 50 years already. In 2000, during the period of Ehud Barak, when they talked about returning the Golan [to Syria], a lot of people came here to buy homes because of the precedent of compensation for those who owned homes in the Sinai. Loads of lawyers wandered around. We really enjoyed buying the homes back from them afterwards,” said Efrazev.
Next year the Golan will celebrate a sort of birthday: 50 years in which the region has been under Israeli rule. Of the four regions conquered by the IDF in the Six-Day War, only two of which are still left in Israeli hands today, it seems the Golan enjoys the broadest consensus amongst the Israeli public concerning the legitimacy of Israeli control.
But the demographic data for the area are also underwhelming after nearly a half-century of settlement.
Jews a minority
About 47,000 people live on the Golan today, and how many of them are Jewish depends on which official body you ask. The spokeswoman for the Golan Regional Council says 25,200 Jews live in the area. But the Central Bureau of Statistics says Jews are still a minority in the region, and number 20,500. In any case, the statistics bureau says the Golan has the lowest population density of any region in Israel – 40 residents per square kilometer – even lower than in the Be’er Sheva-centered Southern District.
These figures stand out when compared to the pace of settlement in the other region captured in 1967 and retained ever since: The Golan Heights may be only a fifth the area of the West Bank, but if it had been settled at the same pace, some 80,000 Jews would be living on the Heights today.
“When you compare us to Judea and Samaria, you are comparing us to the center of the country,” says Efrazev. “Don’t forget that Israel has no community farther northeast than us. In addition, so far the government has made minimal investments. We are not identified politically, and all sorts of private funds and other institutions that invest in Judea and Samaria don’t invest here.”
This attitude towards the Golan can be seen with regard to taxes: Only in January were local residents awarded a 12% income tax break, a deduction that many other towns in the periphery received years ago.
The communities on the Golan can be divided into three groups: Four Druze villages on the northeast Golan; Katzrin, the only urban community in the region; and over 30 kibbutzim and moshavim spread out all over the region. Each of these groups is supposed to receive funding, hundreds of millions of shekels worth over the next few years, according to a cabinet decision.
In addition to all these communities, the Golan has a single village, Ghajar, populated by Alawites, the minority group to which Syrian President Bashar Assad belongs. Ghajar is located below the Heights on the border between Lebanon, the Galilee and the Golan, and is not included in the government’s development plan.
“Over the years, they invested less than what was needed. You can even see it in the roads,” says Uri Dorman, chairman of the Galilee Development Company and one of the founders of Moshav Kidmat Tzvi on the Golan.
“I can’t say now that they are neglecting us, and there are intentions to concentrate efforts on this region for there to be demographic growth, but we must see if it really happens. There were years when they took the Golan for granted. Now it is clear we must strengthen this region,” said Dorman. In December 2013, the cabinet decided to allocate 209.4 million shekels ($55.4 million) for a plan through 2017 to develop the Golan’s four Druze communities. In January 2014, the government approved 750 new residential and agricultural plots in moshavim by 2018, which requires an investment of 375 million shekels over five years to prepare the farmland, upgrade water systems and remove landmines.
In June 2014, the government approved 65 million shekels for Katzrin. Today, almost all the communities on the Golan are in the process of expansion and the construction of new homes. If these plans are implemented, the entire region could change after years of stagnation.
Kibbutz Merom Golan was the first community founded on the Heights after the 1967 war, only a month after the fighting ended. The scenery is breathtaking, the kibbutz is surrounded by mountains, and snow can still be seen on the peak above it – making one think he is on the Swiss Alps for a moment.
“Fifteen or 25 years ago, every time a senior figure would come to the region, we would get excited. Today, it’s not like that,” says the business manager of the kibbutz, Gabi Koniel, when we ask him about the cabinet meeting held nearby. A political cloud has hovered over the area for years, but at Merom Golan they always preferred to plant another orchard instead of putting the money in the bank to earn interest, Koniel said, noting that the kibbutz just completed a round of investments in tourism of 18 million shekels, and is about to invest another 23 million.
Making a living
How do the kibbutzniks make a living?
“Most of the people work on the kibbutz, and in addition we have a few initiatives that the kibbutz invested in. We rented 600 dunams (150 acres) in Georgia to grow kiwi, the land there is cheap and the abundant water and the proximity to the Russian market makes it much easier. We also invested in a factory for special packaging in Moshav Bazra in the center [of Israel],” said Koniel.
The residents of Merom Golan work in industry, tourism and services, says the manager of the tourism branch, Shefi Mor. “We also have a lot of workers from Katzrin, from Kiryat Shmona and the Druze villages. The 2015 tourism season and the beginning of 2016 are some of the best years we have ever seen. 46,000 people came to our vacation resort this year.”
As for real estate prices, Mor says he knows of houses sold for 1.3 to 1.4 million shekels on the kibbutz, and the new neighborhood has no empty houses.
Has the BDS movement affected your agricultural exports?
Koniel: “Our mango packing house has a customer, a Belgian purchaser who has bought goods from us for years. A year ago he told us: ‘Friends, I can’t buy from you because of the situation.’ We said we would look for a different market, and turned to the Russian market. After two months there was an enormous shortage of mangoes in the markets. You think the Belgian didn’t buy? He bought big time. Came back like a good boy. You can wrap yourself up in ideology only when the situation allows it.”
Merom Golan grows apples, cherries, kiwi, vegetables, flowers, mangoes, avocados and lichi. They also raise beef cattle and have a joint dairy barn with two other kibbutzim, Ortal and Elrom. Some 60% to 70% of fruits such as mangoes and avocados are exported. The apples, cherries, peaches, nectarines and kiwi are sold in Israel. “I don’t go within 200 meters of the border,” says Eran, the head of the kibbutz orchards, who drove us to see the hot houses. “When it's a matter of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, you cannot know when they will want to fire. If someone wakes up on the wrong side [of the bed], they shoot.”
Government investment is visibly needed in the Druze villages Mas’ade, Ein Qiniyye, Majdal Shams and Buq’ata. The government has allocated 54 million shekels in these towns for education, 80 million for transportation infrastructure, 10 million for social welfare institutions and 12 million for tourism development.
In the meantime, the road signs and sidewalks in the towns do not look anything like those in the Jewish communities. The villagers are very proud of the high level of college graduates – hundreds of Druze study in Syria, Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Germany and in Israel too. They put the towns at the top of Israel’s rankings in per capita graduates of higher education.
Yet most residents still work in agriculture, and there are few other employment opportunities. They are not worried about BDS here either, but more so over other political developments – those happening just over the border in Syria.
Why do so few of the young people study in Israel?
“Some study professions in Israel such as medicine, dentistry and accounting. It is hard to get into studies in Israel,” says Muras al-Hamad of the Mas’ade local council.
On the walls in his office are large pictures of Israeli leaders – not something to be taken for granted in villages that went on a general strike in 1982 for six months to protest Israel’s decision to annex the Golan. Even today the large majority of Golan Druze refuse to accept Israeli citizenship, and are instead permanent residents of Israel. But the local council is not elected, but rather appointed by the government.
This divided attitude towards Israel is also expressed in the low tax collection rates in the area; residential property tax collections in Majdal Shams, the largest of the villages, are among the lowest in the country.
All the land in the villages is privately owned and all residential construction private, without any government support. Majdal Shams was given about 1,000 dunams of public land in 2014 for new construction. But no industrial area exists, though the master plan for Mas’ade, which is to be approved soon, has such an area.
As for Katzrin, Efrazev says development is moving apace and the communities on the Golan are a major success. “Israel always liked to talk about the Golan in national terms: The eyes of the country, the country’s water, but not too much was invested in the region,” he says. “All these years they looked at it through the prism of ‘will it remain in Israel, won’t it remain in Israel?’ – and all the development here came from private citizens.”