The Golan Heights, is a narrow plateau on Israel’s northeastern border which Israel gained from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel annexed the territory in 1981. Before 1967, Syria used the strategic advantage of the Heights to attack low-lying Israeli towns and villages in the Galilee, as well as to divert water flowing into Israel’s main water sources.
The four hundred-plus square-mile strategic plateau is 7.5-12.5 miles wide and is characterized by steep escarpments on its western, southeastern and southwestern exposures, overlooking much of northern Israel. The headwaters of the Jordan River and the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) are located on the Golan, which traditionally provide Israel with over one-third of its water supply. The Golan Heights are only 40 miles from Damascus. The area is prominently mentioned throughout the Bible. There are thirty-three Israeli-Jewish communities on the Golan, comprising over 20,000 Jews, and an equal number of Druze inhabitants.
Syria and Israel have had hostile relations since 1948, with a few brief periods of bilateral negotiations beginning in 1991. The primary dispute between the two countries is over Israel’s control of the Golan Heights and other border issues, water rights, normalization and Syria’s material support for terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as Syria’s increasingly close relationship with Iran.
Syria declared war on the nascent Jewish state in May 1948, and fought against Israel in the War of Independence. Between 1948 and 1967, Syria used the Golan Heights as a springboard for attacking farmers and fisherman in northern Israel. The Syrians repeatedly shelled Israeli towns below the Heights, and sniper fire was a constant danger. As a result of these actions, 140 Israelis were killed and many more were injured. During this period, Syria also interfered with fishing and other Israeli water projects in Lake Kinneret. Syria repeatedly threatened to contaminate the water if Israel attempted to pump water from the Kinneret without Syrian permission and also sought to divert Banias, one of the Jordan River water sources.
In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel launched a preemptive attack against Egypt, Syria and Jordan, and during the fighting, gained the strategic Golan Heights. Syria joined with Egypt to attack Israel in the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, but Israel successfully repelled attacking Syrian forces and gained an additional strip of the Golan Heights. Following the Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreement of May 1974, Israel withdrew from the eastern strip of the Heights captured during the 1973 War, the town of Kuneitra, and a few strips of territory gained in 1967. A disengagement zone was created where United Nations troops are stationed, and on either side of that zone, limited Israeli and Syrian forces are positioned. This area has been relatively free of incident since the conclusion of the 1974 agreement. Today, over one thousand members of the United Nations peacekeeping forces (officially called the UN Disengagement Observer Force or UNDOF) monitor the cease-fire line in the 220-yard-wide no man’s land which separates Syrian and Israeli checkpoints. UNDOF is comprised of military troops (from Austria, Canada, Croatia, India, Japan, Poland and Slovakia), military observers, international and local civilian staff.
Israel and Syria have engaged in periodic bilateral negotiations over the past two decades, with the key issues being the status of the Golan Heights, access to water, security arrangements (Israel wants to maintain a monitoring station on Mount Hermon after any Golan withdrawal), Syrian support for terrorist organizations, implementation of normalization, and other difficult matters. Syria first agreed to direct, bilateral negotiations with Israel at the Madrid Peace conference in 1991. Publicly, Syria neither supported nor opposed the September 1993 Israel-PLO accord, but a period of bilateral negotiations began in 1994, with a series of meetings at the State Department in Washington. Media reports document a series of back channel contacts between Syrian and Israel in the mid-1990’s, with American businessman Ronald Lauder charged by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an intermediary. In January and March of 2000, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak met in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and in Geneva for U.S.-mediated peace talks. Talks ceased for several years with the outbreak of the Second Intifada and the death of Hafez al-Assad in 2000 and the succession of his son Bashar al-Assad to the presidency. In May 2008, Syria and Israel issued simultaneous statements declaring that they were beginning peace talks under Turkish auspices. At this writing, there is no indication that such contacts are continuing.