The Golan Monster

The shuttling between Jerusalem and Damascus this week on the part of Fred Hof, an adviser to U.S. envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell, has restored hope for reconciliation with our neighbor to the north, while reminding us that, in the eyes of most of the world, Mount Hermon is in Israeli hands only temporarily.

On the eve of Hof's visit to the region, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's National Security Adviser Uzi Arad said that for strategic, military and settlement reasons, and because of water, scenery and wine - yes, wine - Israel must remain deep in the Golan Heights.

Some of those who oppose withdrawal from the Golan might be interested in a book by Haifa University historian Dr. Yigal Kipnis - "The Mountain That Was As a Monster" (Magnes Press). Kipnis, a former air force pilot, has pounced on the "facts" that Golan activists and other interested parties have fed to the Israeli public concerning the Israeli-Syrian conflict during the 20th century. As a resident of Ma'aleh Gamla in the southern Golan, he is a bone in the throat of those who seek to maintain the status quo.

Kipnis writes that from the perspective of the Galilee panhandle inhabitants, who until June 1967 had been bombarded from the east, the image of the Syrian Golan as a "monster" is justified. However, in his opinion, a precise examination of the Israeli-Syrian conflict reveals that the sense of threat and fear has existed, perhaps even more so, on the other side - looking from the mountain to the valley, from Syria into Israel. Kipnis argues that the Syrian's fear of Israel grew stronger in direct proportion to Israel's increasing military might and superiority over Syria. Exaggerated fear and mistaken information, he wrote, fed into each side's perception of the other as demonic.

While the general public in Syria has been a source of security concern, Israel has been militarily superior ever since its founding. Thus, following the War of Independence, Damascus had to accept Israel's control of most of the territories in the Golan designated as demilitarized in the armistice agreement, as well as the establishment of kibbutzim there. The agricultural lands that served as the pretexts for border incidents in the 1950s and 60s all lay beyond the armistice line. Syria also tacitly agreed to the expulsion of inhabitants from the demilitarized zones and the demolition of their villages.

Up until 1967, Syria's reactions to Israeli measures were aimed mainly at maintaining its honor and international status without risking conflict that would go beyond local exchanges of fire. To compensate for its military inferiority, Damascus initiated acts of terror that caused relatively little damage. The project intended to divert the waters of the Jordan River, which Israel bombed in 1966, was mainly for display.

During that period, Israel often initiated conflicts in order to impair plans to divert the headwaters of the Jordan, as well as maintain and augment its deterrent capability against Syria. Tauntings on the border were aimed at dragging the Syrians into bombarding Israeli locales and opening Syrian skies to Israel Air Force planes. Most of the Israeli public was unaware that the bombarded inhabitants of the outlying Israeli locales were actually "soldiers" in the struggle for control of the demilitarized zones, even though Israel had conceded those territories in the armistice agreement.

In the Six-Day War, it took the Israel Defense Forces less than 30 hours to break through the front line and occupy most of the Syrian Golan. During much of that time, the only battle was against the clock - as the time set for the truce drew near.

Since then, argues Kipnis, the military gap between Israel and Syria has only widened. Evidence of this is seen in the latter's hesitancy to initiate direct war (and in Damascus' use of allies, like Hezbollah and Hamas). In Israel, a myth was propagated to the effect that the territory occupied in 1967 was thinly populated and full of fortified bunkers, military camps and minefields. Until then, however, 223 Syrian locales had in fact existed on the Golan, with a total population of about 130,000 - eight times the number of Israelis living there now.

Although the settlement movements encouraged Israelis to migrate to the Golan, in 1977 - with the end of the labor movements' political hegemony - only 1,500 Israelis lived there. Forty-two years after Israeli settlement in the Golan began, the Jewish population there is about 18,000 - far fewer than the target set by governments and settlement movements.

In an interview with Haaretz, Uzi Arad claimed that "The majority of Israel's governments insisted that Israel would stay in the Golan Heights." He did not mention, or did not remember, that after the Six-Day War Levi Eshkol's government decided to propose peace with Syria (and Egypt) on the basis of a withdrawal to the international borders, demilitarization of the Golan and a guarantee that the waters of the Jordan would flow into Israel. In 1979, Menachem Begin led a peace agreement with Egypt, which stipulated that the international boundary would be the basis for a peace agreement with the other Arab countries, and called on Syria to join the process. The governments of Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu (in his fist term in office), Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert have all made efforts to achieve an agreement based, at the very least, on an extensive withdrawal from the Golan.

Contrary to what is commonly thought, in 1967 Syria did not reject the Israeli peace proposal - for the simple reason that the American administration did not transmit it to Damascus and Cairo. In the meantime, the Eshkol government decided it was okay to settle the Golan a bit.