By Carol Rushton
One of the issues that is almost always brought up when discussing peace in the Middle East is Syria’s demand to return the Golan Heights. Syria had possession of the Golan Heights from 1944 until 1967 when Israel defeated Syrian troops in the area during the 1967 6-Day War. Syria has always demanded that Israel hand over the Golan Heights as part of any peace agreement between the two nations, claiming that the Golan Heights is Syrian land, to which Israel has no right.
The Golan Heights is actually the biblical land of Bashan, which Moses and the Israelites fought for right before they crossed the Jordan River to finally to take possession of the land promised to them and the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by God. Numbers 21:33-35 tells how Og, the king of Bashan, decided to take on the Israelites as they were passing by and got the bad end of the deal when Moses and the Israelites surprisingly defeated him. “And they turned and went up by the way of Bashan: and Og the king of Bashan went out against them, he, and all his people, to the battle at Edrei. . .So they smote him, and his sons, and all his people, until there was none left him alive: and they possessed his land.”
The tribes of Reuben, Gad, and some from the tribe of Manasseh decided that Bashan and the surrounding areas would make great grazing land for their sheep, cattle, and goats and asked Moses if they could have this land instead of being allotted land west of the Jordan River. Moses agreed on one condition: They had to join their brothers in arms to fight and destroy the pagans on the other side of the Jordan so their brethren would also have safe and secure places to raise their families as well.
The tribes accepted the terms, and Moses gave them the land. “And Moses gave unto them, even to the children of God, and to the children of Reuben, and unto half the tribe of Manasseh and son of joseph, the kingdom of Sihon king of the Amorites, and the kingdom of Og king of Bashan, the land, with the cities thereof in the coasts, even the cities of the country round about” (Numbers 32:33). In fact, Moses chose the city of Golan in Bashan as one of the cities of refuge. “Then Moses severed three cities on this side Jordan toward the sunrising; That the slayer might flee thither, which should kill his neighbor unawares, and hated him not in times past; and that fleeing unto one of these cities he might life. . . and Golan in Bashan, of the Manassites” (Deuteronomy 4:41-43). I Kings 20 tells the story of King Ahab’s defeat of the Syrians which took place in Bashan (I Kings 20). Numerous references to Bashan are also found throughout I Chronicles, the Psalms, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
Although Jews were forced from their homes in Bashan during the Assyrian and Babylonian exilic periods, some of them did return to their ancient homelands afterward. According to Victor Sharpe in an article published by Israel National News on October 12, 2012, “The Golan Heights: History and Biblical Significance,” Jewish coins with the words, “For the Redemption of Holy Jerusalem” from the second century A. D. have been found on the Golan Heights. Archaeologists have found evidence of at least 34 synagogues that attest to a Jewish presence on the Golan Heights until the entire region was subjugated under the Muslims. Jews did not try to return until the late 1800s/early 1900s. The B’nei Yehuda Society of Szfadt, a small town in Israel, bought some land on the Golan in 1886 but Jews only lived there until the early 1920s when they forced to leave.
Under the Balfour Declaration, the ancient land of Bashan was supposed to be included in the lands allocated to the Jews for a homeland. Instead, the Golan Heights were put under a French protectorate until 1944, when the area was turned over to Syria who used it to rain down bullets and sniper fire on to Israeli citizens living in the Huleh Valley below, sometimes allowing the PLO to join in. Even though Israel repeatedly complained to the UN, nothing was done about Syria’s use of the Golan Heights as a military post to terrorize Israelis.
Syria also planted bombs throughout the Golan Heights while it was in their possession until the 1967 6-Day War when Israel successfully defeated Syria and regained the ancient lands of Bashan. I can speak about this personally. On tours to Israel in the late 1970s and 1980s, paths lined with stones and rocks were marked out plainly in northern Israel. The tour guides strictly warned us to stay on the paths and not to walk outside them for any reason. The paths had been checked by the Israeli military and were known to have been cleared of bombs. The areas outside the paths had not been yet checked and given the OK. The guides further stressed this prohibition by telling us reports of people being blown up by underground mines when they strayed from the paths.
The Golan Heights as noted before looks down over the Huleh Valley, one of Israel’s richest agricultural areas. It is only 60 short miles from Haifa and Acre and is also a very strategic military asset. The Golan provides Israel with security against any surprise attacks from Syria, as well as protection from raids and attacks by the Syrian military and terrorist proxies like the PLO, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Hezbollah, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command. Syria has positioned as much as 75% of its military on the Golan Heights.
If you don’t think Israel takes threats from the Syrian military seriously, think again. On a tour to Israel in the fall of 1984, our tour group was scheduled to tour an Israeli military base on the Golan Heights. We had gotten out of the bus and were at the front gates of the military installation when we were told the tour was off. Israel’s military monitors the troop movements of the Syrian military every day. That particular day, the Syrian troop movements were a little different, which put Israel’s military on red alert. Not taking any chances, the Israeli military had no choice but to cancel our tour of the base. While it was certainly disappointing, we all understood that Israel could not take any chances and had to view this seriously.
Not only does Israel have the right to the Golan Heights as part of their ancient biblical lands, the Golan Heights is absolutely essential to Israel’s security. While there have been rumors in the past about Israel offering Syria the Golan Heights in exchange for Syria recognizing Israel’s right to exist, it would be national suicide for Israel to give up the Golan Heights under any circumstances whatsoever.