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Among these rugged hills is the very spot where Abraham’s people say God promised the land to them. Today on the boat-shaped Golan Heights, the Israelis grow fruits and vegetables, grapes for wine, and graze cattle and sheep—always keeping a wary eye on their ancient blood enemy to the north, Syria.

Eye in the Sky

But after almost 33 years of occupation and fervent vows never to give it back, Israel suddenly appears on the verge of trading this 40-mile-long (64 kilometer), 12-mile-wide (19 kilometer) strategic prize for an even bigger reward: peace with Syria. If it happens, it would be a breakthrough in the same historical league as Israel’s 1979 swap of the Sinai for peace with Egypt.

“The Israeli public has shown a remarkable capacity to change over the past year or so,” says University of Maryland professor of government and Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Shibley Telhami. “A year ago, a majority would have said no to returning the Golan Heights. Just a month ago, the polls started showing quite the opposite.”

Israelis have long felt they had ample reason for holding on to the Golan Heights. For years after Israel proclaimed itself an independent state in 1948, Syrians used the high ground overlooking its border to shell Israeli farms and settlements in the region of Galilee. Each side routinely accused the other of provocations.

Those troubles came to a decisive end after the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israeli troops seized the heights. Israel officially annexed the territory in 1981.


Ever since some agreements that followed the Arabs’ failed 1973 Yom Kippur War, the line between Israel and Syria has been one of the most peaceful disputed border regions in the world—and one of the more populous. Today about 15,000 Israelis live in 32 settlements and one city on the Golan Heights.

They have been busy. Where Syrian military fortifications once bristled, farmers now cultivate plums, apricots, nectarines, mangoes, grapefruit, bananas, dates, and avocados on the southern end. In the north are apples, pears, peaches, cherries, and blueberries. Principal field crops are cotton, corn, tomatoes, and onions. Dairy herds supply milk, and the area’s vineyards are a pride of Israel. Return of the area to Syria could shut off this abundant source of food. Israeli claims that the region has flowered under its administration is underscored by an estimated 35,000 tons of blooms produced annually.

Manufacturing interests also have moved in, including plants making defense equipment, cables, devices for transporting fluids, machinery, films, electro-optical systems, food packaging, doors, tiles, wall coverings, electric motors, shoes, and plastic injection molding. For those who don’t want to bother with the real thing, one plant makes plastic flowers.

Israelis heavily promote the heights as a tourist destination, with an estimated 1.7 million visitors annually. They come partly for its waterfalls and canyons and spectacular views of Galilee and southern Lebanon, and partly for sport. The only area under Israeli control where snow falls, 9,232-foot (2,814-meter) Mt. Hermon on the northern end offers a ski area with a year-around chairlift. The mountain, known to the Arabs as Jabal ash-Shaykh and mentioned in the book of Psalms, remains a cooling getaway during July and August when the rest of Israel bakes under the summer sun.


The Crusader fortress of Ka’alat Namrud and a number of archaeological sites attract visitors, as does a Druse hospitality center in the village of Ein Kinya, where culinary treats include Druse pita and coffee. Among other amenities are numerous restaurants, a local mineral water-bottling plant and ten hotels. Jeep tours are available.

Its charms aside, Israelis charge that when Syria was in charge of the heights, it tried to dry out the Jewish state by diverting the sources of the Jordan. They estimate that whoever occupies the region controls one-third of Israel’s water supply.

But by far the most important reason for Israel’s long reluctance to even consider giving up the heights is the area’s military value. Israelis believe it gives them tactical and strategic balance with the Syrian army. The height makes the border defensible, they say, with its river beds and chains of hills forming natural barriers to armored combat vehicles.

The site also allows Israel to monitor communications and other activities in Syria from its spy post on Mt. Hermon; and—in their view—it has great deterrent value, placing Israeli arms just 40 miles (70 kilometers) from the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Clearly, none of this would matter if Israel trusted that Syria would live up to a peace agreement. But Israelis have long maintained that Syria’s history of hostility and aggression against the Jewish state—including its 1948 attempt to destroy it and the 1974 Yom Kippur War, when Syria joined with Egypt in a surprise frontal attack—prove that this cannot be assumed.

Israel also cites the Gulf War, when Iraqi troops occupied and wrought havoc in Kuwait for months before they were driven out by a U.S.-led allied force, as evidence that it has to depend on itself alone for defense.

That being the case, why would Israel be considering a handover now?


Evidently the Israeli public is increasingly convinced that an acceptable deal, brokered by the United States, could be worked out, basically along lines similar to the Camp David agreement that led to peace with Egypt. It would involve a large amount of U.S. aid—one authority estimates $17 billion, possibly spread out over a number of years—to compensate settlers and business operators for losses, plus an increase in military assistance. Military guarantees would be needed, for example some demilitarization of the heights, possibly involving a U.N. peacekeeping force. Syria also might demand financial and other concessions.

Count into this mix the obvious desire of an outgoing U.S. president to leave a legacy of peace in the Middle East.

President Clinton has been actively and broadly pushing Israel, Syria, and Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Authority to settle their differences. By the time Clinton met with Syrian President Assad in Geneva in late March, Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s Israeli government had come close to agreeing in principle to withdraw from all the Golan Heights except for a narrow strip along the Sea of Galilee. Assad rejected that exception.

“That is the place I know as the border between Israel and Syria,” Assad said in reply to Clinton’s question if he was insisting on including the shore. “Up until 1967, I would swim in the Sea of Galilee, I would have barbecues there, I ate fish.”

Whether Israel would go this final step remains to be seen. As recently as January, about 100,000 Israelis jammed Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to protest any withdrawal at all. They flew banners that read, “The Golan Stays, Barak Goes,” and sang the old Zionist rallying song, “I Have No Other Land.”

But as the prospect continues to sink in of a real peace deal similar to the Camp David agreement that ended Israel’s standoff with Egypt, members of Barak’s government say that Abraham’s descendants eventually will accept what the ministers say is the reality: Just as the Sinai had to be abandoned 21 years ago, there can be no deal with Syria without return of the Golan Heights.

Eye in the Sky is a weekly series that brings you the story behind the headlines using satellite imagery, remote sensing, aerial photography, and maps. This feature is developed by National Geographic News with the sponsorship of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) and Earth-Info. Check out maps and imagery at

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More Information
• The Golan Heights contain the highest points under Israeli control, including the snow-topped Mt. Hermon ski area, where a chairlift operates year-round.
• The heights cover 250,000 acres (101,000 hectares), of which almost half is natural pasture. Five thousand acres (2,000 hectares) are agricultural land.
• Israelis maintain 20,000 head of cattle and sheep. A separate herd of 5,000 dairy cattle yield 15.8 million gallons (60 million liters) of milk.
• There are about 30 industries, including manufacturers of machinery, food packaging, wall coverings, electric motors, shoes and plastic injection molding.

More Information
  • French-Jewish banker Baron Edmond de Rothschild in 1894 bought a large tract of land in the Golan Heights to be settled by Jews.
  • Jewish colonization failed in the face of Arab hostility and Ottoman laws that excluded non-native settlement.
  • The Golan became part of the French mandate of Syria after WWI and passed into the hands of independent Syria in 1941.
  • Syria fortified the western crest of the Golan Heights, with its command of Israeli territory including the Sea of Galilee, after the Arab-Israeli War of 1948-49. Artillery and sniper fire made farming and fishing difficult in the lowlands, if not impossible.
  • Israel captured the Golan Heights during the last two days of the 1967 Six-Day War. A UN buffer zone was established after the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, and by the late 1970s, about 30 Jewish settlements had been established in the region.