In Depth

What is the Golan Heights - and is it part of Israel?

Donald Trump’s decision to break ranks with the UN could have serious ramifications

US President Donald Trump has signed a presidential order recognising Israel as the lawful authority over the Golan Heights, an occupied territory along the Syrian border.

Trump’s decision to make the US the only country in the world to recognise Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights has been met with shock and fury, particularly in the Arab world.

So why does the Golan Heights matter and what does this latest development in its contested history mean for the region?

What is the Golan Heights?

The Golan Heights, often referred to simply as the Golan, is a rocky plateau located along the border of Israel and Syria. It also shares smaller borders with Lebanon to the north and Jordan to the south.

Two-thirds of the Golan are occupied by Israel, about 500 square miles in total, while Syria retains control of a narrow eastern strip.

The Israeli-occupied area is home to around 20,000 Jewish settlers and another 20,000 Syrians, mostly from the minority Christian Druze sect, the BBC reports.

Meanwhile, Syria controls a 200 square mile eastern portion containing around 40 settlements.

As well as being an unusually fertile area of an otherwise arid region, the Golan Heights also has strategic significance, the BBC reports. The heights give Israel “an excellent vantage point for monitoring Syrian movements”, while also acting as “a natural buffer against any military thrust from Syria”

Who does it belong to?

As with many geopolitical issues in the Middle East, it depends who you ask. What is certain, however, is that Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the region is unprecedented.

The Golan was part of the sprawling Ottoman Empire from the 16th century to the empire’s collapse at the end of the First World War.

In 1946, the region was handed over to the newly-formed Syrian Republic. It quickly became a flashpoint for conflict between the new State of Israel and its neighbour.

Over the next two decades, the Golan acted as a base for Syrian artillery attacks on Israel and a staging area for raids by Palestinian militants, while Israel responded with its own military incursions into the region.

In 1967, Israeli forces captured the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six Day War – the same conflict that resulted in the capture of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, previously controlled by Egypt and Jordan respectively.

Since an abortive Syrian invasion attempt in 1973, Israel has had de facto control of the western two-thirds of the Golan. 

Israel formally annexed the region in 1981 but the United Nations refused to recognise the annexation as legitimate. Syria continues to lay claim to the whole territory. It says that the return of the Golan is non-negotiable for any future peace deal with Israel, with whom it is still formally at war.

What is the significance of US recognition?

President Trump’s decision to recognise Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights represents “a dramatic shift from decades of US policy”, says Al Jazeera.

The moves acts as a “boost to both Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and conservative Christians among his own base who support Israel’s primacy in the region”, says The Independent.

After the signing ceremony, Netanyahu applauded the move as “historic justice” and reiterated the government’s official stance that “Israel won the Golan Heights in a just war of defence”.

However, Saudi state news agency SPA has warned that the US recognition of Golan Heights as Israeli territory will have “significant negative effects on the peace process in the Middle East and the security and stability of the region”.

In a statement, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, said: “There is no legitimacy that can override UN Security Council resolutions, the UN General Assembly or the Arab Peace Initiative.”

Writing for Israeli daily Haaretz, Victor Kattan warns that by turning his back on the united global consensus on the Golan, the US president has “just knifed the international legal order in the back”.

He suggests that the incendiary intervention could be considered “even more dangerous than his decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital” last year, a move that sparked mass protests across the Arab world.

For the time being, however, it appears that the US will stand alone on the world stage in its controversial decision.

“The UN’s policy on Golan is reflected in the relevant resolutions of the Security Council and that policy has not changed,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

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