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Old Monday, November 19, 2007
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Post Golan Heights

Golan Heights

Golan Heights, region in southwestern Syria, occupied by Israel since 1967. The Golan Heights covers 1,250 sq km (483 sq mi). The territory has been disputed between Israel and Syria since the Six-Day War of 1967.

The Golan Heights is a hilly, basalt plateau with a largely rocky terrain. A high escarpment overlooks Israel to the west and provides a vantage point over the city of Damascus and the southern Syrian plain to the north and east. In the northern part of the region is a mountain range that extends into Lebanon and rises to a peak of 2,814 m (9,232 ft) at Mount Hermon, the highest point on the Golan Heights. Mount Hermon is divided among Lebanon, Israel, Syria, and several United Nations (UN) demilitarized zones. The foothills surrounding Mount Hermon are used primarily as pastureland for livestock raising, while more fertile, agricultural land is located mainly in the south. The Golan Heights and its surrounding area contain various freshwater sources that are of great economic importance to Israel; these include the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias), a large reservoir located below the region's western boundary.

Prior to 1967 the Golan Heights was home to approximately 100,000 Syrians, many of whom were of Druze or Circassian ethnicity. The principal religions of the Golan were the Druze religion and the Sunni and Alawite sects of Islam. Much of the population was involved in supporting Syrian-army bases located in the region. When Israel drove the Syrian army from the Golan in the Six-Day War, most of the local population fled into Syria. Several thousand members of the Druze community remained, however, as well as a small number of Alawites. Today the Golan has a population of about 33,500 (2002 estimate).

This number includes about 15,000 Druze, 17,000 Israelis, and 1,500 Alawites. The Druze live in a number of towns and villages, particularly in Majdal Shams, the largest non-Jewish town in the Golan Heights. Much of the Druze and Alawite population is engaged in orchard agriculture, cattle grazing, and wage labor in Israeli communities. The Israelis live in approximately 32 agricultural communities in the southern Golan Heights. Many Israeli army officers stationed at military bases in the Golan Heights have settled their families in the government-planned town of Katzrin. Most of the Israeli population is involved in cereal, cotton, vegetable, and dairy farming and the region's growing wine industry.

In recent years, the Israeli government has made efforts to expand tourism in the Golan Heights. Local tourist attractions include the archaeological sites at Gamla, the Bāniyās Spring, an ancient synagogue in Katzrin, and the ruins at Hamat Gader, where ancient baths from natural hot springs have been rehabilitated. Another point of interest is the Valley of Tears, where one of the largest tank battles in history took place during the Arab-Israeli War of 1973. Scenic and recreational attractions in the Golan Heights include natural pools, waterfalls, gorges, and the ski slopes of Mount Hermon.

The Golan Heights became part of the French mandate of Syria following World War I (1914-1918), and the region was later passed to independent Syria. After the founding of Israel in 1948, Israelis started a number of kibbutzim, or farming cooperatives, in northern Israel near the Syrian border (see Kibbutz). Syrians fired on the settlements from fortified posts on the western ridge of the Golan. The dispute that ensued over the strategically important region was one of the factors that precipitated the Six-Day War of 1967. During the last two days of the war, Israeli armed forces attacked the Golan Heights. Most of the Syrian army and civilian population fled, and the area was immediately placed under Israeli military administration. In the years that followed, numerous Israeli settlements were established in the region on formerly Arab-held land.

Syria tried but failed to recapture the area in October 1973, when Syrian and Egyptian armies attacked Israel in the 1973 war. The Israeli army suffered heavy casualties in the surprise attack, but defeated the Arab forces, thereby gaining additional territory from Egypt and Syria. Part of the Golan Heights was demilitarized as a result of the disengagement agreements signed following the war. By the terms of these agreements, Al Qunayţirah, a former center of Circassian settlement destroyed in the fighting of 1967, was returned to Syria along with some of the additional land captured in 1973.

Since that time, a buffer zone between the two armies has been patrolled by UN forces. In 1981 Israel effectively annexed the Golan Heights by extending Israeli civil law to the region. Syria has refused to recognize Israeli authority in the region, as have most other countries.

Peace talks between Israel and Syria began in October 1991, centering largely on the status of the Golan Heights. By 1994 the negotiations were deadlocked. In March 1995 Israeli and Syrian leaders agreed to meet for a new round of talks in Washington, D.C. Israel offered to withdraw from the Golan over a four-year period, and Syria countered with a demand for an 18-month withdrawal. Neither side compromised significantly, and in March 1996, following several attacks on Israelis by fundamentalist Muslims, Israel suspended the talks.

The talks were further postponed after Israel's conservative Likud Party, which was far less likely to cede territory than its predecessor, won the country's May election. Whereas Syrian president Hafez al-Assad wanted to continue the talks from the point reached with Israelís former leadership, Likud prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that future negotiations would have to start over from the beginning. Neither course was pursued, and negotiations were nonexistent during the tenure of the next Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak (1999-2001). Subsequent Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon shows little sign of willingness to compromise, and the same is true of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who took office upon his fatherís death in 2000.
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