A Tale of Five Decades

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“From the very first day after the Six Day War, there was consensus throughout Israel to settle the Golan,” Golan Regional Council Head Eli Malka says. He divides the 50 years that have passed since then into five distinctive stages, each of which happens to be a decade long.

An interview with Eli Malka by Yadin Roman

Decade 1: Cowboys

“The first decade was one of euphoria,” Golan Regional Council Head Eli Malka recalls. “It was clear to the Israeli public – just as it was to the government and the settlement agencies – that the Golan would remain in the State of Israel’s jurisdiction.”

That, at least, is how things initially appear today when looking back on that fateful period. However, a closer examination reveals that in the first days after the Six Day War in 1967, the reality was a bit different.

“The Golan, the western region of northern Transjordan, was unknown territory to the residents of Israel,” Mordechai Nistt wrote on June 28, 1967, in Davar, the ruling labor party’s semiofficial newspaper. “It thus would be no wonder if many are surprised upon learning just how Hebrew the Golan was in the days of the First Temple and especially in the days of the Second Temple, as well as in the first decades after its destruction. The entire Golan, which does not cover more than 1,650 square kilometers, had a very dense Jewish settlement, no less and perhaps even more so than the Galilee.”

Israel’s security cabinet met on June 14 and 15, 1967, immediately after the fighting ended, and decided that if the Syrians agree to accept the international border as the border between Israel and Syria, then Israel would return the Golan to Syria. The ceasefire line set between Israel and Syria at the conclusion of the War of Independence in 1948 does not run along the international border. This new demarcation line, which was intended to be temporary until a final peace agreement could be signed, gave Syria access to the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee as well as to the Jordan River’s eastern bank. In addition, demilitarized zones were officially established along the ceasefire line. In contrast, the entire Sea of Galilee, both banks of the Jordan River, Hamat Gader, and the Banias plateau are all on the Israeli side of the international border. Two days after the meeting of the Israeli security cabinet, the issue was brought before the cabinet, which decided, “Israel proposes reaching a peace agreement with Syria based on the international border and the security needs of Israel.” The cabinet also emphasized that, “until a peace agreement is reached, Israel will continue to hold the territories that it holds today.” The Israeli offer was conveyed to the US, which relayed it to Syria. Syria rejected it.

At the same time, in accordance with the cabinet’s decision, the Jewish Agency’s settlement department began planning to establish settlements along the international border in areas that up till then had been demilitarized and for all purposes under Syrian control. The first two of these settlements were established in September 1967. First a group from the Hashomer Haza’ir movement settled on the Banias plateau at the site that eventually became Kibbutz Snir. Another group set up a Nahal outpost called Matteh Oz south of the Bridge of the Daughters of Jacob near Gadot.

“This settlement operation,” trumpeted the newsletter of the Mapam movement, with which Hashomer Haza’ir was affiliated, “will open a new page in the history of pioneering settlement in the Land of Israel.”

The government decision to negotiate with Syria over the return of the Golan was kept secret, but the plan to establish a string of outposts along the international border was enough of a hint of an intention to withdraw from the Golan to spur panic in the kibbutzim of the Hula Valley. For 19 years, the communities in the Hula Valley had suffered repeatedly from Syrian shelling and they were terrified that the mountain looming over them would return to spewing fire and brimstone.

Eitan Satt of Kibbutz Gadot commanded a reconnaissance platoon in the IDF’s Ninth Brigade during the Six Day War.

“We fought in the Dotan Valley facing Nablus,” he relates. “When the war ended, the kibbutz requested my release so that I could manage the operation to rehabilitate the kibbutz buildings. Gadot had been destroyed. Two months before the war, on the afternoon of Friday, April 7, the Syrians sought vengeance for the Israeli Air Force’s downing of six of their MiG aircrafts. The Syrians launched a massive shelling of Gadot. From the Syrian positions on the Golan, which then was called the Syrian Heights, the buildings of the kibbutz could be seen as clearly if they were in the palm of your hand. Within 20 minutes, the Syrians fired 400 shells in a highly precise operation. The kibbutz was destroyed almost down to its foundations. We began rehabilitating it immediately afterwards and volunteers came from all over Israel and abroad to help. Two months later, the Six Day War began and shells fell on the kibbutz again. This time, they were much less precise.

“I was 32 years old and two years earlier, I had served as the coordinator of the kibbutz. So I began to coordinate the rehabilitation work. We did not know about the government proposal to withdraw from the Golan to the international border. However, everyone remembered the rushed withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula after the Sinai Campaign. I also participated in that war, in the Ninth Brigade’s historic march from Eilat to Sharm a-Sheikh. In 1956, following American and Russian threats and pressure, David Ben-Gurion ordered the IDF to withdraw with a single phone call. There was no opposition. The IDF withdrew from the entire Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip and returned to the international border. All of the hatred and the hostile activities along the border returned to the pre-war level to the extent that another war was needed. The idea that we would return to being under the constant bombardment of shells disturbed us greatly.”

Satt decided to take action. He organized a meeting on June 25, 1967, of representatives of all the kibbutzim in the Upper Galilee to discuss actions they could take to prevent a hasty withdrawal from the strategic heights similar to the one from Sinai a decade earlier. Sitting amid the wreckage of Kibbutz Gadot, the participants came to the conclusion that it was vital to establish a civil presence on the heights (in those days, no one spoke about settlement) since it would be more complicated to evacuate civilians simply by an order from the prime minister. The participants included two people who would become leaders of the settlement efforts in the Golan: Yehudah Harel of Kibbutz Menara and Raphael Ben Yehuda of Kibbutz Ne’ot Mordechai.

Ben Yehuda’s friend and fellow kibbutznik Dan Lanner was serving at the time as the chief of staff of the IDF Northern Command. Lanner approached then-OC Northern Command David Elazar and obtained his approval to help civilians create some kind of presence on the Golan. The official goal was for the civilian group to round up cattle from the abandoned Syrian villages.

Meanwhile, on June 22, 1967, three days after receiving the negative answer from the Syrians to the Israeli proposal, a conference of the kibbutz movement took place at Kibbutz Dafna in the Hula Valley. The participants included Yizhak Tabenkin, a labor movement leader who played an instrumental role in founding numerous Israeli institutions, from kibbutzim to the Histadrut, and was one of the leading proponents of creating settlements all over the historic Land of Israel even before the Six Day War. At the conference, Tabenkin called for settling all of the territory “that the IDF had liberated.” The following day, the council of one of the kibbutz movements met at Ramat Hakovesh and decided to launch a wide-ranging operation to establish settlements that would reinforce the results of IDF victories throughout the Land of Israel. The council also decided to advance efforts to unify the various workers parties into what became the Labor Party.

“It took another two or three weeks to organize support for the efforts to ascend the heights from the Jewish Agency’s settlement department and other government bodies,” Satt says, “but there was tacit agreement. Even the Upper Galilee Regional Council contributed 10,000 shekels to the operation.

“We were supposed to herd cattle,” he recalls. “I received a letter from the deputy minister of agriculture, a note of sorts to give to the military governor of Kuneitra and the Golan Heights, Akiva Feinstein.”

Feinstein was a legendary Galilean figure. Born and raised in Rosh Pina, he was recruited by Yigal Allon to the Arab department of the Palmah during World War II. After being trained by the British, he was sent to Syria and Lebanon to collect intelligence and wreak havoc on essential infrastructure. Along with his military activities, he also smuggled weapons for the Palmah. In 1944, the British halted the operations of their Arab department and Feinstein returned to the Land of Israel and joined Aliyah Bet, the secret efforts to bring clandestine immigrants to the land. He was responsible for the route via Kuneitra, the Syrian capital of the Golan, to Hulata, in the Hula Valley, and from Lebanon to Kfar Gil’adi. In 1946, he was captured by the Lebanese, tortured, and imprisoned in Beirut and then Damascus. Despite the torture, he did not break and reveal the identity of the other figures who were involved in the clandestine immigration efforts. He was released in 1950 in the prisoner exchange in the wake of the War of Independence.  Feinstein later was appointed the governor of Nazareth and after the Six Day War, he returned to Kuneitra to serve as the first military governor of the Golan Heights.

“Feinstein was very bored sitting in an office in Kuneitra,” Satt recalls. “I came to him with the letter. He glanced at it without much interest, signed it, and approved it.”

The door to settling the Golan was now open.

The first group of civilians moved into the abandoned Syrian military base at Aleika.

“The Syrian officers’ quarters at the site were cleaner than the others so we settled in them. There also was a swimming pool,” Satt recalls.

After a few weeks, family responsibilities forced Satt to leave Aleika. Back at Gadot, he focused on recruiting young people to join the outpost.

“Young people came from all over the country, including a group that had just been released from the paratroopers’ reconnaissance unit,” he says. “They had discussed settling on the Golan while still in the army and now came to fulfill their plans. Volunteers from kibbutzim arrived daily. Dan Perry, who was appointed to serve as the Israel Nature and Park Authority’s first ranger on the Golan, arrived. So did Itzhaki Gal, who participated in the survey of the Golan. Each afternoon, when I went home to the kibbutz to see my wife and son, I would find a few volunteers on my doorstep. The first night, they would sleep in my home. The next day, I would take them up to the Golan.

“We roamed the land and herded cattle that roamed freely around the abandoned villages. Most residents of the villages had fled when war broke out, with the exception of the Circassians in the central Golan and the Druze in the northern Golan. Five weeks after the war, the Circassians disappeared. It later turned out that the Circassian men served in the frontline units of the Syrian army.  When it became clear that there would not be an Israeli withdrawal, the Syrian army told the families that had remained to cross the border into Syrian territory.”

Harel picks up the narrative, explaining, “The new settlement that was taking shape on the Golan Heights aimed to promote a new kind of kibbutz that was open to all. We did not say we were members of one kibbutz movement or another, but that we were a new kibbutz, without a movement affiliation and without the traditional rivalries.”

After four months, they moved from Aleika to Kuneitra, where they declared themselves Kibbutz Golan. Four years later, they moved to their current location and changed their name to Kibbutz Merom Golan.

A month after the war ended, several Golan surveys already were underway to search for archaeological remains, map nature sites, and designate areas that would become nature reserves. At the same times, members of Kibbutz Emek Hayarden and Kibbutz Emek Hahula began working agricultural land in the Golan.

On December 15, 1967, David Ben-Gurion came to visit Kibbutz Golan at Kuneitra. At a meeting at the secretariat of the first kibbutz on the Golan, Ben-Gurion heard about the support that the various kibbutz movements extended to the new initiative.

“When will all these movements unite?” Ben-Gurion asked impatiently.

“Here everyone is united,” replied Harel, who was then the new kibbutz’s secretary-general, pointing out that the members hailed from different kibbutz movements.

At the end of the meeting, Ben-Gurion met with the oldest member of the young kibbutz, Ya’acov Ben Menashe, a new immigrant from the US who was a professional cowboy.

“We need two million American Jews here,” Ben-Gurion told him.

“Don’t worry, they will come,” the silver-haired cowboy replied as he held his Stetson hat.

By the eve of the Yom Kippur War, there were 15 settlements on the Golan: six kibbutzim, three moshavim shutafim, two moshavim, two Nahal outposts, a regional center, and an industrial cooperative.

Decade 2: The Great Rift

 

In August 1977, the Golan communities celebrated their tenth anniversary with a rally at Kibbutz Merom Golan. Former minister Israel Galili, who had chaired the ministerial committee for settlements in the government led by the Labor Party (Mapai), participated in the event. In the ninth elections to the Knesset on May 17, 1977, Mapai had lost the dominant position it had held since the state’s establishment when voters brought the Likud Party led by Menachem Begin to power. By that point, 26 communities that were home to 3,600 people had been established on the Golan. However, the great momentum that had brought all these pioneers to move to the Golan ground to a halt during the second decade.

The crisis began after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger began seeking an agreement on the separation and disengagement of forces on the Golan. Israel’s first agreement on the separation and disengagement of forces was reached with Egypt and was based on an Israeli withdrawal from the areas west of the Suez Canal that were conquered during the final days of fighting and a withdrawal from the 1967 ceasefire line to a distance of 30 kilometers from the Suez Canal. For the first time, an Israeli government, led by then-Prime Minister Golda Meir, agreed to withdraw from territories conquered in the Six Day War. This agreement with Egypt thus set a precedent for Israeli withdrawal.

As the agreement regarding Sinai took shape, Kissinger set out to achieve a similar one with Syria. After Meir and Moshe Dayan resigned on April 11, 1974, Yitzhak Rabin formed a new governing coalition. From its very first day, the Rabin government was subject to tremendous pressure from the US to reach an interim agreement with Syria that would be similar to the agreement with Egypt.

In early 1974, while negotiations were underway with Syria, Golan residents convened an emergency meeting to discuss the possibility that Israel would be forced to make concessions on the Golan. In February 1974, a delegation from the Golan met with Meir, who was still prime minister at the time. During the meeting, Meir declared that she did not see any possibility of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.

There also was broad consensus among the Israeli public that the Golan was not up for negotiation. But as talks with Egypt and Syria began, other opinions began to surface. The Yom Kippur War had destroyed Israel’s self confidence, claimed many lives, and greatly increased the longing to end the 25 years of hostilities. Israelis were tired of wars. In January 1974, Moshe Shamir wrote in the Ma’ariv daily newspaper, “The communities of the Golan displayed a healthy instinct when they awakened to save the Golan from a withdrawal.” However, Shamir misread the public sentiment. In its editorial in February 1974, titled, “The Future of the Golan Heights,” Ma’ariv declared, “If all is appointed and done for Israel not to withdraw from the Golan Heights, as the prime minister promised the representatives of the Golan, then it will be difficult for an agreement with Syria to succeed.”

In May 1974, Israel and Syria signed a separation of forces and disengagement agreement after many exchanges of fire that deteriorated into a war of attrition. The agreement included exchanges of prisoners and an Israeli withdrawal from the territories conquered in the Yom Kippur War. In addition, Israel agreed to withdraw from an area of 25 square kilometers around Kuneitra.

The disengagement agreement with Syria brought the diplomatic battle over the Golan to an end. Meanwhile, a severe economic crisis erupted in Israel after the Yom Kippur War. It was related to the worldwide rise in prices due to the Arab oil boycott along with inflation that began to skyrocket in Israel. Efforts to stabilize the economy, mainly by devaluing the shekel, led to a massive countrywide debt crisis.

In the interim, government development budgets for the Golan almost completely disappeared. Construction work on Kazrin – “the city of the Golan,” which Meir’s government had pledged to build in 1973 – ground to a halt.  In 1975, the Golan Residents Committee accused the minister of housing, Avraham Ofer, of intentionally delaying progress on the construction of Kazrin. In October 1975, Aharon Nahmani, director of the Galilee Settlement Branch of the Zionist Federation, noted, “Families are waiting in line for housing on the Golan, but there are no places.”

In November 1979, Menahem Rahat reported on the happenings in Kazrin in Ma’ariv in an article titled, “Kazrin: From Success to Failure.”

In the late 1970s, the Golan was still under military governance. The Golan Regional Council was established in June 1979, bringing together 24 of the communities on the Golan, at the orders of the OC Northern Command. The council’s establishment spurred the efforts to officially make the Golan part of the State of Israel and launched the battle over annexing the Golan. On December 14, 1981, the Knesset enacted the Golan Heights Law, stipulating, “The Law, jurisdiction and administration of the state shall apply to the Golan Heights.” The UN Security Council responded by passing Resolution 497, which declared the annexation meaningless under international law.

However, even after the Golan Heights Law passed, the economic situation on the Golan remained troubled. At an emergency meeting in January 1987, Eitan Liss, the Golan Regional Council head at the time, declared, “Both Labor and Likud demonstrate incomprehensible apathy to the grave situation in the Golan and Jordan Valley – the risk of collapse and destruction hovers over us.” He went on to warn, “In the best case scenario, the 10 kibbutzim and moshavim facing the most severe crisis will only manage to survive for another month.”

In 1988, Yehuda Wolman was appointed the new Golan Regional Council head. He too warned that the Golan communities were in crisis.

“From the master plan for 20,000 residents on the Golan, there are today a total of 31 communities with 9,000 residents and there is no sign of the government promises regarding settlement on the Golan,” he declared during a press tour in June 1988.

The debts of the Golan kibbutzim and moshavim rose to some 250 million shekels and the demand that the government forgive 100 million shekels of this seemed to make no headway. Meanwhile, Golan residents were receiving foreclosure notices from the banks. Meir Hareuveni reported in Ma’ariv in August 1988 that residents decided at an emergency session in Kazrin, “If officers of the executioner’s office come to foreclose on the debts, they will encounter resolute opposition.”

When a solution was ultimately found, for many it was too late. By the late 1980s, many Golan residents had left: 20 percent of the kibbutz members had moved to other parts of the country, as did 10% of the residents of the moshavim and Kazrin.

The decade of the great rift concluded with two key events. The winter of 1989 was one of the most difficult winters the Golan ever experienced: a series of severe heat waves in the fall, followed by a massive hail storm in January, followed by a cold wave that wrought havoc on the Golan’s orchards. At the end of that January, residents of the Golan learned that the Ministry of Finance had cancelled many of the tax breaks previously applicable to the Golan. Shimon Peres, the finance minister at the time, had not signed the order renewing Golan residents’ tax benefits.

When spring arrived, on April 19, 1989, Peres, together with the department heads of his ministry, toured the Golan. At Kibbutz Kfar Haruv, Peres decided to lower the interest rate on government loans and to reschedule the debts of the Golan kibbutzim.

“You have nothing to fear,” Peres promised, “the Golan was and will be an inseparable part of the State of Israel.”

Decade 3: Peace with the Golan

 

Despite Peres’s assurances, fear that the Golan would not remain part of Israel was an inseparable part of the Golan’s third decade. A decade after the enactment of the Golan Heights Law, the possibility of withdrawing from the Golan as part of an agreement with Syria arose again. This decade opened with the first Gulf War. After it ended, the US tried to capitalize on the new spirit that seemed to prevail in the Middle East to advance a peace accord between Israel and the Arab states. Then-US President George Bush and his energetic Secretary of State James Baker put tremendous pressure on then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to negotiate with the Arab states. Against his will, Shamir was dragged to the international peace conference in Madrid. Shamir’s condition for Israel’s participation was that negotiations would be held separately with each individual state and that there would not be any negotiations with the Palestinians. Supposedly, the Madrid conference of September 1991 led nowhere and achieved nothing. However, this conference actually laid the foundations of the official channels of negotiations between Israel and its neighbors that are in use to this day. The conference also led to the renewal of diplomatic relations between Israel and Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union.

Israel’s right-wing political parties saw the channels laid at Madrid as a move in a dangerous direction. The Moledet and Tehiya parties withdrew from the coalition, toppling the government.

The renewal of talks with Syria and the fear of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan led to the reestablishment of the Golan Residents Committee. Eli Malka of Moshav Sha’al was elected the chairperson. The committee was active mainly in the realm of advocacy and public diplomacy to determine the Golan’s legal status and prevent an Israeli withdrawal. The committee declared its main goal was to win hearts and adopted the slogan, “Peace with the Golan.”

The day before the elections for the thirteenth Knesset, the committee organized a rally of Golan residents to celebrate 25 years of Golan settlement. The guests of honor were the incumbent prime minister, Shamir, and his main opponent in the elections, the Labor Party’s candidate for prime minister, Rabin. They both promised to keep the Golan in Israeli hands.

“Do not even harbor the idea that in a time of peace we will descend from the Golan,” Rabin said. “Anyone who thinks about descending from the Golan will forfeit Israel’s security.”

Rabin’s declaration completely contradicted his party’s position on the Golan and was intended mainly to appeal to potential voters. Rabin promised that if he were elected prime minister, his government would increase investment in the Golan.

Most residents of the Golan voted for the Labor Party in the election the next day. However, on July 13, 1992, at the conclusion of the Knesset session at which Rabin presented his new government, he announced that great effort must be made to achieve peace. Most of Rabin’s speech focused on negotiating with the Palestinians, but they included the tacit message that the path to peace that had been initiated in Madrid must continue.

Then-US president Bush quickly noticed the change in the Israeli government’s stance. After the speech, he phoned Rabin to congratulate him on being elected and added that the following week, he would send the US secretary of state to the Middle East to renew the peace negotiations. The peace talks in Washington, which had been progressing very slowly since the Madrid conference, were renewed after the elections. The optimism regarding quick progress with the Palestinians dissipated after a few rounds of talks, but after Rabin declared that the UN formula of land for peace also applies to the Golan Heights, there seemed to be significant progress in the talks with Syria.

The talk about the intention to withdraw from the Golan, even if it were only a tiny withdrawal as Rabin presented it, stirred the Golan Residents Committee to action. Its main goal was to condition any withdrawal from the Golan on being approved by a public referendum. Rabin, who promised before the elections that he would not withdraw from the Golan, has no mandate to negotiate withdrawing from it, the people of the Golan declared. Rabin accepted this claim and pledged that if things reach the point that a withdrawal would be discussed, his government would hold a referendum.

This meant that the people of the Golan then had to fight for the hearts of the nation and convince the majority of the public to oppose a withdrawal. Bureaus staffed by volunteers sprouted up around the country and the slogan, “The nation is with the Golan,” began to appear on billboards, banners hung from apartment windows, and bumper stickers. In November 1992, a huge demonstration took place in Malkhei Israel Square (today Rabin Square) in Tel Aviv. It was one of the largest demonstrations ever held there. In June 1994, there was a parade of tractors from Gamla in the Golan to Jerusalem. In May 1995, a roving Golan exhibition began to tour the country. As the negotiations with Syria seemed to advance in September 1994, 12 leaders of the Golan residents went on a hunger strike at the ancient site of Gamla. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens made their way to Gamla to express their support.

Malka and other activists from the Golan Residents Committee established the Third Way political party, which was headed by Avigdor Kahalani, one of the heroes of the Yom Kippur War in the Golan. In 1996, this new party, whose main message was to oppose withdrawing from the Golan, won four Knesset seats, mainly at the expense of the Labor Party.

The battle against a withdrawal from the Golan continued throughout the entire duration of the Rabin and Peres governments, ending only after Binyamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister for the first time in 1996. At the end of the Netanyahu government’s first term, it turned out that Netanyahu too had held secret talks with Syria about withdrawing from the Golan. Meanwhile, the Knesset passed the bill, which was presented by Harel, who had become one of the Knesset members of the Third Way Party, that a withdrawal from sovereign Israeli territory must win approval of at least 61 MKs in a Knesset vote as well as the majority in a national referendum (the clause about the referendum was conditioned on the passage of a basic law on referendums that has yet to be passed).

After Ehud Barak was elected prime minister, negotiations with Syria were renewed. Barak was determined to reach an agreement. The peak of the renewed negotiations was a summit meeting between Barak and the Syrian foreign minister in Washington and Shepherdstown in the US. The Golan Residents Committee renewed its struggle full force, with the peak being another huge demonstration in Rabin Square in January 2000.

In March 2003, there was a summit meeting in Geneva between then-US President Bill Clinton and then-Syrian President Hafez Assad. At the meeting, Clinton conveyed Barak’s offer to withdraw from the entire Golan to the pre-1967 border except for a narrow strip of a few dozen meters along the Sea of Galilee’s northeastern shore. Assad rejected the Israeli proposal. Thus the Golan’s third decade ended with the official burial of the idea of a settlement with Syria that included a withdrawal from the Golan.

Decade 4: Education, Community, and Livelihood

 

In 2001, when Malka was elected the Golan Regional Council head, “We were in a difficult position,” he recalls, noting. “The battle against withdrawal had exhausted us. Quite a few residents had left and new residents did not arrive. We needed to formulate a plan for how to continue, to take responsibility for the area, and to renew the Golan spirit, the initiative and the development.”

The strategy included demographic growth and absorbing new populations.

“When we asked people what would convince them to move to the Golan, they cited three main factors: an education system, a quality community, and a job,” he says.

In the first decade of the millennium, an outstanding educational system was developed in the Golan. This renewed pedagogical system became one of the main factors to attract families to the Golan. On the employment front, the foundations of a tourism industry were laid.

“In the early years, we did not want to deal with tourism,” Malka recalls. “However, after the turn of the millennium, we understood that the open expanses of the Golan, the beauty of the region, and the possibility of an additional source of income for farmers all made tourism a worthwhile venture. This source of income has another advantage – people get to know the Golan and internalize that it is an inseparable part of the State of Israel. The main type of tourism that developed in the Golan is nature trips and heritage tours: historic sites, battle sites, and Jewish heritage sites on one hand and volcanoes, agriculture, and nature sites on the other hand.”

A survey conducted in 2003 concluded that the Golan needed to be rebranded. Its name, the Golan Heights, was interpreted as too political and military in tone, evoking memories of the name the Syrian Heights, from which the Syrians fired upon Israeli settlements in the Hula Valley. It was a place that needed to be conquered, a place of battles during the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, and a place of shelling that wears down the motivation to fight. A consensus formed that there was a need to replace the Golan Heights with simply the Golan. The shorter name, the Golan, was seen as conveying that this is a vital, new place with open expanses and nature – a place that is possible to think about moving to.

The Golan’s Jewish population grew in the first decade of the millennium, reaching 25,000. The population of the four Druze villages also rose, to 24,000. The larger population made it possible to develop the Golan’s infrastructure, services, places of employment, and cultural offerings significantly.

“Along with the growth in population, we are diligent about nature conservation, which is one of the Golan’s defining characteristics. A few years ago, an initiative was launched to establish 750 new farms, each of which extends over 15 acres. Today this initiative involves almost 10,000 acres and is a magnet attracting young families to the Golan,” Malka says.

Decade 5: Leaping Forward

In its fifth decade and looking toward the future, the Golan is putting an emphasis on smart agriculture.

“Agriculture must change and not just on the Golan. In the eastern Galilee and the Golan, we focused on developing therapeutic agriculture,” Malka explains. “We can provide an agricultural response to two needs: healthy agricultural products and crops that incorporate natural healing. The organic plots of land in the Golan already are supplying the growing demand in Israel and the world for healthy agricultural products. As for natural healing, it is a field of research which we are investing in today in the Golan and that will develop in the coming years and provide a handsome income for farmers.

“We want to tie together the Israeli knack for innovation and farming,” Malka explains. “Places of employment developed here on three levels. The foundation is agricultural research institutes. The next layer above this is companies that utilize this research. Finally, the layer above that is the use of these new agricultural crops in industries that will be established in the Golan or be integrated into the cities in this area.

“Knowledge-intensive agriculture can have an impact on the entire region. This is an important connection that will bring together residents of agricultural communities and residents of towns and cities. The key is agriculture, academia, and research institutes, along with companies that utilize knowledge derived from them.”

Another area the Golan will focus on is conservation.

“The responsibility we assumed for ourselves regarding the values of nature and landscape,” Malka says, “will enable the creation of the main green lung of Israel. This has great significance in tourism and hiking and even beyond that. People will come here not only to see the nature and how we grow agricultural crops, but also to see the cooperation between the different populations in all the different regional authorities in the Galilee.”

Finally, the Golan must draw upon the lessons learned in previous decades to contribute to Israeli society.

“The debate over the borders of the land has ended,” Malka says. “Today we need to focus on Israeli society itself, on ourselves and on bridging the disputes and differences between the different parts of society. We need to return to our shared base instead of focusing on the factors that separate us. That is the current Zionist challenge of Israeli society.

“The Golan is not just an amazing area,” he continues, “but also a model for building a place where it is good to live. This is a large expanse of land with 32 communities whose residents are religious and secular, right-wing and left-wing, old-timers and newcomers. The regional council takes responsibility for everything: education, infrastructure, highways, and even public transportation. The Golan bus company offers regular, frequent bus service between all our communities at a reasonable price and is even a profitable company.

“In its sixth decade, the Golan needs to be with the nation. It must dedicate itself to working towards a better society, more solidarity, and most of all, returning the sense of mutual responsibility between us. Golan residents come from every sector of Israeli society, live side by side happily, and share a desire to improve the place in which they live. This is undoubtedly the modern day Zionist challenge.”

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