It's Not Just the Golan

Talks between Israel and Syria will have to deal with a 40-square-mile demilitarized zone from 1949

WHILE Israeli and Syrian negotiators discuss "land for peace," it is usually assumed by outside observers that the "land" (i.e., the Golan Heights) is well-defined and that it is the details of "peace" (diplomatic relations, trade, tourism, etc.) that must be negotiated. But the "land" side of this equation may be more than the Golan Heights. From Syria's perspective there is also the lingering matter of a demilitarized zone (DMZ) established between the parties in 1949 as part of a UN-sponsored armistice agreement.

In 1948, at the end of the first Arab-Israeli war, Syrian troops controlled some acreage west of the Jordan River. They had seized this land months earlier when they first invaded Palestine (Israel). In order to get the Syrians out, Israel agreed to the establishment - on its side of the international boundary - of a 40-square-mile demilitarized zone consisting of three separate enclaves.

This DMZ existed until June 1967, when - in addition to the Golan Heights - it was seized by Israel. Parts of the zone had, until June 1967, been administered by Syria. Press reports suggest that Syria's idea of Israel's "total withdrawal" involves not only the Golan Heights, but the DMZ.

Indeed, the territorial issue between Israel and Syria is often described as a choice between "withdrawal to the international boundary" and "withdrawal to the line of June 4, 1967." Were Israel to recede to the "international boundary," i.e., a line drawn by the British and the French in the 1920s, it would return the Golan Heights but keep the DMZ. The "line of June 4" refers to the separation of Syrian and Israeli forces just before the 1967 war, thus bringing the DMZ back into the picture.

The former DMZ is not a sizable chunk of territory. But there's a lot of history in these 40 square miles, beginning with the way in which the British and French drew the Palestine-Syria boundary.

In the wake of World War I Great Britain and France set about to divide the Levant between them. Initially Palestine was to be given a sizeable chunk of the Golan Heights (including the Banias River, one of the Jordan River's three sources) and Syria would have had a share of Lake Tiberias. In the end, however, all of the Golan Heights (including the Banias) wound up in Syria, but all of Lake Tiberias was placed inside Palestine.

This "final" boundary provoked howls of protest on both sides. Zionists in Palestine claimed that the loss of the Golan Heights rendered the country virtually defenseless by giving away the tactical high ground. Getting all of Lake Tiberias was important, but this gain had been offset by the loss of the Golan Heights and one of the Jordan River's sources.

FOR Syrian nationalists, chafing under French rule, the loss of Lake Tiberias (to say nothing of the very creation of Palestine) was galling. Although Arabs on the eastern (Syrian) side of the lake were allowed to fish, the boundary itself ran a tantalizing 10 meters off the high-water line.

Similarly, north of Tiberias the border ran as few as 50 meters to the east of the Jordan River. This "giveaway" was remembered with bitterness years later when France handed Turkey yet another (and much bigger) piece of Syrian territory. In 1996 neither of these "perfidies" has been forgotten or forgiven.

During the first Arab-Israeli war Syria tried, with very limited success, to rectify one of these insults. By war's end its forces had barely penetrated the Galilee region of Palestine (Israel). But the very presence of Syrian troops west of the international boundary, limited as it was, prompted Israel to accept a DMZ as part of a UN-brokered armistice agreement securing its withdrawal.

Even though they signed the same armistice document, Israel and Syria took fundamentally different views of the DMZ. Israel considered it to be Israeli territory, subject to no restrictions except for the ban on military forces. Indeed, most of the DMZ came under Israeli civil administration. Syria's understanding was that the DMZ was not to be regarded as Israeli territory. Even though it did not claim sovereignty for itself, Syria did undertake to administer Arab villages within the DMZ adjacent to the Golan Heights.

Between 1949 and June 1967 the DMZ was often the scene of violence. Israeli attempts to divert Jordan River water from within it provoked Syrian shelling. Syria's presence in the Yarmouk River town of El Hammah and an attempt by Israeli police to occupy it led to a nasty confrontation in 1951. There were repeated clashes pertaining to Lake Tiberias and, in the northern part of the DMZ, fighting broke out as a result of Syrian threats to divert the waters of the Banias River; incidents that helped to provoke the 1967 war.

How will the DMZ issue be handled now?

Inasmuch as Syria has never claimed sovereignty, the parties could presumably conclude that it belongs to Israel. Syria might agree to the formal liquidation of the 1949 armistice regime in exchange for the full return of the Golan Heights and assured access for its citizens to Lake Tiberias.

An alternate version of "total withdrawal" could involve drawing an international boundary different from the one imposed by the British and the French. For example, Syria might be given El Hammah (now Hammat Gader) or frontage on Lake Tiberias in exchange for the Banias and other water-related concessions important to Israel.

"Land for peace" sounds like a straightforward proposition. To assume, as has often been the case, that the "land" side of the equation is just "the Golan Heights" is to overlook the "devil in the details;" details that will help shape Syrian-Israeli peace talks.

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