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The Myth of the Golan Heights

By David Hirst, Excerpts from his book: The Gun and the Olive Branch, 1977, Futura Publications. (Note: errors due to scanning might exist in this page.)

The seeds of the Six-Day War were sown on the Syrian front. This is universally accepted. It is also more or less taken for granted that the Syrians sowed those seeds. The Golan Heights appear to sum up, in a peculiarly stark and affecting way, the image of David versus Goliath. But it would be nearer the truth to say that the Golan Heights represent one of the most successful of Zionist myths. A post-war visit to the wind swept, battle-scarred plateau was a moving experience --at least it was for those of this writer's fellow-tourists, probably all of them, who accepted what our guide told us. He told us, of course, about the Syrian guns which used to rain destruction on the farmers peacefully tilling their fields in the valley below and how finally, on the last day of the war, some of Israel's finest troops had given their lives scaling those mine-infested heights to silence the guns for ever. It was a partisan account. That was to be expected. It also included one or two untruths, not unexpected either, like the allegation that the Arabs, in trying to divert the head-waters of the Jordan, intended to send them to waste in the Mediterranean. However, the guide did, with an air of complicity, tell one unexpected truth. 'We are now entering what used to be the demilitarized zone,' he said, 'regular' soldiers were forbidden to enter it. Of course, we got round that by sending them in disguised as police. But that's another story.' It is another story, a long one, and naturally he did not tell it.

Among the many complications of the 1949-armistice agreements were the demilitarized zones. They were sources of conflict everywhere, but particularly on the Syrian frontier, where, strips of fertile soil ranging from a few hundred to a few kilometres wide, they ran nearly half its length. They represented bits of Palestinian territory which the Syrian army managed to hold during the fighting of 1948 and from which it only agreed to withdraw, behind the old frontier, under the provisions of the armistice agreements. These laid down that neither side should send military forces into any part of them; Arab and Israeli villages and settlements in the zones should each recruit their own police forces on a local basis. Neither side showed a scrupulous regard for these provisions, but it was the Israelis who, from the outset, showed less. They began by staking an illegal claim to sovereignty over the zone and then proceeded, as opportunity offered, to encroach on all the specific provisions against introducing armed forces and fortifications. They repeatedly obstructed the operations of the UN observers, on one occasion even threatening to kill them.[15] They refused to cooperate with the Mixed Armistice Commission, and when it suited them they simply rejected the rulings and requests of the observers.[16] They expelled, or otherwise forced out, Arab inhabitants, and razed their villages to the ground.[17] They transplanted trees as a stratagem to advance the frontier to their own advantage.[18] They built roads against the advice of the UN.[19] They carried out excavations on Arab land for their own drainage schemes.[20] But most serious of all was what General von Horn described as 'part of a premeditated Israeli policy to edge east through the Demilitarized Zone towards the old Palestine border (as shown on their maps) and to get all the Arabs out of the way by fair means or foul.' 'The Jews', he explained, 'developed a habit of irrigating and ploughing in stretches of Arab-owned land nearby, for the ground was so fertile that every square foot was a gold mine in grain. Gradually, beneath the glowering eyes of the Syrians, who held the high ground overlooking the Zone, the area had become a network of Israeli canals and irrigation channels edging up against and always encroaching on Arab-owned property.'[21] It is unlikely, in his opinion, that those Syrian guns on the Golan Heights would ever have gone into action but for Israeli provocations.[22]

There was always tension on the frontier, and incidents without number, but it flared into the dimensions of a 'little war' only when the Israelis, apparently for reasons of higher strategy, decided to visit upon the Syrians their familiar technique of massive punishment to fit a menial crime. They did that in the build-up to the Suez War. In December 1955, as part of the aggressive strategy which had begun with the Gaza raid ten months before, they attacked positions on the north-eastern shore of Lake Tiberias, killing more than fifty soldiers and civilians. The alleged pretext --that the Syrians had opened fire on fishing and police boats-- was a singularly inadequate one, even if it had been an authentic one. But in the opinion of two UN observers who subsequently recorded their experience it was not even that. The most charitable interpretation was that, although the Syrians may have opened fire, the Israelis had done their best to provoke them into doing so. 'It was', said one of them, 'a premeditated raid of intimidation motivated by Israel's desire ... to bait the Arab states into some overt act of aggression that would offer them the opportunity to overrun additional territory without censor . . .'[23]. Eleven months later Israel did overrun the whole of Sinai, but not, as we have seen, without censure. They were to be more successful next time.

Every year brought its shooting season; naturally enough, it began, in a fertile valley like this, with the ploughing, and went on through the sowing and harvesting.[24] It was then that the Israeli farmers ventured forth with their armour-plated tractors to plough a few more furrows of Arab-owned land. On 3 April 1967 it was reported in the Israeli press that the government had decided to cultivate all areas of the demilitarized zone, specifically lots 51 and 52, which, the Syrians insisted, belonged to Arab farmers.[25] At eight o'clock on the morning of 7 April a tractor began work on a little strip of Arab land south of Tiberias. The Israelis waited for the Syrians to open up with mortars as they knew they would -- and then struck back with artillery, tanks and aircraft. Seventy jet fighters pounded the enemy with napalm and high explosives. The Syrians took a bloody nose: six planes shot down, one over Damascus, some thirty fortified positions hit and perhaps a hundred people killed. The Israelis, for their part, lost one tank commander; he had got down to observe the results of his shooting. Chief of Staff Rabin expressed the hope that the Syrians had learned their lesson.

In reality, the 'lesson' was the curtain-raiser to the June War. Nasser could not afford to stand idly by again. Syria, he could see, was now the target of the kind of military activism to which Egypt had been exposed before Suez. For the 'Arab-fighters' it represented just the kind of plausible external peril they needed. After all, Syria did bombard settlements from the Golan Heights. It was apparently going ahead with its part of a scheme to divert the headwaters of the river Jordan and thereby sabotage Israel's own scheme, unilaterally undertaken, to channel water south to the Negev desert. It way giving aid and comfort to Fatah, the Palestinian guerilla organization which, since January 1965, had been sending its men into enemy territory to lay mines and blow up installations. And since February 1966, when an extreme faction of the ruling Baath party seized power, Syria had officially adopted, with bellicose rhetoric to match, the Fatah doctrine of a 'popular liberation war'. Obviously, the Arab-fighters did not shout their intentions from the roof-tops, but it was nonetheless apparent, from the indiscretions which did escape them, that what Dayan and his men had in mind was to engineer a general preventive war-to deliver a crippling blow at the Arabs' growing military strength, to do as soon as possible, at lesser cost, what they would be forced to do, probably at much greater cost, some time in the future. It was this search for a pretext which the Chief of Staff was getting at, in a duly circumspect way, when he told the army magazine Bamahane in May 1965 that the Israelis could upset any Arab military timetable at a moment's notice if they knew 'how to exploit the moment when the Arabs are preparing to reach a certain level of military strength'.[26]

For anyone who cared to look closely the external peril was plausible in the extreme. Of course it must have been uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous living in a frontier kibbutz under the shadow of Syrian guns, but how many people actually got killed? Between January and June 1967, apparently not one. In the same period, how many Israelis died at the hands of the Fatah guerrillas? One. As for the Jordan diversion scheme, this was a vain enterprise, whatever Arab propaganda might proclaim, and the Israelis knew it. Even if the Arabs had the means and the will to carry out their plans to the full-and this was doubted in official Israeli quarters-they would have deprived the Israelis of a mere 5 or 6 per cent of the share which they were taking for themselves.[27] As for the 'popular liberation war', the Israelis knew more than anyone else about the gulf between the Baathist words and Baathist deeds.

Unfortunately not many people did look very closely, and President Nasser was very afraid that, Syrian verbal excesses and irresponsible brinkmanship aiding, the Arab-fighters would lead him into a trap. Replying to the taunts of his Arab opponents, he told a Palestinian audience as early as 1965: 'They say "drive out UNEF". Suppose that we do. Is it not essential to have a plan? If Israeli aggression takes place against Syria, do I attack Israel? That would mean that Israel is the one to determine the battle for me. It hits a tractor or two to force me to move, is this a wise way? It is we who must determine the battle.'[28]


15. Report by Colonel de Ridder, Acting Chief of Staff, UN Document S/2084, 10 April 1951.
16. Horn, Soldiering for Peace, op. cit., pp. 123-4
17. Burns, op. cit., p. 114-
18. Horn, op. cit., p. 79.
19. Khouri, Fred. J., 'The Policy of Retaliations in Arab-Israeli Relations', Middle East Journal, Washington, Vol. 20, No. 4, 1966. p. 447.
20. Burns, op. cit., p. 113.
21. Horn, op. cit., P. 78.
22. Ibid., p. 117.
23. Hutchison, Violent Truce, op. cit., p. 110.
24. Horn, op. cit., p. 69.
25. Syrian Complaint to Security Council, S/7845, 9 April 1967.
26. 2 May 1965.
27. Nimrod, Yoram, 'L'Eau, I'Atome et le Conflit', Les Temps Modernes, Paris, 1967, P. 893.
28. Al-Ahram, 1 June 1965.

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