The Golan Heights, a rocky plateau in south-western Syria, has a political and strategic significance which belies its size. Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the closing stages of the 1967 Six-Day War. Most of the Syrian Arab inhabitants fled the area during the conflict. An armistice line was established and the region came under Israeli military control. Almost immediately Israel began to settle the Golan.
Syria tried to retake the Golan Heights during the 1973 Middle East war. Despite inflicting heavy losses on Israeli forces, the surprise assault was thwarted. Both countries signed an armistice in 1974 and a UN observer force has been in place on the ceasefire line since 1974.
The Golan Heights was under Israeli military administration from 1967 to 1981. In 1981, Israel passed the Golan Heights Law,which applied Israeli “laws, jurisdiction and administration” to the Golan Heights. Israel’s action was not recognised internationally and United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 which declared the Golan Heights an Israeli occupied territory continues to apply. The resolution also said that the actions of the Israeli Government in establishing settlements and colonizing the Golan are in clear defiance of Resolution 242.
There are more than 30 Jewish settlements on the heights, with an estimated 20,000 settlers. There are some 20,000 Syrians in the area, most of them members of the Druze sect.
Southern Syria and the capital Damascus, about 60 km (40 miles) north, are clearly visible from the top of the Heights while Syrian artillery regularly shelled the whole of northern Israel from 1948 to 1967 when Syria controlled the Heights.
The heights give Israel an excellent vantage point for monitoring Syrian movements. The topography provides a natural buffer against any military thrust from Syria.
The area is also a key source of water for an arid region. Rainwater from the Golan’s catchment feeds into the Jordan River. The area provides a third of Israel’s water supply. The land is fertile, with the volcanic soil being used to cultivate vineyards and orchards and to raise cattle.