Days of Palestine

Tuesday, March 21

Naftali Bennett should learn from history as Israel designs an endgame in the occupied Golan


With Syria still embroiled in its own war, Israel has been actively rewriting the rule book regarding its conduct in the neighboring Arab country. Gone are the days of the potential for the return of the illegally occupied Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty in exchange for peace, as per the language of previous years. Now, Israel is set to double its illegal Jewish settler population in the Golan, while Israeli bombs continue to drop with a much higher frequency on various Syrian targets.

A one-sided war is underway; it is reported casually as if it’s a routine, everyday event. In the past decade, many “mysterious” attacks on Syria were attributed to Israel. The latter neither confirmed nor denied such claims. With the blanket support given to Israel by the Donald Trump administration in Washington, which recognized its illegal 1981 annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights, Israel’s reluctance to take credit for the frequent and increasingly destructive and bloody air raids dissipated.

Some in the Israeli government were, briefly, concerned by the possible repercussions of Joe Biden moving into the White House a year ago. They worried that the new US president might reverse some of the pro-Israel decisions enacted by his predecessor, including the recognition of Israeli “sovereignty over the Golan Heights”, due to the territory’s “strategic and security importance to the State of Israel”. Biden, a long-time supporter of Israel himself, did no such thing.

The initial concern about a shift in US policy turned into euphoria and, eventually, an opportunity, especially as Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is eager to break the right-wing’s historic dominance over the Jewish settlement movement in occupied Palestinian and Arab lands. “This is our moment,” declared Bennett triumphantly in a cabinet meeting held specifically for the further colonization of the Golan on 26 December. “This is the moment of the Golan Heights.”

The following statement by Bennett speaks volumes about the context of this, and Israel’s intentions: “After long and static years in terms of the scope of settlement, our goal today is to double settlement in the Golan Heights.” The reference to “static years” expresses his outright rejection of the occasional freezing of settlement construction that mostly took place during the so-called “peace process”. Bennett — who, in June 2021, was embraced by Washington and its western allies as the political antithesis to the obstinacy of his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu — has effectively ended any possibility of a peaceful resolution to Israel’s illegal occupation of the Golan.

Israeli soldiers can be seen at the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on 1 September 2020 [JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images]

Aside from predictable and clichéd responses by Syria and the Arab League, Israel’s massive push to double its settlement activities in the Golan is passing largely unnoticed. Not only Israel’s right-wing media, but the likes of Haaretz as well are welcoming the government’s investment in occupied territory, estimated at nearly $320 million. The headline over David Rosenberg’s article in Haaretz tells the whole story: “Picturesque but Poor, Israel’s Golan Needs a Government Boost to Thrive.” The article decries the Israeli government’s “neglect” of the Golan; speaks of employment opportunities; and merely challenges Bennett’s government on whether it will “stay the course”. The fact that the occupation of the Golan, like that of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is illegal under international law is absent from Israeli media coverage.

Israel’s main focus now is to normalise its occupation of all Arab land. If that mission has failed over the course of 54 years, though, can it succeed now?

As far as Israel is concerned, the illegal settlement enterprises in the occupied Syrian Golan and in occupied Palestine are synonymous. They are inspired by deep-rooted ideological and religious beliefs, compelled by economic opportunities and political interests and assuaged by the lack of any meaningful international response.

In the case of the Golan, Israel’s intention was, from the onset, to expand on its agricultural space, as the capture of the fertile Syrian territory almost immediately attracted settlers, who prepared the ground for massive agricultural settlements. Home to just 25,000 Jewish settlers, the Golan has become a major source of apples, pears and wine grape production for the occupation state. Local tourism in the scenic Golan, dotted with numerous wineries, has thrived, especially following Israel’s illegal annexation of the territory in 1981.

The plight of the steadfast Golan Arab Druze population of nearly 23,000 is as irrelevant in the eyes of Israel as that of the millions of occupied Palestinians, whether under siege in Gaza or living under a perpetual occupation and apartheid in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Golan population is equally isolated and oppressed but, like the Palestinians, continues to resist despite the heavy cost. Their hardship, however, is likely to increase with the expected doubling of the Jewish settler population.

Israel is, of course, aware that popular uprisings will eventually be mounted in response to its latest colonial endeavors, but various factors must be giving Bennett the confidence to continue with his plans. A major source of reassurance is that it could take Syria years to achieve any degree of political stability allowing it to mount any sort of challenge to the Israeli occupation. Another is that the Palestinian leadership is in no mood for confrontation, not least because it is, once again, on good terms with Washington, which resumed its funding of the PA soon after Biden’s inauguration last January.

Moreover, in Israel, the anti-settlement movement has long subsided, crystallized mostly into smaller political parties that are hardly critical in the formation or toppling of government coalitions.

More importantly, Washington has no interest in initiating any kind of diplomatic efforts to lay the ground for future talks involving Israel and the Palestinians, and certainly not Israel and Syria. Any such attempt now, or even in coming years, would represent a political gamble for Biden’s embattled administration.
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Israel understands this absolutely and plans to take advantage of the opportunity it presents, arguably unprecedented since the Madrid talks over thirty years ago. Yet, while Bennett is urging Israelis in their quest for settlement expansion with such battle cries as “this is our moment’, he must not underestimate the fact that the occupied Palestinians and Syrians are also aware that their “moment” is also drawing near. All popular Palestinian uprisings have started at times when Israel assumed that it had the upper hand and that resistance had been forever pacified. It remains a dangerous assumption to make. As Israel plots an endgame in occupied Golan, Bennett should learn from the past.