Ramat HaGolan

View of the Circassian village of Rehaniya, and Mount Hermon covered with snow in Northern Israel, in March, 2019. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

“America Is With the Golan”

President Donald Trump’s announcement this past Purim, recognizing Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, was met with excited reactions among most of the Israeli public and politicians. Hamodia’s A. Pe’er took a trip to the Golan the next day and met the people celebrating — but also worried.

View of the blossoming almond trees in the Golan Heights, February, 2019. (Maor Kinsbursky/Flash90)

For nearly fifty years, signs have been hanging throughout the Golan Heights, stating in Hebrew “Ha’am im haGolan, the nation is with the Golan.” Indeed, the nation was with the Golan, but it also sought international legitimacy. Now that has happened — and signs can be seen declaring, “America is with the Golan.”

“After 52 years, it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance for Israel and for regional stability,” President Trump said in his historic declaration. Prime Minister Netanyahu quickly publicized his thanks and the gratitude of the Jewish nation for the move.

These lines are being written from the Golan itself. Israeli and American flags are waving in various places, and the residents are feeling heady. “It might not have a direct, immediate impact on us,” employees at the main supermarket in Katzrin said, “but it’s good to know that a country like America is not boycotting us anymore.”

Before heading to the Golan, I visited my friend and longtime colleague, the renowned Eretz Yisrael researcher Yehudah Ziv.

An Israeli army watchtower is seen above the Druze village of Majdal Shams and the Israeli -Syrian border, April, 2008. in the Golan Heights. (Lior Mizrahi/FLASH90)

“Go, go,” he told me. “But don’t skip over the town of Al Arabiyah.” He smiled. “It’s ours.” And then he related that when the Syrians first reached the Golan Heights, they found a group of towns with Jewish names, because our forefathers had settled and lived there. For example, they came to the ancient Jewish town of Yehudiya, a name that, of course, they did not like. But when they changed the names, the people decided to maintain the order of the alef-beis in the community registers, and left the letter yud at the beginning of the new name of the town, which they now called “Yarabia.” Based on this method, interesting names were given to other sites in the Golan, but none could blur the memory of their Jewish past, from the days of Bayis Sheini and the rebellion against the Romans.

There is similar background to the name of the spring called Einot Silukiya, just north of Katzrin. The name Silukiya, Ziv tells me, relates to a formerly Arab town of that name, which was located in the Golan until the Six-Day War. The Arab name is a memory of the early city of Selevkaya, apparently so called for Selevkos the fourth, captured by Alexander Yannai and later fortified by Yosef Ben Matisyahu.

Remnants of the shul in Gamla, unearthed 30 years ago. (Moshe Milner/GPO)

Ziv says that the remnants of some 40 shuls have been discovered in the Golan Heights, indicating large, established Jewish settlements that endured through the various eras. In the year 70 C.E., at the end of the great rebellion, with the churban of Yerushalayim and the Beis Hamikdash, the Jews from the center of Eretz Yehudah were exiled to the periphery, the Galilee and the Golan. Jewish settlement was widespread and developed, and towards the end of the third century, due to the growing need for spiritual community centers, construction of shuls began in the Golan towns. Some of the shuls have been excavated in recent years, and a small number were restored; some of the restorations are still in progress. But most of the shuls have not yet been excavated and no findings have been unearthed. All of them are remnants of early Jewish settlement in the region.

Ziv also advised me to begin my visit with ancient Katzrin. The paths of ancient Katzrin offer visitors a glance back to the past, as they can view an ancient shul that was restored, along with an olive press where they produce oil with traditional methods.

The adornment of a menorah found in the ancient shul in Katzrin, in the Golan Heights.
(Moshe Milner/GPO)

Ancient Katzrin is one of 27 Jewish settlements from the Mishnaic period, an era when the Golan Heights thrived. The village was built near the spring and its residents built an impressive shul with ornamental stones, which served them for many generations. The Bedouins who arrived there and saw the ruins of the beautiful shul called it “Katzrin,” which means “fort” or “palace” in Arabic.

Another stop visitors should make is the ancient shul in Um Al-Kantir, or “Ma’ayan Hakshatot” in Hebrew, thus named because of the unique arched structure over the spring that passes near the shul. The shul there was built in the fifth century C.E. It is one of the most beautiful and ornate shuls that have been excavated in Eretz Yisrael — and the only one in which the bimah of the aron kodesh was fully preserved. In recent years, restoration work was done using advanced technological methods, and construction is nearing completion.

The remnants of a small but elegant shul were uncovered in an ancient Jewish town from the era of the Gemara. Aside for the shul there, we found an olive press, Jewish adornments and writings. The village is named for Ein Neshot — a spring near the eastern bank of the Meshushim Stream in the center of the Golan. Although it is one of the smaller shuls in the ancient Golan, it is impressively adorned with many Jewish motifs, including the phrase “amen amen selah shalom.”

The Kelaat Nimrod fort, which is more than 1,000 years old, in the Golan Heights. (Einat Anker/GPO)

From there, Ziv advised me to go to the Gamla reserve, where the remnants of the ancient Jewish settlement were found. The residents there valiantly fought the Romans at the end of the Bayis Sheini period. A shul was uncovered there that appears to be the oldest one in Eretz Yisrael. Gamla is known as a symbol for Jewish heroism, whose residents refused to capitulate to the Romans.

In excavations at the site, the remnants of a shul from the great rebellion period were found, along with a water cistern, a mikveh, public buildings, and many stones and arrowheads that were shot, indicating that a rough battle was fought at the site. When you get there, ask to see one of the smallest but most important findings found at the site — tiny coins made simply of copper. Each coin is etched with the words “L’geulas Yerushalayim hakedoshah.” This proves that even during their most dire times, and under conditions of poverty and siege that they suffered, the Jewish fighters and residents of Gamla did not forget their biggest aspiration — liberating the land, namely Yerushalayim, from the Romans.

Back to the Present

The American recognition of the Golan as part of Israel did not surprise Israel’s citizens. After President Trump moved the American embassy to Yerushalayim, objected to the nuclear deal with Iran, cut UNRWA funding and more, most Israeli citizens realized that the occupant of the White House is a true friend of Israel.

Now, after years of venture capitalists hesitating to open factories in the Golan, it is expected that American investment in developing the Heights will increase, which will also encourage Israeli settlement. This reverse-domino effect will likely encourage European investment as well. Despite the EU firmly refusing to recognize the Golan as part of Israel, the hope is that this won’t prevent European investors from cooperating with Israeli development there. The State of Israel must maximize the Trump recognition by removing those Syrian minefields that remain, expanding access roads, extending train routes and connecting the Golan to the rest of Israel.

View of a waterfall in the Banyas Nature Reserve in the Golan Heights, Northern Israel. July 9, 2008. (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

The Golan Heights is not a very big area in the northeast of Israel. It spans about 1800 square kilometers, of which 1200 are under Israeli control; the rest is Syrian. The Golan Heights has many streams, which provide about a third of the water of the Kinneret, the most important and central freshwater source in Israel. The name “Golan” appears the first time in the Torah in sefer Devarim, where it was the name of a city in the land of Shevet Menashe, in the Bashan region: “V’es Golan baBashan laMenashi.” This city served as an ir miklat, a city of refuge, and was far from other areas settled by Jews. Perhaps that is the connotation of its name, Golan, which means “found far,” from golah, or galus, exile. The Golan is in the land that was given to half of Shevet Menashe.

During the time of the Mishnah and the Gemara, there were many Jewish settlements in the Golan, as Chazal and the archaeological evidence indicate. From the beginning of the Ottoman rule until the middle of the 19th century, the Golan was an area with few permanent residents, and the de facto rulers there were Bedouin tribes. Druze towns were established in the northern Golan Heights, four of which exist to this day. At the end of the 19th century, four efforts were made by Jews to settle the Golan, but they were unsuccessful.
Before Israel captured the Golan in 1967, some 150,000 Syrians lived there. Most of them were Muslims, and there were some Druze, Cherkassians and Bedouins as well.

Cattle at Marom Golan Kibbutz, in the Golan Heights. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

In the first 20 years of the state of Israel, the Syrian Army bombarded Galilee towns and IDF forces on the border, from the Heights area. In these battles, nearly 200 Israeli citizens and soldiers were killed.

In 1967, during the Six-Day War, the Heights were captured, which ended the threat of bombardments in the Galilee. Since then, 33 Israeli towns have been built in the Golan, the central one being the city of Katzrin. During the Yom Kippur War, the Syrian Army tried to reclaim the Golan, but failed.

Following the civil war in Syria that divided it into regions controlled by various groups, Israel began to lobby for international recognition for the Golan to remain in Israeli hands. But until today that was not successful. The world has not yet officially recognized the Israeli presence in the Golan, but the United States, under President Trump, has now done so.

Today, the Israeli part of the Golan is home to 50,000 people, half of them Jews and the rest Druze and Alawites. The Druze are entitled to Israeli citizenship but only a few hundred have accepted it. The rest consider themselves Syrian citizens.

The economy in the Golan is based primarily on industry, agriculture and tourism.

The first tweet in which President Trump announced his recognition of the Golan as part of Israel.

The head of the Golan regional council, Chaim Rokach, was the first to express his joy at the Trump declaration: “The announcement came in the middle of Purim, and of course we were doubly happy on that day. We have been waiting for this for 52 years. Although Israel declared sovereignty on the Golan in 1981, recognition by other countries will help us.”

Rokach says that he hopes that the declaration will help work against boycotts abroad on items manufactured in the Golan. “This recognition by the United States can take off the BDS sanctions, for example, against the Ramat Hagolan Winery. I hope it will have a positive economic impact on our products and produce. To date, we’ve had to sell them only domestically. Now America is an open market as well.”

He does not think the declaration will change the relations between the Jews and the Druze and Arabs in the Golan. “There is excellent cooperation at the civilian level. Day to day, we are not busy with recognition or not; we are busy with building,” he explains.

President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu present the document that the president signed recognizing the Golan Heights. (White House)

Yehuda Harel, one of the fathers of the Jewish settlement in the Golan, sounds less excited. “I think it’s an important moment, but not historical. Five prime ministers who tried to reach an agreement with Syria couldn’t do it because the public saw the Golan as part of Israel in any case. The Golan was part of Israel before Trump’s announcement and will remain that way after. The Golan issue disappeared from the political agenda years ago, and Trump’s announcement is a signal of the end of the process; it is not the process itself.”

He says the reason the Golan has become an integral part of Israel is because of the work by the settlers over decades. “Fifty years ago, the Golan was not considered part of Israel, or even part of Eretz Yisrael. It wasn’t even called the Golan; it was called the Syrian Heights. We, the settlers, changed it by settling here — it wasn’t the government or the state. The settlement came from right and left, religious and secular, and it was hard, persistent work. As a result, Am Yisrael changed its outlook and today, millions visit and vacation in the Golan each year.”

Israel welcomed the declaration, but there are those who are anxious that this is perhaps a gift before America imposes a peace plan that many will not like. They think this might be the candy to sweeten the bitter pill on the way — much like the “candy” of recognizing Yerushalayim as the capital of Israel.

At the same time, there are those who believe that the primary reason for the declaration at this time has to do with the strategic situation in the Middle East, namely in Syria. It is part of an American–Israeli response to a meeting held recently in Teheran between Ayatollah Khamenei and Bashar Assad, and the head of the Revolutionary Guards, which in essence, control Syria. The purpose of the meeting was to present a united front against Israel — from Syrian to Lebanon. Two days later, there was a meeting between Netanyahu and Putin, and America began to tighten the sanctions against Lebanon and Hezbollah.

Now, the recognition is meant to show the strength of the relationship between America and Israel, and to minimize the possibility of Iranian aggression, directly or via Syria and Hezbollah. The second thing is a message to Putin that he should not remain in this alliance with Iran and its allies.

A U.N. outpost on the border between Israel and Syria. (Yisrael Katzover)

“The American recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights will have diplomatic and security ramifications,” says Brig.-Gen (res.) Shlomo Brom, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, who has had a long career at the IDF. Militarily, he does not believe the move will lead to an escalation with Syria, beyond the tension that already exists, and it won’t have particular security ramifications.

“When Israeli law was applied in the Golan in 1981,” Brom says, “there were no security ramifications and that was a time when Syria was in a totally different military position vis-a-vis Israel, and it’s reasonable to assume that now, as well, Syria will refrain from a direct military conflict. It’s possible that its motivation to try and harm Israel — which is already very high due to Israeli activities in Syria — means it will support more of Hezbollah’s efforts to build infrastructure to carry out attacks in the Golan Heights at any point in the future.

“I believe that the international community and the Middle Eastern nations will treat this the way they treated the American decision to move the embassy to Yerushalayim. They will continue not to recognize Israeli sovereignty on the Golan.” He believes some nations, like Turkey and in the Arab world, will try to raise the issue in the United Nations and reaffirm Resolution 497 — a move likely to be thwarted by an American veto in the Security [Council]. Such a resolution is likely to pass in the General Assembly, where there would be a majority in favor. Beyond that, no operative steps on the international stage are expected.

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Recognition of the Golan Through the Eyes of Arab Caricature Artists

The American recognition of the Golan did not gain too much attention in the Arab world, perhaps because of the security situations and the internal problems that each Arab nation is dealing with. But the ones that did focus on it more than any other powers were the Arab cartoon artists — who displayed quite a creative streak.

Imad Hajaj

Imad Hajaj, the well-known Jordanian cartoonist, came out the day after the announcement with a cartoon entitled “An Illegal Gift to Israel.” His cartoon depicts Prime Minister Netanyahu holding a sack with an Israeli flag. Inside the sack is the Dome of the Rock with the word Jerusalem on it. President Trump is adding the “Golan” to the sack.

Cartoonist Osama Hajaj, Imad’s brother, printed a cartoon in the Qatari paper where he works comparing Trump’s decision to recognize Israel’s sovereignty on the Golan to the Israeli reaction to rocket fire from Gaza to Moshav Mishmeret, near Netanya. It is entitled “The Golan With a Pen and Gaza With a Missile.” On the right side there is the “Golan” where you see a hand labeled “Trump” signing on Israeli sovereignty. On the left side, labeled “Gaza,” a hand labeled “Netanyahu” is writing with a missile indicating the bombardment of Gaza.

Osama Hajaj

A cartoon by Abdullah al Subaei of Qatar employs many of the anti-Semitic motifs of Jews taking over the world. The octopus with the hair that looks like a yarmulke is Netanyahu. In one arm he is holding the Dome of the Rock, symbolizing Har Habayis and all of Yerushalayim. In another arm, Netanyahu is holding the Golan that Trump recently recognized as being Israeli. At the same time he is bombarding the Gaza Strip.

On the right and left, two Arab figures appear to be approaching Netanyahu. The one on the left is Mohammed Bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, holding one of Netanyahu’s arms, his eyes on the Dome of the Rock, on Yerushalayim. The man on the right side is meant to look like a representative of Oman, kissing Netanyahu’s feet, as he visited the sultanate a few months ago.

Abdullah al Subaei

Cartoon artist Mikhail Chipatchi of Turkey addresses Trump’s recognition of the Golan with a large snake representing Israel trying to advance towards Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

While the cartoonists focused on the subject at length, this group doesn’t have much influence on the Arab Street.