“The law of small numbers and great distances” is how leaders of the Golan regional council refer to the perennial complaint that they direct at the government. Even though the council’s jurisdiction spans a huge area, running from the Lebanese border to Jordan and from the Sea of Galilee to the Syrian border, the government provides the same funding for school busing per child, for example, without regard to the large distances that students have to travel to get to school.
“As a council, we spend enormous amounts of money on fuel for transportation”, says Gal Gafni, the deputy head of the regional council, who is a farmer from Moshav Ramot. “Israeli governments did invest in the Golan over the years, but this wasn’t fully commensurate with our specific needs. In some areas, there are significant gaps in infrastructure that pose an impediment to further progress. There are gaps in the investment in public buildings, in general infrastructure and particularly in internet infrastructure,” he adds.
The law of small numbers is also at play when it comes to the numbers of Israelis who have come to live in the Golan since it was captured from Syria in the 1967 Six Day-War. Despite concerted campaigns in opposition to an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan in the 1990s, there are currently only 24,000 Jewish residents in the area, over which U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty late last month. In addition to Jews, there are 23,000 Druze and 3,000 Muslim Arabs on there, bringing the total population to 50,000 in a 1,154 square kilometer (446 square mile) region.
The Golan Heights, which Israel effectively annexed in 1981, is one of the most sparsely populated areas in the country. By comparison, there are 413,500 Jews in the West Bank (not including those living in neighborhoods in East Jerusalem). The West Bank is five times larger than the Golan but has 18 times as many Jews as the Golan Heights.
One explanation for the disparity is its distance from the center of the country, in contrast to the West Bank’s relative proximity. And then there is the strong Israeli political lobby that for years has advocated West Bank settlement construction.
“For years there has been no accelerated development in the Golan,” says a senior public official with ties to the region. “There are no new factories, no mass of centers of employment. No real effort has gone into attracting people here. Many residents spend hours on the road to get to their jobs in places such as Carmiel, Kiryat Shmona or Haifa. There has been some expansion of the [Golan] communities in recent years, but there isn’t full occupancy and you can see the ‘for-sale’ signs. In the south [of Israel], there is a construction boom due to the transfer of army bases there. We don’t have that here.”
The average Israeli knows the Golan from reserve duty or nature hikes. The region is full of military bases, firing zones and nature reserves. It has unique scenery, particularly in the spring, and great sunsets, and Mount Hermon attracts tens of thousands of visitors when it’s covered in snow.
The first Israeli communities were established on the Golan right after the Six-Day War. A few more sprang up after the 1973 Yom Kippur War and a smattering of new residents came to the region from Sinai when the settlement of Yamit was evacuated in 1982.
Most Jews on the Golan Heights live in kibbutzim or moshavim collective communities. They account for about 15,000 of the region’s residents. The rest live in the town of Katzrin, which was built in 1980 and currently has a population of 8,000. Before the Six-Day War, there were 130,000 Syrian citizens in the area (who according to a Haaretz report fled or were expelled during the war), but the figure demonstrates the potential for populating the area.
Doubling the population
Now that the United States has recognized Israeli sovereignty in the Golan, local officials in the area hope it will boost the region’s economy and population. This is despite the fact that the international community as a whole, including all of the countries of the European Union, opposed Trump’s decision.
“My goal in the coming decade is to double the Golan’s population,” says the new head of the Golan regional council, Haim Rokah, who lives in Moshav Nov. “One should remember than the Golan has mostly rural communities. In Nov, we don’t have 1,000 or 2,000 families, maybe just 400. The Golan is a rural area with many nature reserves, firing zones, Jewish National Fund forests, so it can’t be a densely populated area.”
For his part, Dmitry Apartzev, the mayor of Katzrin, admits that there had been missed opportunities in the past to increase his town’s population, but he added: “In the five years that I’ve been in office, we’ve added 2,000 residents. In those years, the government made some good decisions that helped us. I believe Trump’s announcement will create significant momentum and that Katzrin will become a good place to invest in.”
For the time being, Katzrin isn’t a place that investors are flocking to. The absence of large companies in Katzrin and in the Golan in general is striking. Under the circumstances, Katzrin, 35% of whose residents are from the former Soviet Union, are stalled in a midrange socioeconomic ranking while the region’s rural communities score significantly higher.
The region has been designated as a national priority area, providing government economic benefits for businesses that invest there, but one source said investors never get as far as the Golan, investing instead in communities closer to the center where benefits are also available.
“An employer gets the same benefits whether his plant is in Yokne’am or in Katzrin,” he explains. “So why should he go any farther? There is no reason to do so. It pays for a business like [the high-tech company] Mellanox to be in Yokneam, so why should it move two hours further north if it gets the same benefits where it’s situated now?”
A new tech hub
Nevertheless, a new tech hub was recently created at the Haemir junction in the northern Golan Heights. Established by the state, the Negev and Galilee Development Ministry provided 300,000 shekels ($83,000) to renovate it as part of a plan for 43 such centers across the country. Of the 45 spots available for lease at the Golan hub, 32 have been rented.
“For many years, it was difficult to attract entrepreneurs to the Golan for geopolitical reasons” says Gafni. “In the years when there was a question mark regarding the area’s future, entrepreneurs didn’t want to come here. The investors were just residents living in the area. I believe the American declaration and the increase in the number of people in rural communities here will increase high-tech entrepreneurship in the region.”
But the entrepreneurial vacuum in the Golan over the last two decades attracted businesses that could potentially ruin a beautiful area with a great potential for tourism. Five years ago, it was oil shale extraction firms (including one company headed by former cabinet member Effie Eitam, a resident of Nov). The method would have marred the landscape, and in the wake of vigorous opposition by local residents, the project was scrapped.
Now there is a new environmental threat to the area, in the form of a government-backed plan to install large wind turbines, part of a broader government push for sustainable energy solutions. The initiative is not expected to provide employment in the Golan, but it would put money in the pockets of wealthy business people who are spearheading it and the kibbutzim and moshavim that are to be leasing land that they originally obtained from the state.
One such company is Enlight Renewable Energy, which until a year ago was controlled by Shaul Elovitch, the former principal shareholder in Bezeq, who is now under criminal investigation, along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, over suspicions that Bezeq’s Walla news website provided the prime minister favorable coverage in exchange for government regulatory concessions.
“The first time I encountered [the turbine project], I was told there would be only 30 turbines” says a local resident. “When I looked into it, I discovered that in the future, dozens, if not hundreds more, would sprout up. Some would be 210 meters [almost 700 feet high], the same as the Azrieli towers [in Tel Aviv]. As a resident, or a hiker in the area, you can’t live with that. This project would be shooting ourselves in the foot. There are 1.5 million tourists a year here, with high occupancy in rented rooms. Tel Aviv and Jerusalem residents also have an interest in keeping the Golan green, not turning it into an industrial area for electricity production electricity, as is now being planned.”
Tourism is an important part of the area’s economy, but it is far from meeting its potential. People in the tourism business would tell you that whatever there is now is due to their initiative, not due to assistance from the government, which they claim is less eager to support overnight accommodations or other tourist-related businesses.
“I’ve built my business myself over 15 years,” says Hagai Shalom, the owner of a meat restaurant in Katzrin, which also has another branch at Moshav Sde Eliezer in the Upper Galilee. “I never received any help from the government or support for my business. I didn’t get tourism promotion support either. Ten years ago, I approached various government departments but I abandoned it due to all the bureaucracy. My business is located in an industrial zone, so the Israel Land Authority gave me hell over the industrial zoning of the land it’s on. They treated me like I was in Tel Aviv. What I see around me, at the commercial center in Katzrin, is that a lot of restaurants are closing.”
The unique challenges facing entrepreneurs who choose to establish businesses in the Golan Heights is illustrated by the opening of a boutique hotel at the Custom House junction. In recent years, a historic Bauhaus building, built in the days of the French Mandate in Syria, was renovated there.
The renovations cost 30 million shekels and the hotel was scheduled to open in the summer of 2016. A raft of problems got in the way, however, mostly involving difficulties in clearing land mines around the hotel. This delayed the opening, which is now scheduled for October, according to Rokah.
Land mines are one of the greatest challenges in the Golan Heights, delaying the area’s development. Rokah says 25% of the Golan is covered with land mines. Anyone traveling in the area is familiar with the yellow signs warning about the mines, but the wider public only becomes aware of the problem when tragedies occur, such as when a child lost a leg in 2010.
Over the last three years, the Defense Ministry has been carrying out a plan to clear mines, at a cost of tens of millions of shekels. Despite the large investment, the project will only clear 10% of the mines in the Golan – mainly in sensitive areas near the Sea of Galilee and near populated communities.
“It’s going slowly, but it’s progressing,” says Rokah. “It costs tens of thousands of shekels to clear one dunam [a quarter acre]. That’s not the only issue. You need a lot of permits, among others from the Israeli army. It takes a long time for a clearing operation to begin in any specific area.”
“Why don’t they clear more mines? Because it’s expensive,” says Alex Kodish from Ein Zivan, the person responsible for the kibbutz fruit orchards.
“Instead of making the Golan bloom and removing the mines, we have cows exploding here on a daily basis. It’s a disgrace. Wherever I look, there are minefields. Even in the orchards there are some, with 200 dunams fenced off instead of having apple, cherry or nectarine trees planted on them. They look at mine clearing as an expense instead of as an investment. After all, cleared areas can be used for tourism, for building houses or for providing employment. It’s money that can repay itself.”
“There’s room here for developing the entire gamut of employment possibilities, from small businesses to high tech, according to every community’s capabilities. The younger generation is returning and taking its place here,” Kodish says.
“The more jobs there are, more people will be attracted here. Aside from political considerations, there are things taking place here that reflect what is happening elsewhere in the country. The center is overcrowded. People want to expand their options regarding where they live and work. The internet allows people to work from home. There is a host of things going on here that provide a potential impetus for moving to the Golan, regardless of one declaration or another.”