Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Golan - it's water not security

August 10 2004
It's water, not security

pv vivekanand

An Israeli general's statement that his country does not need to keep Syria's Golan Heights under occupation should be seen strictly in the military context. It does not mean that Israel is ready to return the Golan Heights to Syria as the basis for a peace agreement or it has any intention to do so. All it might mean is that the Israeli military says it is capable of "defending" Israel without having military forces present on the Golan Heights.

Indeed, it signals a shift from consistent Israeli contention that it was prompted to seize the Golan Heights in 1967 because the Syrians were using the Heights to shoot down at Israeli farmers and that the Jewish state needed to retain the Heights in order to ensure its security. However, it does not seem to have a political context at this jucture.

Given that Syria possesses missiles capable of hitting almost everywhere in Israel, the "security" claim has always sounded hollow. Therefore, the latest statement is only an affirmation that retaining the Golan Heights is not central to Israeli security.

That the hawkish prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, is holding back any comment on the remark by Chief of Staff General Moshe Yaalon indicates that Sharon would like the idea to be floated to drag out a Syrian response if only for theoretical purposes. Sure enough, Syria has rebuffed the idea by insisting on definite Israeli action on the ground with a commitment to withdrawing from the Golan.

Sharon, a military general who has also served as Israel's minister for water, could not but be acutely aware of the importance of the Golan Heights for his country's paranoia and preoccupation with securing water sources.

Sharon should be aware that it is as much as a military strategy as a need to ensure its main source of water that is behind Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights and its refusal to give it up in return for peace with Syria.

The Golan is the source for more than 55 per cent of Israel's fresh water needs. Given the scarcity of water in the region and its paranoia of being forced to depend on Syria, Israel would never give up the Golan. At best, it might be willing to make a face-saving compromise by returning part of the Golan and would never agree to return the whole of the strategic Heights, which overlook the See of Galilee in northern Israel (it also known as Lake Tiberias and Israelis call it Lake of Kinneret. Lake Tiberias is best known for its association with the lives of Jesus Christ and his disciples. In the Bible the lake is referred to as the Sea of Chinnereth or Chinneroth, Gennesar, Lake of Gennesaret, Sea of Galilee, and Sea of Tiberias, a name that has survived in the modern Arabic Bahrat Tabariya. It is 20 kilometres long and 12 kilometres wide and lies around 220 metres below sea level).

Securing water sources has been an Israeli priority since its founding in 1948 and it remains a preoccupation today; the per capita consumption of water in Israel is eight times that of the Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank, which accounts for 18 per cent of Israel's needs of drinking water.

In 1950, the then Israeli prime minister, Ben Gurion, declared that Jews were fighting a battle for water and that the Jewish existence in Palestine was contingent on the outcome of such battle.

Water from Syrian upstream sources flown down the Golan and is accumulated at the Sea of Galilee before flowing further to the River Jordan and onto the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth.

Israel, which occupied the Golan in the 1967 war and unilaterally annexed it in 1981, usually argues that since the Golan overlooks northern Israeli towns a withdrawal from the Heights would leave northern Israeli towns vulnerable to Syrian missile and infantry attacks.

In what was a departure from that assertion, Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon said in an interview published on Friday there was no military reason why Israel could not withdraw to its pre-1967 war border with Syria.

Yaalon's comments was a departure from the military's traditional view that Israel needs at least part of the plateau as a "security buffer."

Yaalon told the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot: "If you ask me, theoretically, if we can reach an agreement with Syria ... my answer is that from a military standpoint it is possible to reach an agreement by giving up the Golan Heights.

"The army is able to defend any border. This is correct for any political decision that is taken in Israel," he said.

Yaalon warned that Syria still represents a threat to Israel's "security" and that the two counties could once again find themselves engaged in a war.

"I can't ignore the scenario in which an escalation on the Lebanese front leads to a confrontation between the two armies," he said.

Yaalon noted that Syria has "missiles that put all of Israel in range and chemical capabilities."

Sharon has consistently opposed a withdrawal from the Syrian plateau. Sharon's predecessor, Ehud Barak, offered to withdraw from parts of the heights in 2000, but insisted on retaining some of the territory and American guarantees.

Syria wants action

Syria responded to Yaalon on Friday saying that it will not take seriously Israeli offers to pull out of the Golan Heights unless they are backed by moves on the ground or an open commitment to withdraw.

Ahmad Haj Ali, advisor to the Syrian information minister, said:

"We don't give such statements any weight unless they are associated with a serious move (towards peace) and with international guarantees. Whoever is willing to make peace should return the land to its owners and withdraw immediately or declare that openly and clearly."

Haj Ali said he believed Yaalon's statement was designed to "show Israel was the party seeking peace in order to look good in the upcoming American elections."

Syrian-Israeli peace talks were launched in 1991 in Madrid, but they collapsed in 2000, with Syrians insisting on a complete withdrawal from the Golan, and Israel seeking border adjustments near the Sea of Galilee,.

Now, Israel says Syria must first end its support for Hizbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and Palestinian groups it hosts in Syria itself. Syria rejects the demands saying it is supporting the legitimate right of people to resist foreign occupation.

In the Syrian view, Israel will not to relinquish the Golan, where some 20,000 Jewish settlers live, because it considers the Heights as a part of Israeli land. Furthermore, Israel believes its present borders should be recognised as such in any peace agreement.

It will reject any plan which includes any relinquishment of any part of Israel's land as opposing the right of the Jews in such land and jeopardising Israel's security and existence. That is why Israel will not withdraw from the Golan under all circumstances and will not demolish any settlement on the Heights, says the Syrian National Information Centre.

Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who represents a majority in the Likud party of Sharon and seen more hawkish than the prime minister, has said: "We are ready to continue negotiating with the Syrians on the basis that they are aware that they won't get back the Golan and that we, from our side, won't give up a total peace."

However, the Syrians have been insisting that the peace negotiations be resumed from the point they broke off while Barak was in power where he had promised to withdraw from virtually all of the Golan Heights except a one-square-kilometre area on a condition that the US provides certain guarantees.

At this point in time, it seems unlikely that Sharon finds himself under any compulsion to make any overture to Syria. He is too busy securing his own position while advancing his plan for "unilateral disengagement" from the Gaza Strip.