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For Israelis, Golan is home, not a bargaining chip

The strategic plateau is a linchpin in recently renewed Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 31, 2008

Key territory: The Golan Heights, captured by Israel from Syria in 1967, has become a popular vacation spot for Israelis.

uriel sinai/Getty Images


Katzrin, Golan Heights

In the world's eyes, this grassy, barren plateau is no different from the West Bank and Gaza Strip: territories occupied by Israel that should be relinquished in return for normal relations with Arab states. Captured from Syria in 1967, the Golan Heights is the linchpin for recently renewed Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

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But to Israelis, the Golan is a peaceful part of their country, even a popular vacation spot. A movie at the "Golan Magic" tourist center in this Jewish settlement shows emerald grazing fields rather than the minefields left from war. The audience is sprayed with mist as a preview of waterfall hikes in the Golan's lush canyons.

"Even more than the West Bank, people have grown up thinking of the Golan as part of Israel," says Gershom Gorenberg, author of "The Accidental Empire," a book about the Jewish settler movement. "It's not dangerous to live there.... The whole set of images associated with the West Bank is not there."

Unlike the West Bank or Gaza Strip

Though the world considers the 32 Israeli communities in these highlands illegal settlements, the Golan occupies a different place in Israel's national psyche than the West Bank does. Israelis visit the Golan more than in the West Bank and even Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, which Israelis claim as their capital.

Now that the Golan is back on the bargaining table, Israeli residents there bristle at being compared with the hard-line religious-nationalist settlers of the West Bank and of the former Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip.

"We're not missionaries. This is not a cult," says tourist-center owner and Golan resident Haim Ohayon.

The settlers who moved to the Golan Heights came from secular kibbutzim farming collectives dominated by the dovish Labor Party. Unlike the religious settlers who view territories conquered in 1967 as an inalienable part of a biblical birthright, the farmers brought with them a greater willingness to compromise.

That's why few Israelis refer to them as mitnachlim, the often derogatory Hebrew term for the residents in the West Bask and Gaza.

Golan residents also differentiate themselves from Israeli settlers there because, unlike those territories, the Golan has few Arabs. Some 90,000 Syrians fled or were driven out when Israel took over the territory in 1967, according to Israeli historian Benny Morris.

"What's special about the Golan is that there are only Jewish communities,..." says Yoni Dolev, a St. Paul, Minnesota native who moved to the Golan 15 years ago. "I'm not a settler. The Golan Heights is a different story."

The Golan Heights' frontier between Israel and Syria has also been calmer than any other border zone since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. And despite the heavy presence of military vehicles on the roads, residents question why a treaty with Syria is necessary when the Golan is more tranquil and more secure than even Tel Aviv.