In many ways, the war in Syria has been a gift to Israel. For reasons quite similar to the US, the government in Tel Aviv has an interest in helping to prolong the war for as long as possible. Mostly crudely expressed by the poisonous anti-Muslim demagogue Daniel Pipes as “support whichever side is losing in the Syrian civil war,” this is a classic divide-and-rule imperial strategy.
The Syrian government is an oppressive state which abuses human-rights. It is also a state which is independent of US designs on the region, and often acts in downright opposition to them. The most obvious example of this is the government’s longstanding logistical support for the armed wing of the Hezbollah movement, the main force in Lebanon’s resistance to Israel. Hezbollah fighters are supporting the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in the war.
For this latter reason, both the US and Israeli governments are happy to let the fighting continue for as long as possible, since it means that Syria is less of a threat to the US and Israel’s regional dominance. A side benefit of all this for Israel has been to allow it to increase and further entrench its occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights.
This is a region of south-western Syria, which has been occupied illegally by Israel since the war of 1967. Although the Israeli occupation of Palestine’s West Bank and Gaza Strip is fairly well understood by now, the occupation of the Golan Heights gets less attention.
In 1967, when Israel occupied Gaza, the West Bank and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, it also invaded Syria’s Golan Heights. More than 130,000 native Syrians living in the area were either transferred forcibly from their homes, or compelled to flee by the threat of the war. This represented most of the population of the territory.
Israel then set about destroying villages in the Golan. Within a month of the occupation, Israel began building settlements on the rubble; these were and are all illegal under international law. The Syrian inhabitants of those villages were forbidden by Israel from returning to their land. The situation in many respects is very much like Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, albeit on a smaller scale.
In 1981 – in defiance of international law and the UN – Israel annexed the Golan, designating it to be part of itself according to its own laws and practice. This is a move that it has not made in the West Bank and Gaza, because it would come under immense international pressure to grant the 4.5 million Palestinians in those occupied territories a vote in the Israeli parliament. This is something that Israel, the so-called “Jewish state”, will never countenance, unless it is compelled to do so by outside pressure.
Since then, Israel has increased its occupation of the Golan incrementally. During the current war in Syria, Israel has commenced exploratory drilling for oil in the territory. The parent company of Afek, which is carrying out the drilling, includes on its advisory board former US vice-president Dick Cheney, media tycoon Rupert Murdoch and Larry Summers, the former secretary of the US treasury.
Last week, it was reported in the Israeli press that Tel Aviv has authorised the construction of 1,600 new houses in the illegal settlement of Katzrin. According to Al-Marsad, a Syrian Arab human rights centre in the occupied Golan, the settlement is built over the destroyed Syrian villages of Qasrin, Shqef and Sanawber.
Al-Marsad explains that “due to [Israel’s] discriminatory land, housing and development policies, Syrian residential areas [in the Golan Heights] are severely overcrowded. As a result of severe restrictions imposed by Israeli planning committees, it is close to impossible for the native Syrian population in the remaining Syrian villages in the occupied Syrian Golan to obtain building permits.” This reflects the situation in, for example, occupied Jerusalem, where Palestinians are rarely granted such permits. “As such,” says Al-Marsad, “the Syrian population is forced to build homes without building permits, as this is the only way to meet their housing needs. Consequently, Syrian home owners run the risk that their home could be destroyed: as was the case with Mr Bassam Ibrahim whose home in Syrian village, Majdal Shams, was demolished by the Israeli authorities last month. Currently, the Syrian owners of between 80-90 houses have been notified that their homes are also due to be demolished.”
The war in Syria remains a convenient cover for Israel’s occupation of this much-neglected region of Syria to continue unabated. Much like its occupation of Palestine, Israel’s occupation of Syria must come to an immediate end.