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Geography in the News: Golan Heights

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM and Maps.com

GOLAN HEIGHTS AND THE DMZ

In early November 2012, three Syrian tanks entered the demilitarized zone (DMZ) of the Golan Heights. The move by Syria is the first violation of the zone in 40 years and concerns countries of the region. Since then some of the Syrian rebels have also been reported operating in Golan Heights.

Israel captured Syria’s Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East War and has occupied it ever since, a move not recognized by the international community. Of the several territorial gains made during the war, none has been more coveted by Israel than the Golan. Syria, on the other hand, has called for Israel to withdraw from the area and maintains that it will never make peace with Israel until the Golan issue is resolved.

The Golan Heights’ physical geography makes it strategic to Israel in several ways. It is not only one of the Jordan River’s major sources of water, but it also overlooks the best Israeli farmland in the Jordan Valley. Many Syrians left or were expelled by the Israeli forces and Israeli settlers were encouraged to build and occupy villages on the Golan Heights.

The Golan Heights is a rough plateau-like highland of only 444 square miles (1,150 sq. km) located at the southern end of the Antilebanon Mountains. Stretching along the Lebanese-Syrian border, these mountains rise to more than 10,000 feet (3,048 m), although the Golan Heights’ crest is less than a third of that. Winter rainfall and spring and summer snowmelt in this region are critical water sources for the Jordan River.

Today, 20,000 Israelis reside in Israeli settlements on the Golan Heights, along with 17,000 Arab Druze in their own villages, most of which are clustered in the north. The Druze citizens of the Golan are permanent residents of Israel, but most retain Syrian citizenship.

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During the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and Syria, Syria attempted to retake the strategic Golan Heights. Israel agreed to return 5 percent of the Golan to Syrian civilian control. This section became a demilitarized zone (DMZ) running along the ceasefire line and extending eastward towards Syria. The DMZ is about 3.5 miles (5.6 km) at its widest and 600 feet (183 m) at its narrowest and is now controlled militarily by UN peacekeeping forces.

After the Syrian tanks entered the DMZ recently in early November, stray mortar shells also began to fall there. After another mortar shell fell near an Israeli military outpost, Israel fired what it called a “warning shot” hitting a mobile artillery launcher. Whether that launcher belonged to the Syrian army or the rebels is unknown.

In the worst-case scenario, if violence from Syria continues in the Golan Heights, Israel could have no option but to fight back. This action might prompt supportive retaliation by the Lebanese insurgent group Hezbollah or by other Islamic militant groups in the Gaza Strip. Chances of regional chaos grow daily as the Syrian civil war increasing threatens its neighbours’ security.

And that is Geography in the NewsTM

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.

Sources: GITN #501, “Looking Down from the Heights,” Jan. 7, 2000; GITN #1174 Golan Heights, Nov. 30, 2012. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2012/11/03/israel-syria-tanks/1679125/ ; and http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/world/2012-11/09/c_131962398.htm.

This is an abbreviated version of GITN 1174 Golan Heights, Nov. 30,2012. Nearly 900 of the 1200, full-length weekly Geography in the News articles (with Spanish translations) are available in the K-12 online education resource Maps101.com, including maps and other supporting materials and critical thinking questions.