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Golan Heights: A Storied Past, An Unpredictable Future

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The Golan Heights: A Storied Past, An Unpredictable Future

Situated just north of Lake Kinneret overlooking the Huleh Valley in Israel and the Al Raquad Valley in Syria sits a plateau, which rises to between 700 and 1,400 feet above sea level and is perhaps the most strategic piece of land in the Middle East, depending on one's perspective. (Jewish Virtual Library, 2001) The antiquities left behind by the Romans, Turks, Greeks, and Mongols, just to name a few of the empires that have conquered this area, date back several centuries. This relatively small area of land, roughly the size of Queens, New York, is approximately 40-45 miles long and 15.5 miles across at its widest point, and controls the Kinneret, Israel's only lake and foremost water resource. (Bard, 2002) This much-disputed piece of land is called the Golan Heights.

Israel's History of the Golan Heights

Israel's claim to the Golan Heights dates back centuries to Biblical times when Abraham promised the Bashan Region, the Biblical name for the Golan Heights, to the people of Israel. Israeli citizens did not settle in the Golan, however, until the First Temple Period, which began in 953BC. Half of the Israeli tribe of Menasseh settled in Transjordan and later named the area after another Biblical city of the same name, Golan. (Web Golan) During this era, the town acted as a refuge for criminals awaiting trial, which could also account for the town's name, as the word "golah" means exile. In 732BC, the Israelis were exiled from the Golan by an Asyrian Emperor, Tiglath-Pileser II, and did not return to Bashan until after 586BC, which was the start of the Second Temple Period. From 732BC to 586BC, the Asyrian Emperor populated the entire region with citizens from various parts of his empire. When the Israelis returned to their homes, though, they lived in peace alongside the non-Jewish inhabitants. (Camera Media Report,1995) The Golan Heights changed hands several more times and was influenced by various cultures throughout the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Talmudic Periods from 65BC to 636AD. From 636 to 1516 during the Islamic Conquest, also known as the Mamluk Period, most of the Jewish settlements from previous periods disappeared entirely and the Druze were the primary inhabitants of the Golan. The Druze remain in certain areas of the Golan to this day. (Israeli Government, 1998)

Besides a brief occupation by the Egyptians, from 1831 to 1840, the Golan Heights were regained by the Ottoman Empire following the Ottoman Conquest in 1517. The Turks maintained control of the Golan for 400 years, until 1917. (Camera Media Report, 1995) Under the Ottoman Empire, although the Golan was administrated from Damascus and controlled from Istanbul, Israeli families began to flourish in the region and the first permanent settlements of the modern era were established. Jews began buying purchasing land as well under the Turkish rule. In 1891, more than 18,000 acres of land was purchased by Baron Edmund de Rothschild, which was meant to be used for a Jewish settlement in the Golan. (Wikipedia, 2002)

In 1917, Britain defeated the Turks and conquered Palestine. Three years later in 1920, Britain and France divided up the former Ottoman Empire, with France receiving mandate over Syria and Britain taking mandate over Palestine. After the British realized there was no oil in the Golan, they made a deal to exchange the Golan Heights with France for a section of land in Syria, Mosul or Metula, where they felt the chance of finding oil was much greater. An important stipulation of the trade was that France had to give up any and all claims to Palestine. (Camera Media Report, 1995) Once the French took control of the Golan, all land purchased and owned by the Jews in the Golan was taken away. Jews, however, found ways to finance and maintain farms in the Golan until the entire Golan Heights was seized by Syria in 1947, after Israel's War of Independence. Israel annexed the Golan Heights during the Six Day War is 1967, although the annexation has never been internationally recognized. (Wikipedia, 2002)

Syria's History of the Golan Heights

Syria's claim to and history of the Golan Heights is quite different from Israel's claim. Although most of the conquering empires throughout time are undisputed, many historical facts that both sides offer contrast considerably. The Syrian's or more precisely Arab's first links to the Golan Heights date back to the 2nd and 3rd millennium, when the region was inhabited by Ammorites, Kan'anians, and Arameans, all tribes of Arab origins. These Arab tribes established kingdoms in different sections of Syria and the Golan until 732BC, when the Assyrians took control of the Golan Heights. (Web Golan, 2002) For the next 200 years, the Caldanian, Babylonian, and Persian Empires annexed the Golan Heights for varying periods of time before the Hellenistic Period began, in 332BC. During the Hellenistic Period, two Greek kingdoms, one located in Syria and another in Egypt, disputed ownership of the Golan until 1st century BC, when the Romans conquered the region. (NIC: Damascus, Syria) Some sources have the name Golan dating back to this period and suggest the Romans began calling the area Golan, which was taken from the Greek name for the area, Gaulanitis. (Wikipedia, 2002)

In Syrian history, during much of the Roman Period, Syria's culture and civilization thrived and progressed a great deal. This was partly due to the independent nature in which the Ghassanian Arab princes ruled the land. The Ghassanian Arabs' independence contributed to the cultural development not only throughout Syria, but in the Golan Heights as well. The Ghassanian Arabs' influence continued through the Byzantine Period, when the Syrian king, Alhareth, assumed to the second rank in the Byzantine state, the rank of Patriarch. All of this culminated in an Arab victory over the Byzantine Empire and Arab control of Syria and the Golan in approximately 636AD. (NIC: Damascus, Syria)

For the next 400-500 years, many of the settlements in the Golan Heights were abandoned and nomads were the predominant inhabitants, as the Golan served as a buffer zone between the Crusader kingdom in Palestine and the emirate in Damascus. Permanent populations did not return to the Golan until the 15th to 16th centuries, when the Druze began settling in the Golan Heights. Sudanese, Algerians, Kurds, Turkomans, and Arabs from Samaria arrived shortly after the Druze in the northern Golan and Mt. Hermon regions. (Nyrip, pp 5-16) The Ottoman Empire took control



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