Israel has had an easy time on the Golan Heights since 1974, when a United States-brokered ceasefire arrangement came into effect and a United Nations observer force deployed in a demilitarized zone between the Israeli and Syrian armies. Israeli settlers moved onto the basalt plateau, planted grape vines and apple orchards and turned the southern slopes of Mount Hermon into a ski resort. In 1981, the territory was formally annexed into the state of Israel, a move that flouted international law but failed to raise much international opposition.
Militarily, the Israeli-occupied Golan has been perhaps Israel’s quietest border, with the Assad regime — both father and son — preferring to wage their battles against the Jewish state in Lebanon.
Now, the calm may be drawing to a close. In recent months there have been several incidents of cross-border fire from the Syrian side into the Israeli-occupied territory. Most of the mortar fire and machine gun shooting appears to have come from the Syrian army, but it is not altogether clear whether the incidents were accidental or deliberate. Fighting between the regime forces and rebel groups has flared lately along the edge of the Golan. Israel has built a new security fence along the edge of the demilitarized zone and adopted a policy of retaliating against all sources of fire emanating from the Syrian side. But these stray rounds may only be the opening shots in a broader struggle in the Golan in the months or years ahead.
In mid-March, a Syrian rebel fighter delivered a video-taped message in which he harangued former President Hafez al-Assad and his son, Bashar, the current leader, for failing to seek the liberation of the Golan.
“These lands are blessed and the despicable Assad family promised to liberate them, but for 40 years the Syrian army did not fire a single bullet,” he said. “We will open a military campaign against Israel. We will fire the bullets that Assad did not and we will liberate the Golan.”
True, these were the off-the-cuff comments of a man riding in the back of a truck. But his is a sentiment that would resonate with many Syrians, whether they are for or against the Assad regime. The Lebanese Resistance, namely Hezbollah, managed to liberate South Lebanon from Israeli occupation so why can’t the Syrians do the same for the Golan?
Clearly, the Israelis are gearing up for an imminent end to the calm on the Golan front. In July last year, Major General Aviv Kochavi, the head of Israeli military intelligence, warned that foreign jihadists were flocking to Syria and moving into areas adjacent to the Golan.
“The Golan area is liable to become an arena of operations against Israel in much the same way the Sinai is today, and that’s a result of the increasing entrenchment of global jihad in Syria,” he said.
That makes it all the more curious that Israel only now has decided to begin offering oil and gas exploration contracts in the Golan region. In February, the Israeli government granted a permit to Genie Energy, an Israeli-American company headed by Effie Eitam, a hawkish former Israeli cabinet minister and army general, to begin drilling for oil in the Golan. Shareholders include the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. Dick Cheney, the former US vice-president under George W. Bush, is an advisor. The process began with geological surveys of the Golan last year that discovered the potential for sizable oil deposits at the southern end of the plateau.
Oil permits for the Golan were dropped in the early 1990s with the advent of the 1991 Madrid Middle East peace process. It was assumed at the time that within a few years a peace deal would be reached between Israel and Syria entailing the return of the Golan to Damascus. The peace never materialized of course, but it is only now that the Israeli government has renewed permission for oil exploration licenses.
Other than the security implications of drilling for oil and gas in an area that could soon become a new theater of conflict, there are significant legal ramifications too. The Golan is recognized internationally as an illegally occupied and colonized territory. Therefore, any company exploiting the plateau’s oil reserves could face punitive legal measures. One wonders what advice Cheney might proffer to Genie Energy as it prepares to pump Syrian oil from the southern Golan.
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London