Golan Settlers Prepare to Fight for the Heights

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - With peace negotiations between Israel and Syria a possibility, and with diplomatic talk of returning all or part of the Golan Heights to Syria, Israelis across the country are waging a united campaign to hold onto the strategic plateau.

The Golan Residents' Committee (GRC) aims to bring one million Israelis, nearly a quarter of the Jewish population of Israel, to the Golan in the coming months - an effort to persuade them, not to wave good-bye, but to stand united against territorial compromise. Under the GRC's auspices, various groups are sponsoring tours to rally the support of Israelis.

Avi Ziera, chairman of the Council of Golan Settlements, told CNSNews.com its goal was "to keep the Golan Heights under the authority of Israel."

He said a recent survey conducted by the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies showed that 63 percent of Israelis oppose territorial withdrawal from Golan - and presumably, security is the main concern.

Winning over an even larger chunk of public opinion is the goal of the Golan activists. Public support is crucial because a national referendum will have to be held before any territory there can be conceded.

In 1981, the Knesset (parliament) extended Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which had been in its possession since the 1967 Six-Day War. Because of the annexation, any peace agreement or land concession involving the area must receive both majority approval in the Knesset as well as public backing in a referendum.

"We're not saying there is no choice or no alternative [regarding relinquishing the Golan]. We're saying, yes we have choices, we have alternatives," said Prof. Eli Pollak, chairman of Professors for a Strong Israel (PSI), a lobby comprising several hundred academics from institutions across Israel.

"To go down from the Golan Heights is the worst thing [Israel could do]," Pollack told CNSNews.com during a PSI-organized tour to the Golan this week. "Historically, it's Jewish," he said, referring to ancient history.

The Golan had come under the Israelis' control "after they were attacked," he added.

There is a greater consensus in Israel regarding the Golan Heights because of the security situation there. For 19 years, while Syria ruled the Heights, residents in the Galilee below were subjected to frequent bombardment.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak believes that Israel can "secure and strengthen" itself by "reaching agreements both with the Syrians and the Lebanese."

Yesterday Barak reiterated that any agreement on the Golan would require what he called "a painful compromise." But he said that the depth of that pain, or of the withdrawal, would be dependent on what Syria offers.

"When we know how the Syrians are ready to deal with problems like Lebanon, terror, water, early warning, security arrangements, opening of borders, opening of embassies, we will be able to consider what is the kind of territorial compromise that is adequate," he told reporters.

But Ziera disagrees, arguing that the Israeli-Syrian border is already Israel's quietest.

Standing at a point along the border, it is very serene. Ten giant, 98-foot wind turbines that Ziera, an engineer by profession, helped to construct, are the only sentries that one can see standing guard. The only sound is that of turbine rotors spinning.

From the turbines, which provide 85 per cent of the electricity needs of the Golan residents, on a clear day, it is possible to see 36 miles to Damascus. In a counter-offensive during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel, came within 24 miles of the Syrian capital, but withdrew 12 miles to the present frontier.

The Golan, now home to some 14,000 Israelis, is about 15 miles across at its widest point. During the last 32 years, Israel has built reservoirs and developed thriving agriculture and industry.

Perhaps, Ziera suggested, "our present status might be the optimum that can be obtained."

Asked about the idea of compromise for the possibility of peace, Ziera replied that Israel shouldn't have to talk about compromise. "Assad," he said, "doesn't even want to talk."