Nationals from nearly one-third of the 192 member states of the United Nations met in Damascus last week to discuss the Return/Liberation of the Golan Heights. An estimated 5000 researchers, lawyers, politicians, activists, victims of Israel’s 42 years of occupation, students and members of the public, attended the opening event in Qunaitra, the Golan capital city, which in a frenzy of frustration at being forced to return the city it had occupied since 1967 (Comment: think Gaza 2005), the Israeli ordered bulldozed, shelled, and booby trapped by its retreating forces as Qunaitra was surrendered to Syria.
The Conference heard the likes of former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark argue that the International community and rules of International law could not be clearer in requiring the full return of the 1,860 sq. meters of the Syrian territory, despite Israeli claims over the years of ‘border irregularities’.
As the International Court of Justice declared in the Burkina Faso and Mali cases, two former French colonies, the frontier existing at the moment of independence, which Syria achieved in April 1946, is frozen like a snapshot taken at the exact moment of Independence.
Some attendees at the large Damascus conclave, often huddling on the sidelines, discussed, analyzed and even advocated a Golan Intifada. They argued that the whole international community, except Israel, and the full corpus of international law, supported the immediate and complete return of the Syrian Golan Height’s to the nearly 350,000 displaced Golan inhabitants, being those who make up 90 per cent of the Golan’s pre-1967 population from the 130 villages and 112 agricultural areas Israel destroyed as it occupied the Golan. These delegates explained to observers that resistance in all its forms may be the most realistic path for the return of the Golan. They point to the success of the Hezbollah led National Lebanese Resistance in regaining most of Lebanon’s Zionist occupied territory.
One Golani who studies in Damascus told this observer, “We don’t expect help from Hezbollah. They have made clear to us they do not “do branches” in other countries despite requests for help around the region, but we have learned much from their experience and we will apply their logic and tactics.”
“Syria is rising” another joined in, “we are strong psychologically, militarily and as a result of more democracy the past several years our people are united and we are motivated to seek the immediate return of our land, whatever it takes.”
They argued that what Hezbollah did in Lebanon, and what Hamas is doing in Gaza, Syrian patriots can do in the Golan. They believe they would be joined by thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese that might well lead to an unprecedented violent eruption of the Middle East.
One Conference student volunteer interpreter from Damascus University wearing a hijab, quoted Lebanon’s Senior Shiite cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, who heads social services agencies here in Syria as he does in Lebanon. Ayatollah Fadlallah frequently argues from the grand Mosque in Dahiyeh that all Arab Muslim and non-Muslims must join to fight against Israel, “because when the enemy launched a war against Palestine and the Arab world, including the Golan Heights, it was legal and obligatory to declare war in response to regain stolen land.”
There appears to be building pressure on the Bashar Assad government to act or allow a popular Intifada, despite analysts here arguing that it is unlikely that his government would agree near term. Many here are encouraged by Bishop Desmond Tutu’s fact finding report of September 2008 to the Human Rights Council on the Israeli shelling of Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip in 2006, which led to the death of nineteen civilians as well as the growing international reaction to last month’s Goldstone Report on Gaza.
International law and the Golan Heights
The law on the subject and the demolition of Israel’s arguments for retaining the Golan could barely be more complete. In addition to many UN resolutions condemning Israel’s Golan takeover as violations of customary international law and Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter which outlaws the acquisition of territory by force and requiring the immediate withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from the Golan Heights virtually all legal analysts agree on the imperative of full return.
One of the Israel lobby’s repeatedly amplified myths has been that Syria indiscriminately rained artillery shells on peaceful Jewish settlements on the plain of Galilee without provocation thus allowing Israeli to invade as part of its right of self-defense.
Among the scores who have exposed this canard are Israeli authors such as Professor Avi Shlaim, in his volume “The Myth of the Golan Heights” in which he writes: “They (the Israelis) began by staking an illegal claim to the sovereignty over the (demilitarized) zone and then proceeded, as opportunity offered, to encroach on all the specific provisions against introducing armed forces and fortification. They repeatedly obstructed the operations of the UN observers , on one occasion even threatening to kill them…They expelled, or otherwise forced out, Arab inhabitants and razed their villages to the ground.”
Moreover, Moshe Dayan, Israel’s Minister of Defense at the time, explained to an Israeli journalist in 1976:
“I know how at least 80 percent of the clashes there (on the Golan front) started. In my opinion, more than 80 percent, but let’s talk about 80 percent. It went this way: we would send a tractor to plough someplace where it wasn’t possible to do anything, in the demilitarized area and knew in advance that the Syrians would start to shoot. If they didn’t shoot, we would tell the tractor to advance further, until in the end the Syrians would get annoyed and shoot. And then we would use artillery and later the air force also, and that’s how it was…” (The Golan: Ending Occupation, Establishing Peace, London, 2007).
Dayan later added, “There was really no pressing reason to go to war with Syria…..the kibbutz residents who pressed the government to take the Golan Heights did it less for security than for the farmland.”
Syrians cite the human rights situation in the Golan as no longer tolerable, as noted in various UN reports as “persistent” and “significant deterioration”. A 2002 UN Special Committee report described the repression of the Syrian inhabitants under Israel occupation as “extensive, affecting, all aspect of life and families, villages and communities”, adding that “there are also widespread economic consequences of the occupation.”
All Syrians interviewed during and following the October 11-12th Conference appear bitter over the separation of families who live on either side of the valley constituting the demarcation line. Syrian students return to their families in the occupied Golan face, several hours of questioning and even the presents they bring are confiscated. Others are held in arbitrary detention for many days, facing torture and humiliation.
A 1998 Human Rights Watch report of the Golan Heights concludes that “Israel seriously misrepresents the degree of its fulfillment of its treaty obligations” under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights it signed in January 1992.
For the international community, including the United Nations and American and European policy makers the coming choice appears to be implement International law or witness another explosion in this volatile region.
FRANKLIN LAMB is Director of the Washington-DC, Beirut Lebanon Sabra-Shatila Foundation and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org