Clockwork Apartheid in the Syrian Golan
The debate over the applicability of the colonial and apartheid paradigms in Palestine has been mounting at least since the 2007 findings of UN Special Rapporteur John Dugard, the further analysis by the subsequent South African Human Sciences Research Council study and, more recently, the 2017 ESCWA report and its sequel. This work has helped to make the classic apartheid paradigm inescapable even for some critical Israeli observers.
Following Donald Trump’s 2019 recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian Golan, this growing debate also puts that “forgotten occupation” under new light. Shining that light on the administration of land, water and natural resources exposes how the race-based and institutionalized, material discrimination practiced against the indigenous populations under Israeli control by Israel.
As noted by numerous scholars and UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies, religion and race are conflated in the constructed concept of “Jewish nationality”—distinct from, and superior to citizenship in Israel. That system is operationalized by “national institutions” chartered to apply a “racial” bias that favors Jewish settlers at the expense of all others. While this perpetual, material discrimination was intended against the indigenous Palestinian people, Israel’s occupation of the Syrian Golan expands that modus operandi to the Syrian people in the Golan acquired by force during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967.
In that campaign, Israeli forces captured the plateau region of about 1,230 km2 in southwest Syria, forcibly expelled or otherwise displacing the vast majority of 135–150,000 indigenous Syrians, preventing their return and forbidding the remaining Syrians from movement within their own country. After the War, all that remained of the two cities, 163 villages and 108 farms were six villages (`Ain Qinya, Buqatha, Ghajar, Majdal Shams, Mas`adah and S’haita). All of the others had been destroyed, leaving only 6,396 Syrian Arab inhabitants. Most are adherents to the Druze faith, with a minority of Alawites (Ghajar). Natural growth has brought that indigenous Syrian population to approximately 27,000 today, while Israel has transferred at least 26,000 Jewish-Israeli settlers into the territory.
Israel’s Golan military operations paralleled and culminated the planning functions of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) Settlement Division and Jewish Agency (JA) Settlement Department, both chartered to benefit only persons of “Jewish race or descendancy.” The WZO/JA also had coordinated with the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture as part of its Israeli-Jewish settler-colonization project in the conduct of the population transfer.
Their coordinated outcomes involved Israel implanting settler colonies of “Jewish nationals,” as race-based Israeli laws and apartheid institutions call them (i.e., referring to Jewish-Israeli immigrants, as well as Jewish citizens of other countries). That uniquely constructed theocratic “nationality” status confers many economic, social and cultural rights that are unavailable to mere “citizens” of Israel belonging to other groups and denied to the indigenous people.
Accordingly, Israel has prevented the Syrian population from using more than 30% of the lands belonging to their remaining six villages (about 5% of the total Golan), confiscating the rest for exclusive Jewish use under classifications such as “state” or “absentee” lands that the Jewish National Fund (JNF), WZO and/or the Israeli government have claimed exclusively for “Jewish nationals.” To date, Israel has expropriated over 95% of the Golan, while refusing to acknowledge the vast majority of Syrian public or private ownership of any land.
Land and the Built Environment
As inside Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, Israel imposes extremely restrictive zoning and building policies on the indigenous population through the authority of the JA and its apartheid charter. Israeli planning law, illegally applied in the Golan, establishes elected Regional Planning Councils with the JA—in Golan’s case, in the name of the WZO—as ultimate decision maker with a guaranteed majority of votes. With the WZO/JA bound by its common charter to exclude the indigenous population, Israel’s physical-planning regime systematically denies building permits to Golan’s Arab households. This institutionalized material discrimination manifests in the continuous demolition of Syrian structures, while facilitating illegal settler-colony expansion. Under Israeli institutions maintaining this regime, in 2016, for example, between 80 and 90 households faced “administrative” (effectively punitive) demolition of their homes.
Israel also recently initiated a process to zone some of the only viable land for the expansion of the Golani Syrian villages as one of its eight so-called “national” parks, which is effectively a mechanism of land appropriation for the exclusive benefit of “Jewish nationals.” This would make it nearly impossible for the creation of any future development projects by Syrian Arabs on depopulated or otherwise-undeveloped land.
Exemplary of the tortuous procedures linking the Israeli government with the illegal settler colony project in the Golan is the initial $2.3 million in funding for the construction of a settler colony in the Golan named after U.S. President Donald Trump in 2019. In the case of Trump Heights, the budget was shared between the Israeli Housing Ministry for planning and the WZO for the actual construction. The Trump Administration then proclaimed U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan in seeming reciprocity.
The Syrian Golan rises between two major water systems: One in the west, consisting of the Jordan River drainage basin and its tributaries, the Banias, the Dan and the Hasbani Rivers; the other in the south, drains into to Lake Tiberias and the Yarmuk tributary to the Jordan River.
For the Syrians remaining in the Golan, Israel institutes discriminatory pricing and distribution of utilities in the captured territory, subsidizing illegal Israeli colonies and businesses, while suffocating Syrian production, particularly the vital agricultural sector. For years, local Syrians have complained about the systematic discrimination in allotments of water, which is scarce and expensive for Golan Syrians, while the occupied region is the source of fully one-third of the total water that Israel controls.
Israel has outrightly confiscated many of the area`s water resources, preventing the local Syrian Arabs from using them, while piping local water to its local settler colonies and into Israel. The practice has involved also digging wells adjacent to existing springs, thereby depleting the natural run-off available for local Arab farmers and preventing them from digging their own wells. In order to optimize the use of remaining water, the Golan’s indigenous farmers have adopted new forms of irrigation, including the transformation of their old canal system into a modern pipe system.
In the area of the Arab villages, four main kinds of water resources remain available:
- Underground springs that run year-round, but which the Israeli National Water Company (Mekorot) has reduced by having tapped into them through wells exclusively for Jewish use;
- Existing wells and human-made pools that are privately owned, but which Israeli authorities have administered through extremely discriminatory regulation, licensing and taxation;
- A volcanic natural lake (Ram Lake), in the vicinity of Mas`adah village, which contains 5mm3. However, Israeli restrictions and sabotage of Golan Arabs’ water systems have left only 180 dunums (18 hectares) of their land irrigated from that source as of 2013. However, that volume has reportedly declined, while the remaining water is piped to Jewish settler colonies in the Golan as far as 40 kilometers away; and
- Iron tanks that Arab farmers have built to collect rainwater after the Israeli occupation banned Arabs from digging wells in 1980. Shortly thereafter, Israeli authorities imposed restrictive licensing, regulations, gauges and exorbitant user fees on indigenous use, while also fining Golan farmers and destroying their tanks for alleged noncompliance.
A major Israeli apartheid water-management company in the occupied Golan is Mey Golan Association, established in 1978 as a cooperative, supplying water- and waste-management services exclusively to the Israeli settler colonies in the Golan. Mey Golan has supplied some 2,000 Jewish-settler households, 27 agricultural communities and local Israeli industry. The Mey Golan-created infrastructure is comprised of 14 flood and stream reservoirs and four deep wells, reportedly capturing about 40mm3 every year, while maintaining some 80,000 dunums (8,000 hectares) of agricultural land.
Its “Bene Israel Reservoir” is located near the south Golan settler colony of Ramat Magshimim, built on the land of the Syrian Arab village of Khisfin, also destroyed in 1967. The Bene Israel Reservoir can hold 7.5 mm3 and operates in cooperation with Mekorot, the Israeli water company set up in 1937 by its apartheid-sister institutions: JA, JNF and Histadrut (which manages labor resources in Israel). Mekerot began supplying water for a fee throughout the Golan in 1990, while assisting Jewish settlers exclusively with pumping mechanisms, distribution and other infrastructure.
Natural Resource Administration and Development
Current resource-apartheid practice in the Golan also involves Israel’s exploitation of gas and oil resources, while prohibiting local Syrians from utilizing the same resources. Israel relies heavily on its private sector and complicit multinational corporations to conduct exploration and extraction, which accelerated especially since the 2011 outbreak of the Syrian conflict. To begin extracting Golan’s estimated “billions of barrels” of oil, Israel issued its first license to drill exploratory wells for gas and oil reserves in 2013 to Afek Oil and Gas, a subsidiary of Genie Energy, a United States-based energy corporation, with links to the Trump White House and continues actively seeking licenses in the region.
Israel’s intricate mechanisms of control, dispossession and profit from colonization, occupation and annexation are, at once, governmental, parastatal, corporate and private in nature. All of these are subject to norms of private and/or public international law proscribing their activities outlined here. The resulting clockwork has erected a racialized apartheid regime that impoverishes and variously negates the existence of the indigenous people of the land.
This institutionalized, material discrimination is combined with the serious crime of population transfer, incrementally and continuously committed through the grinding deprivation of natural and other resources, as well as the implantation of colonial settlers. A closer look at this “forgotten occupation” in practice, brings these continuous international law violations to light, including prohibitions of the Apartheid Convention. For the indigenous Syrians of the Golan, this spatial and resource apartheid fragments their community, ruptures their way of life by dispossession of natural resources vital to economic and cultural activities tied to the land, while denying the Syrians of the Golan the means of subsistence they have relied on from time immemorial.
Photo: An Afek drilling site in the Syrian Golan. Source: Turkish Maritime.