As Syria Reels, Israel Looks to Expand Settlements in Golan Heights – Jodi Rudoren/The New York Times

by Newsstand

OCCUPIED MEROM GOLAN, Golan Heights — There is a building boom quietly underway in this little kibbutz, the first established after Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 war.

Stone utility enclosures mark sites where a few dozen homes will soon break ground. A fallow field is slated to become, next year, a new neighborhood called Banim Bonim, Hebrew for Children Build. Near the ring road Doron Bogdanovsky, the kibbutz secretary-general, has plans approved for 100 more families to settle over the next decade.

“If a living organism does not have new blood all the time, he is going to die,” Mr. Bogdanovsky, 65, said as he showed off the kibbutz, which has a waiting list because it cannot build quickly enough.

That growth is tiny compared with the aggressive development goal — 100,000 new residents across the Golan in five years — being promoted by Naftali Bennett, a senior Israeli minister and one of many Israeli leaders and thinkers seizing on the chaos in Syria to solidify Israel’s hold on the Golan.

With Syria “disintegrating” after years of civil war, they argue, it is hard to imagine a stable state to which the territory could be returned. Further, they say that international — or, at least, American — recognition of Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan would be an appropriate salve to Israeli security concerns in the wake of the nuclear deal with Iran. Some proponents of this push, who unlike Mr. Bennett support a two-state solution with the Palestinians, also see this international recognition as an important way to distinguish the status of Golan from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“We’re in a whole new strategic situation, and a new strategic situation requires new strategic responses,” said Mr. Bennett, who promised to introduce a plan this fall involving “several hundreds of millions of shekels” to create jobs, housing, schools and transportation in the sprawling, green Golan Heights.

“I think we have an opportunity here, a rare opportunity, and I think it’s vital,” he added. “Given the storm we’re in that can go on for the next five or 50 years, nobody knows, we need some constants, and one big constant is for the big mountain of the Golan to be Israeli.”

The 400-plus square miles of the Israeli-controlled Golan on the northeast border with Syria is both strategic plateau and lush agricultural terrain yielding prize apples, cherries and beef. It is also a vast playground that drew 3 million tourist visits last year.

The United Nations Security Council condemned Israel’s annexation of Golan, and most of the world officially considers the territory illegally occupied, just like the West Bank. But it is rarely the focus of international activism or diplomacy; the construction in Merom Golan drew no public criticism, unlike the uproar that erupts with every new housing block announced in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Even the 22,000 Druse residents who have for decades dreamed that the land would be returned to Syria have begun to acknowledge a new reality.

“These hopes are less and less and maybe became quite to zero,” said Qasem Sabbagh, a restaurant owner in the Druse capital, Majdal Shams. A longtime activist, Mr. Sabbagh said he had been “less active in the past years, because there is no politics here, there is a war only.”

Salman Fakhreddin, spokesman for Al-Marsad, a human-rights group in Golan, complained that Israelis confiscate Druse lands, and do not share water and other resources equitably. But he said the Druse benefit economically from Israeli tourism and farming, and they understand that Israel is the only realistic authority that can defend the area from extremists like the Islamic State on the other side of the armistice line.

“It is a tragicomic fact: our security, and our flowerization, came from the occupation,” Mr. Fakhreddin said. “Maybe you will find that your enemy becomes your friend in the future.”

Merom Golan was established within a month of the 1967 war, with settlers like Mr. Bogdanovsky who moved there as an act of Zionism. By 1972 there were 600 Jews in the Golan, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics; their numbers rose to 6,800 in 1983, 13,000 in 1995, and 20,500 last year.

Mr. Bogdanovsky was among several dozen who staged a 20-day hunger strike in 1994 to protest Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s consideration of a peace deal with Syria that would have returned the territory. Israel was flooded with banners and bumper stickers declaring “Ha’am Im HaGolan,” or “the people are with the Golan,” a slogan that also implies it is an integral part of the country.

Today, the slogan goes without saying for the vast majority of Jewish Israelis, including many on the political left who refuse to visit West Bank settlements but do not hesitate to drink wine produced in the Golan or hike among its waterfalls.

The push for normalization of Israel’s control goes beyond conservative nationalists like Mr. Bennett. Amos Yadlin, the left’s candidate for defense minister in elections this spring, included recognition of Israeli authority over Golan in a recent paper listing potential American steps to soothe Israel in the aftermath of the Iran deal. Michael B. Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to Washington and a center-right member of Parliament, is one of many who see this not only in geopolitical terms but economic too, as a way to ease the housing crisis in crowded, expensive areas around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

“The Golan Heights has been part of Israel for twice as long as it was part of Syria,” Mr. Oren noted in a recent interview. “We need places to build, and the world doesn’t want us to build in the West Bank. I don’t think anyone in the world can come at us and say we’re building on land that’s going to be part of a peace deal if we build on the Golan Heights.”

Still, the Obama administration may be loath to poke this beehive with an official declaration of what is widely acknowledged as a reality on the ground. So far, American and Israeli officials have said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not pressed the case.

Mr. Netanyahu’s aides did not respond to inquiries about the issue. Dore Gold, director of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, refused to “get into where we go from here in terms of diplomacy.” But Mr. Gold echoed many of the arguments Golan settlement advocates — led by Mr. Netanyahu’s former cabinet secretary, Zvika Hauser — have been making.

“If Israel had taken the advice of all those in the 1990s who recommended that it withdraw from the Golan Heights,” Mr. Gold said, “we would now be facing the prospect of the Islamic State or the Iranians on the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee.”

Here in Merom Golan, about a mile from the high-tech fence separating Israeli-controlled territory from the war raging in Syria, Mr. Bogdanovsky and his neighbors have grown inured to the sounds of shelling and bombs. He and other Golan leaders say that the scope of Mr. Bennett’s 100,000-person plan — quintuple the current Jewish population — is unrealistic, but that they will try to bring 10,000 new residents to the north in five years.

Once a fringe movement, Golan settlement has gone mainstream. Families flock there for the pastoral calm and affordable prices, worrying about how long it might take to get to a hospital but not about any political implications with Syria.

“These 20 years proved that there is nobody to do business with there,” Mr. Bogdanovsky said. “I am convinced that we don’t have to apologize all the time for the fact that we are sitting on the Golan Heights. After 50 years, this is not an occupied area, this is an Israeli area.”

As Syria Reels, Israel Looks to Expand Settlements in Golan Heights – The New York Times