Nearly 20 years ago I was teaching a group of high school freshmen. Our classes started at 6:00 a.m., and most of the students came most of the time. I do not actually remember what we were discussing, but I remember saying to my students one day, “Keep your eyes on Israel.” I have followed that advice, and I know that at least one of my students has also.
Today my eyes have been on Israel because the first news I heard this morning was a news briefing with President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After both leaders took their turn to say good things about the other, Trump signed an executive order officially recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Netanyahu thank Trump immensely for his “two-fold act of historic justice.” Trump first recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Israel has always considered Jerusalem to be its capital, but other nations put their embassies in Tele Viv to prevent problems with other Middle Easterners. Numerous other U.S. Presidents campaigned on moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, but they never did. Trump said that he would move it, and he did. Now Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Both moves are well past time.
In thanking Trump for the recognition, Netanyahu said, “your proclamation comes at a time when Golan is more important than ever for our security” and cited threats of attacks by Iran from Syria. He explained, “Israel won the Golan Heights in a just war of self-defense, and the Jewish people’s roots in the Golan go back thousands of years.” He also said that Israel “shall never give it up.”
Israel was formed as a nation in 1948 against the wishes of the Arab states in the area.
Following this recognition of Israel as a nation, there were “several decades of political tension and military conflict between Israel” and the surrounding states. This tension continued until June 1967 when Israel took serious action during a conflict known as the “Six-Day War.”
The Six-Day War was a brief but bloody conflict fought in June 1967 between Israel and the Arab states of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Following years of diplomatic friction and skirmishes between Israel and its neighbors, Israel Defense Forces launched preemptive air strikes that crippled the air forces of Egypt and its allies. Israel then staged a successful ground offensive and seized the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria….
The United Nations brokered a cease fire, but there was little doubt that a big change had taken place in the region. The Arab states signed a resolution that they would not recognize or negotiate for peace with Israel. Instead they launched a surprise attack on Israel while the nation was celebrating Yom Kippur on October 6, 1973. This battle lasted for about three weeks and is known as the Yom Kippur War. It took Israel several days to mobilize completely. Then they pushed the Arab armies back and retained the Golan Heights, but it was at great cost in soldiers and equipment.
The Golan Heights are critical to the security of Israel. It is a rocky plateau that overlooks the rest of Israel. Army tanks on the Golan could do great damage to Israel.
Southern Syria and the capital Damascus, about 60 km (40 miles) north, are clearly visible from the top of the Heights while Syrian artillery regularly shelled the whole of northern Israel from 1948 to 1967 when Syria controlled the Heights.
The Heights give Israel an excellent vantage point for monitoring Syrian movements. The topography provides a natural buffer against any military thrust from Syria.
The area is also a key source of water for an arid region. Rainwater form the Golan’s catchment feeds into the Jordan River. The area provides a third of Israel’s water supply.
The land is fertile, and the volcanic soil is used to cultivate vineyards and orchards and raise cattle. The Golan is also home to Israel’s only ski resort.
Syria wants the Golan back, and Israel offered to return part of it in US-brokered peace talks held in 1999-2000. The price of return was peace, but there was a big problem. Syria wanted Israel to withdraw completely from the land won in 1967, but Israel could not give up their security. They could not return to the pre-1967 border because Syria would then control the east bank of Israel’s main source of fresh water, the Sea of Galilee – besides being able to shoot down on northern Israel.
This is why Trump’s proclamation of Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights is so important. Israel has held the area for more than fifty years, and Trump thought that it was time. However, this proclamation also came with a price. Hamas fired several rockets from Gaza into Israel, and Israel retaliated with airstrikes across Gaza. Netanyahu cut his visit to Washington, D.C. short and went home. Hamas later called for a cease fire. For the time being, Israel is staying strong, but we still need to keep our eyes on Israel.