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The Golan Heights, Israel

The Golan Heights

The Golan Heights, more simply ― the Golan, is Israel‘s most northeastern region. Geographically, the Heights are bordered on the west by a rock cliff that drops 1,700 feet to the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River; on the south by the Yarmouk River; on the north by the international border with Lebanon; and on the east by a largely flat plain that stretches into Syria. The Golan Heights themselves are between 400 and 1,700 feet high.

Geologically, the Golan Heights are a plateau and part of a volcanic field that extends northeast almost to Damascus. The entire area is scattered with inactive volcanic cones. Mount Hermon is in the most northern point of Golan Heights but is geologically separate from the volcanic field.

In biblical times, the Golan Heights was referred to as “Bashan;” the word “Golan” apparently derives from the biblical city of “Golan in Bashan” (Deuteronomy 4:43, Joshua 21:27). The area was assigned to the tribe of Manasheh, although the tribe of Dan is also associated with the Golan.

In the First Temple Period (953-586 BCE), the area was contested between the northern Jewish Kingdom of Israel and the Aramean Kingdom, based in Damascus. In the late 6th – 5th centuries BCE the region was settled by returning Jewish exiles from Babylonia.

The Golan Heights, along with the rest of the region, came under the control of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE and his successors, the Greeks. In the mid 2nd century BCE, Judah Maccabee and his brothers came to the aid of the local Jewish communities when these areas came under attack by their non-Jewish neighbors. Judah’s grandnephew, the Hasmonean King Alexander Jannai, later added the Heights to his kingdom. In those days, the Golan‘s chief city was Gamla. The Jews of Gamla joined their brothers in the Great Revolt against Rome in the 1st century CE, but the revolt failed and the city fell into Roman hands in 67 CE.

The Jewish presence on the Golan Heights was renewed in 1886-1887, when Jews from Tzfat purchased lands in the Golan, and in 1891, when Baron Rothschild purchased approximately 18,000 acres of land there. New Jewish immigrants to Israel established five small communities on these lands, but in 1898 the Turks forced them to leave. Almost 50 years later, in 1947, the lands were seized by the Syrian army.

Although most of the Golan Heights were included within Mandatory Palestine when the Mandate was formally granted in 1922, Britain relinquished the area to France in the Franco-British Agreement in 1923. The Heights became part of Syria upon the termination of the French Mandate in 1944.

After the 1948-1949 War of Independence, the Syrians built extensive fortifications on the Heights, from where they shelled civilian targets in Israel and launched terrorist attacks. Over 140 Israelis were killed and many more were injured in these attacks between 1949 and 1967; heavy property damage was also inflicted.

During the 1967 Six Day War, in response to Syrian attacks, the IDF captured the Golan Heights in just over 24 hours of intense fighting. Nearly all of the Golan’s Arab inhabitants fled as a result of the war; four Druze villages remain, three on the slopes of Mt. Hermon and one in the northern Golan.

Almost immediately after the war, Israel renewed the Jewish presence on the Golan. Kibbutz
Merom Golan was founded in July 1967, at the initiative of kibbutzim in the nearby Upper Galilee and Hula Valley. By 1970, there were 12 Jewish communities on the Golan.

On Yom Kippur of 1973, Syrian forces attacked across the 1967 cease-fire line and advanced into the central Golan, almost reaching the edge of the cliff, before being pushed back beyond the 1967 line by the main Israeli counterattack. Israel and Syria signed a Separation of Forces Agreement in May 1974; this agreement remains in force.

The Golan Heights Today
Approximately 18,000 Jews live on the Golan today. They reside in kibbutzim and other agricultural settlements and in the town of Katzrin. Whereas most of the communities form the Golan Heights Regional Council, Katzrin has its own mayor and local council.

Around 17,000 Druze also live in the Golan. The Druze community in Israel is officially recognized as a separate religious entity with its own courts, which have jurisdiction in matters of personal status, and spiritual leadership. Their culture is Arab and their language Arabic, but they opted against mainstream Arab nationalism in 1948 and have since served in the IDF and the Border Police. The community has a special standing among the country’s minority groups, and members of the community have attained high-level positions in political, public, and military spheres.

The economy of the Golan Heights is based on both agriculture and industry, including tourism. In the Golan there are 5,000 acres of cultivated agricultural land, of which 4,000 acres are used for fruit orchards. Other crops growing on the Golan include subtropical plantations, wine grapes, various vegetables, and berry fruits. A further 100,000 acres of land are designated for natural pasture for 20,000 heads of cattle and sheep, for both meat and dairy production. The Golan’s dairy cattle produce approximately 60 million liters of milk per year.

There are approximately 30 industrial enterprises on the Golan, mostly based in the Katzrin Industrial Zone. Some of the better-known industries are the Golan Heights Winery, and Mei Eden, one of Israel‘s biggest mineral water distribution companies.

There is a substantial tourist infrastructure on the Golan, including the Mt. Hermon ski slopes, archaeological sites, hotels, restaurants, guesthouse facilities in many communities, and three Societies for the Protection of Nature Field schools. There are also facilities for jeep and bicycle tours, as well as horseback riding.

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