GOLAN HEIGHTS, 6 March 2000 (Newsroom) -- Orthodox Rabbis and evangelical Protestants are among the leaders of a biblically based campaign to prevent Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's government from transferring the Golan Heights to Syria. Israel's parliament, the Knesset, supported that stance on March 1 with approval of the first reading of a bill that would require a special majority in a referendum on ceding territory.
In January a group of influential rabbis headed by former Chief Rabbi of Israel Avraham Shapira issued a rabbinic ruling stating that the Golan Heights -- which was seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day-War -- is an integral part of the land of Israel, "which was bequeathed to the tribes of Israel by divine command as stated in our holy Torah."
The ruling further claims that the Golan was a Jewish settlement at the time of both the First and Second Temples and, "according to the law, it is forbidden to uproot settlements from Eretz Yisrael," the land of Israel. Biblical scholars believe that the First Temple was built by King Solomon about 3,000 years ago; the Second lasted until A.D. 70.
The group of rabbis published similar rulings prohibiting the evacuation of Israeli land and settlements during the government of Yitzhak Rabin in the mid-1990s. The latest ruling explains that the Golan protects the lives of all Israelis: "The quiet Syrian border experienced for decades comes as a result of the close proximity of the Israel Defense Forces situated in the Golan, opposite Damascus (Syria). ...Therefore Israel's withdrawal from the Golan will not bring peace but the exact opposite."
In February the International Christian Zionist Center appealed to Western Christians to oppose the Golan withdrawal plan because it contradicts biblical prophecies that link Israel's territorial integrity with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Christian Zionist leaders have met with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert to coordinate efforts to rally support for the anti-withdrawal policy.
Israel's 1 million-strong community of Russian immigrants has reinforced that campaign. The latest poll conducted among immigrants from the former Soviet Union indicates that 75 percent are opposed to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for a peace agreement with Syria. Minister of Interior Natan Scharansky, leader of the largest Russian party in Israel, Yisrael B'Aliyah, believes that the immigrants' opposition is based on their past experience with dictatorships rather than on religious convictions. They don't want to make a deal with authoritarian leaders like Syrian President Hafez Assad, Scharansky says.
The Golan Heights' 18,000 Jewish residents have helped lead a national campaign against the withdrawal, employing demonstrations, rallies, conventions, and placard protests in towns, cities, and road junctions. Bumper stickers read "Ani Im Hagolan" ("I am with the Golan") instead of the slogan used during the governments of Rabin and Shimon Peres, "Haâ€™am Im Hagolan," ("The nation is with the Golan"). "This makes the issue much more personal for people and, we hope, more binding on individuals," said a spokesman for Golan residents, Uri Heitner. "The opinion polls at the moment show that the majority of the public is opposed to withdrawal. If we can build on that, then both Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian President Hafez Assad will know there is be no chance of a draft peace accord being ratified in a public referendum."
In addition to Knesset members and factions, Golan residents are lobbying the Arab sector, arguing that withdrawal from the Golan would mean more expropriation of Arab-owned land in order to establish new communities for the "Golan evacuees." Heitner said that if public opinion failed to stop the "Peace for the Golan" talks, the fallback would be in the Knesset where "Keep the Golan" supporters are trying to forge a majority.
In a series of interviews conducted by Newsroom, Golan residents said that Israel's consideration of returning their land to Syria is simply unthinkable. The Syrians used the plateau for 19 years to attack Jewish communities in the Jordan Valley, the Galilee, and the Hula Valley, they point out. During that time children spent countless nights in bomb shelters, says Marla Van Meter, a spokeswoman for the Golan Residents Committee. It was Syria's aggressive acts that led Israel to push the Syrians off the Golan, she maintained.
"The Golan situation is very different from the West Bank," a Golani local argued. "There are no Palestinians on the Heights and never were. The 18,000 Druze live in the Golan peacefully, cooperating with us. The disagreement is between sovereign nations over a border, not between peoples living in tension with each other."
Sounding a note of exasperation, Golani kibbutzniks point out that every government of Israel has supported and encouraged Jewish settlement of the Golan. Many note that for the peace process with Syria to succeed, the "honor" of Assad must be restored. Looking carefully at Assad's record with his own citizens, Israelis ask if the Syrian leader is worthy of this honor.
Others claim that the slogan "Land for Peace" is the core of the problem. Israel is offering land, but the Syrians are not offering peace. "Is peace with Syria urgent?" asks a Golani Jewish farmer. "What would Israel have to gain from a treaty? The possibility of Israelis vacationing in Damascus? Since the cessation of hostilities after the Yom Kippur War (in 1967), the Syrian border has been quiet. We would prefer a continuation of the existing situation, rather than the realities of a cold peace."
Though they are unwilling to trade land for peace, Golani residents obviously long for an end to the state of war that has been part of their lives since the day the state of Israel was established. For many, an era of peace would open new horizons, increasing tourism and expanding business opportunities. "What peace really means (is) work, job opportunities, access to more markets, exchange of goods and technologies, international relations," Golani resident Michal Anosh, a freelance journalist, writes. "The fantastic infrastructure of the Golan Heights can immediately provide Syrians with food (milk and meat products from the Golan Dairies and beef farms), fresh fruit, clean water in quantity, manufacturing opportunities, and most of all -- qualified people to train others and establish workable enterprises that can piggyback on the international marketing contacts we have established in the past 32 years."
"If there's a real peace, why can't we continue to live here, side by side with the Syrians?" asks another resident. "Any agreement that forces us out of our homes and livelihoods isn't a peace worth having. This is the only home our kids have ever known. We sleep at night, but we're very afraid about the future."
Jewish farmers insist that withdrawal is not just about leaving their houses: "It's tearing friendships apart," one said. "It's about losing your entire livelihood, your standard of living, your lifestyle. It's about destroying communities."
Some are concerned about the economic consequences for Israel. If a peace treaty ultimately is signed, they doubt whether the U.S. Congress is prepared to contribute the several billion dollars needed for defense and relocation of the Golan.
Some point out that the rabbinical ruling forbidding the transfer of the Golan may cause serious problems for religious soldiers who in the case of a withdrawal would be ordered to evict reluctant citizens.
Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, may find that the hardest negotiations he faces will not be with the Syrian leadership, but rather convincing the Israeli public to accept a withdrawal treaty. Along with the religious, moral, economic, and political issues are two key problems: security and water.
The late Prime Minister Rabin stressed that anyone who dares to give up the Golan, even in a time of peace, would renounce the security of Israel. Three retired U.S. generals who met recently with members of the Strategic Lobby for the Golan said that withdrawing from the Golan could cost Israel its strategic value to the United States. No amount of technology can substitute for physical presence on the plateau, said the generals, whose trip was sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Jewish Institute for American-Jewish Security (JINSA).
The Golan Plateau provides Israel with one-third of its water resources. In addition, opponents of withdrawal say, the return of the Golan puts the Sea of Galilee in grave danger of pollution. A withdrawal of Israelis likely would be followed by a massive settlement of half a million Syrian farmers. Streams flowing into the Sea of Galilee will drain sewage from Golan settlements and rainwater from pastureland. Another possible source of contamination into the streams is the Trans Arabian Oil pipeline, which would renew its activity in the area.
A Jewish resident of the Golan Heights said that he hopes they will not be abandoned. "The fact is, no one from the government has told us what's going on or what will happen. We could be given two years, five years. Who knows?"
Copyright Â© 2000 Newsroom.
Used with permission.