Walking in the (Occupied) Golan Heights

“This really is paradise” said Ziv, a twenty four year old Israeli ranger working in the Yehudiya National Park. He flicks back his dreadlocks and smiles at us looking for confirmation. My colleague, good friend and fellow hiker, Helene responds, “It really is”. We were stood overlooking the impressive Zavitan waterfall which cuts into the incredible landscape that’s rich in fauna and wildlife. In the immediate vicinity of the waterfalls it is hard to disagree with either of their assessments.

Helene and I walked for hours through deep gorges, stopping only occasionally to swim in the natural pools. Sporadically however we would hear in the background the unmistakable sound of explosions. A reminder that the Yehudiya National Park is surrounded by Israeli military areas. At one point as we were sat by a pool side a flock of birds flew from the tree in which they were perched at the sound of an especially loud explosion.

With every explosion, I was reminded that we were enjoying ourselves in an Occupied Territory. This mixture of unworldly beauty combined with occupation followed by an illegal annexation is what I spent three days thinking about as I walked in the Occupied Golan Heights.

The Golan Heights were occupied by Israel during the 1967 war and as such they were internationally considered to be “Occupied Territories”. In 1981 Israel formally annexed the territory and argued this changed the territory’s legal status. Despite this annexation and subsequent claim, the law of belligerent occupation continues to apply until the international community acknowledges a political-legal settlement between the parties. This did not happen in 1981 and has not occurred since.

The UN Security Council Resolution 497 of December 17, 1981 summarises the international community’s response to the annexation stating, “(The UN) Strongly condemns Israeli annexationist policies and practices in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, the establishment of settlements, the confiscation of lands, the diversion of water resources, the intensification of repressive measures against the Syrian citizens therein and the forcible imposition of the Israeli citizenship on Syrian nationals, and declares all these measures as null and void as they constitute violations of the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War”

As such, as an Occupying Power, Israel is obligated to adhere to the principles of international humanitarian law, notably the Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, and must also adhere to the principles of the international human rights law. This position has been repeatedly upheld by the UN and international human rights organisations.

Despite this clear status the occupied Golan Heights is often ignored by the media covering the “Israel/Palestine conflict”. Journalist and author Mya Guarnieri commented on this saying, “Perhaps it’s easier for journalists to talk about ‘Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories’ or the ‘Israeli-Palestinian conflict.’ But to do so is an oversimplification that ignores the broader regional context that includes the Golan Heights”. Living in the West Bank, reporting on what I see, this is a criticism that I am acutely aware of. To understand the current struggle for the realisation of human rights in the oPT you must also have an understanding of the Golan Heights.

After the occupation of 1967 130,000 Syrians were forcibly displaced from the territory leaving only 6,000 behind. A report by The Arab Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Syrian Golan, highlights human rights abuses from expropriation of land and water resources through to settlement expansion. A report well worth reading.

What troubled me during my time in the Golan however was that all of this that I had read about human rights before visiting the Golan seemed a million miles from what I actually saw. Visiting the Golan Heights felt, as a tourist, to be no different from visiting any other part of Israel.

Hitch hiking to start a walk one day an Israeli picked us up, drove us no more than 5 minutes and insisted we take her number in case we were in the area and wanted to spend Shabbat with her family. I was met with a well maintained tourist industry and extreme kindness and hospitality – this was comparable to my experience in the rest of Israel.

My time in the Golan left me confused, it didn’t feel as oppressive as the oPT but I knew, in many ways, that it was comparable. My resolve from the trip is to return, to speak to more Israelis living in the Golan and to search out the small number of Syrians still living there, still resisting the occupation. What I witnessed, mainly from an Israeli perspective, was a complete normalisation of life, including the military presence. I left wondering what I would have experienced if I had spent time with the remaining Syrian communities in the area.

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3 Comments

Filed under Human rights, Middle East

3 responses to “Walking in the (Occupied) Golan Heights

  1. Another really thought-provoking post – thanks, Steve! I visited the Golan Heights briefly in 2008. We had a presentation by The Arab Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Syrian Golan and were shown round by a representative. Like you, I felt confused, because of the ‘normalisation’ of the situation. As you say, the situation in International Law is clear – but this seems to be a bit of a forgotten area.

    On a different scale again, yet on parallel lines, your experience of walking in the natural beauty of Golan surrounded by evidence of military activity by the dominant power reminded me of our experiences of walking in southern Pembrokeshire (see: http://janeharries.wordpress.com/2012/05/18/walking-for-peace-in-israel-and-palestine/) – a beautiful corner of Wales taken up by the military manoeuvres of the British Military. At what point is occupation accepted by the majority of the local population as ‘normal’, acceptable, in the interest of ‘security’? Do we choose to close our eyes to things we’d rather not think about – like the testing of unmanned drones over the beautiful Cardigan Bay? Unless we seek out the truth and speak out, we are all complicit.

    By the way, I like your walking gear, Steve!

    Jane 🙂

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  2. Great post Steve – really good to hear about a different element of the conflict and one so rarely covered in the news.

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  3. I would consider Golan to be a different question to Palestine, if only because the Syrians as a nation aren’t being squeezed slowly out of existence (well, not by the Israelis, at any rate). I’d see it as more like Trieste, or Strasbourg – a border area which has changed hands more than once and will likely do so again at some point. I’d probably feel differently if my family lived there, mind.

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