He meant it belongs to Syria, and he was responding to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told a meeting of the Israeli Cabinet on the Golan, “The Golan Heights have been an integral part of the land of Israel since ancient times; the dozens of ancient synagogues in the area around us attest to that. And the Golan is an integral part of the state of Israel in the new era. I told [Secretary of State John Kerry] that I doubt that Syria will ever return to what it was.”
That is, of course, also true and entirely unremarkable. But thus begins another round of UN condemnation of Israel resting on silly propositions. In this case:
- That Syria — ruled by a war criminal in the midst of a civil war with other groups that include war criminals — has a valid claim to anything; and
- That Israel is wrong because the UN is miffed.
A bit of relatively recent history is useful here.
An Israeli was raised in the Galilee sleeping every night in a bunker to avoid Syrian shelling from the Golan Heights — Hamas and Hizb’allah are latecomers to the war crime of indiscriminately firing at civilians. As a child, he helped on the family farm. While riding the tractor, his father couldn’t hear the mortars fired by the Syrians down into the fields. The child’s job was to be within eyesight of the tractor along the edge of the field near some trees. When the mortars began, he would wave a large red flag to catch his father’s attention, at which his father would slip off the tractor and hasten for shelter. Not exactly milking the cow.
Things changed in June 1967 when, after intensified shelling by the Syrians, the IDF captured the Golan. Israeli soldiers stood on the Heights and looked down into Israel’s Jezreel Valley. Their new understanding of the dire circumstances at the bottom shocked them, and they left a marker that remains today. “From here,” it reads, “You look ten feet tall.”
At great cost in the lives of military personnel, Israel retained the Heights in 1973 after Syria launched an offensive on Yom Kippur.
Israel would have been within its rights to annex the Golan Heights — in 1967 or in ’73. The UN line about “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force” (ever applied only to Israel) to rational observers means the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by offensive force; otherwise defense would have no meaning. Israel acquired the Golan in defense, and retained it in defense.
It was understanding that insecure boundaries could result in additional wars — in the case of Israel, not least because the Arab countries were/are still working to overturn the 1948 independence of Israel by force — that the 1967 UN Resolution 242 contained the security promise to Israel of “secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”
Although Israel could have annexed the territory, it did not. In 1981, the government did end the application of military law on the Heights and institute Israeli civil law; the change in status applied to people, not to rocks. Even in its frenzy to condemn, the 1981 Security Council correctly described Israel’s actual actions as less than annexation, calling it a “decision to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights,” and said that anyhow it was “null and void and without international legal affect.”
It may not have had “international legal affect” but for the 12,000 Druze living there, it had enormous economic and social affect, allowing them to live and prosper along with Jews, while Israel created its most peaceful border. Even now, during the horrific Syrian war — complete with barrel bombs, chemical weapons, starvation, beheadings, crucifixions, and ethnic cleansing — the Israeli side of the Golan remains so secure that Israel has been able to open its border, cautiously, to some casualties from the Syrian side for treatment in Israeli hospitals.
But still it is the Israeli part of the Golan that transfixes the UN.
One could not do better to make Israel’s case than to cite Moshe Arens — retired Israeli diplomat, Defense Minister, and aeronautical engineer. “According to the second law of thermodynamics there are no reversible processes in nature. Nothing can return exactly to its original state. This law may not hold in international relations, but the exceptions are few and far between.”
Syria is unlikely to return to its “original state” which, in fact, was only its state determined by colonials and held for a few decades in the middle of the 20th Century. The UN, however, may believe it has a better chance of reversing the laws of thermodynamics than of bringing the war of Syrians and others parties to an end.