In May this year, news headlines warned of a dangerous escalation in tension between Iran and Israel. Sources including the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights noted that Iranian forces, lying inside Syria, fired rockets towards Israeli troop positions in the Golan Heights. In response, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) launched a counter-attack against those suspected Iranian positions. The United States warned Iran of being ‘provocative’ while Russia called for both parties to commit to de-escalation.
There has been plenty of analysis of Israeli-Iranian tension in the immediate aftermath of the Trump administration’s rejection of the multi-national-sponsored Iranian nuclear agreement. However, less attention has been given to the physical and strategic geography of the Golan Heights. Often simply called Golan, the reference to ‘heights’ is a useful reminder that being elevated is highly significant in the contested and complex geographies of the region. When we refer to terrain more generally, we draw attention not only to the origins of physical features such as hills and valleys, but also their strategic significance in terms of mobility, visibility and durability.
Terrain, including heights or elevated land, is axiomatic to military geography and geopolitics. Israel seized the Golan after the 1967 Six Day War, after the IDF defeated the armies of Syria, Egypt and Jordan. The territories were never returned to Syria after the conflict ended. While Syria called on Israel to withdraw, there has been little prospect that this would indeed be accepted.
The Golan matters to Israel in four distinct ways. The first is simply about height itself and what it can facilitate. At its highest point of Mount Hermon (9,232ft), the occupied zone overlooks the Jordan Valley. Much of the Golan is plateau with an average elevation of 1,000ft and before 1967 Syrian forces were able to monitor Israeli activity in the lowlands from here. Syrian forces could also fire on Israeli settlements and positions and enjoy a commanding strategic advantage.
The second aspect involves water. The highland plateau may only be about 450 square miles in area but it is a major source of water for the River Jordan. Some 30 per cent of Israel’s freshwater supplies originate from the Golan Heights. The river water is essential to enabling Israeli agriculture and settler communities in Golan. Winter rainfall and snowfall replenish the River Jordan, which then snakes its way towards the Sea of Galilee.
If elevation and water security matter, so too does the third factor, demographics. Some 20,000 Israeli settlers were encouraged to migrate to the occupied Golan post-1967. More than 150,000 Syrians fled back to unoccupied Syria leaving around 20,000 Syrian Druze residents who refuse to accept Israeli citizenship. The Druze are Syrian citizens but administratively classified as residents of Israel. Israel formally annexed the Golan in 1981 and the occupation has not been recognised by any other state party. The so-called Purple Line (the ceasefire line following the 1967 conflict) acts as a de facto border between Israel and Syria.The final factor worth noting is about soil fertility. Farming, vineyards and orchards flourish in the Golan. The climate and topography is quite distinct from the semi-arid environment of Israel. There is even a Mount Hermon ski resort.
In 1974, after the previous year’s Yom Kippur war pitting Israel against Egypt and Syria, the political geography of the Golan Heights altered as a demilitarised zone (DMZ) was established. A UN-sponsored intervention led to this initiative, which called for an area of separation and two equal forces established either side. A UN observer force (UNDOF) is responsible for ensuring that the sector remains peaceful. The DMZ is 80km long and anywhere from one to ten kilometres wide. The hilly terrain means that the UN observer positions tend to be dotted around high points in order to ensure the zone remains free of military forces. There are 44 permanently manned positions and 11 observation posts. The Syrian capital Damascus is only about 60km away.
In November 2012, three Syrian tanks violated the terms attached to the DMZ. Their unauthorised entry was widely reported and led to fears that the integrity of the UNDOF mission would be undermined. It was the first such violation since 1974 and Israel accused Syrian forces of being responsible for mortar fire. Any Syrian military activity will inflame Israeli strategic sensitivities, as the country was assaulted by Syrian artillery between 1948 and 1967.
Negotiations over the Golan have occurred periodically. It’s hard to countenance now, but in 2003 President Bashar al-Assad spoke of his desire to resurrect peace talks. At stake was the recovery of the Golan Heights. Israel has been prepared to discuss territorial return but only if it did not return entirely to the pre-1967 border. In other words, some territory would be ceded but not all. Israel is not prepared to give up control of the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
In current circumstances, there is little prospect of any peace and/or territory deal. The IDF recognises only too well that when it comes to the Golan, height really matters.
This was published in the July 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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