Let The Golan Bloom!

"Let [Syrian leader Bashar] Assad see how the Golan is blossoming," says Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, in light of reports of a new shot-in-the-arm campaign to significantly increase the number of residents there in the coming three years.

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, | updated: 15:28

The new program calls for 900 new housing units in several existing and new Golan Heights communities, at a government investment of 250-300 million shekels (roughly $60-65 million). Several government ministries are to take part in the program, which was approved by the Ministerial Committee for Settlement Affairs.

Katz has said that the program is planned as a response to Syria's recent peace feelers. "Syria's Assad, on the one hand, announces that he's interested in peace," according to Katz, "while on the other he continues to openly support Palestinian terrorism."

The Golan, conquered by Israel in the Six Day War in 1967 after Syria often used it to launch attacks on Jewish communities below, was rendered an official part of the State of Israel in Dec. 1981.

Infrastructures Minister Yosef Paritzky of Shinui agrees that as the Golan is a part of Israel, its communities should be strengthened, "but the timing is bad. It paints Israel as placing obstacles on the way to peace." Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was also reportedly upset at the timing of the announcement, though he was reported to have been in on the planning of the new program. Minister Katz emphasized that the timing is purposeful, emphasizing that the Golan is and will remain Israeli. "It's ours, and we have no intention of giving it up," he said. Syria, as expected, has issued a formal statement of protest.

The Golan is home to the 6,500 inhabitants of the city of Katzrin, as well as another 10,500 residents in 31 smaller communities. The new towns to be built will be based on guesthouses, tourism and agriculture. In addition, family businesses such as dairies, jam-making and wineries will be encouraged, with the hope that they will be profitable and attract tourists. The government also plans three annual festivals in the Golan: a wine event, cherry picking, and a rodeo.

The Los Angeles Times reported this week that a Syrian company transferred large quantities of banned weapons to Iraq, in blatant violation of UN resolutions. The weapons included 1,000 heavy machine guns with ammunition, as well as surface-to-air missile rocket motors, enabling the Iraqis to upgrade their defense abilities against U.S. aircraft that were patrolling the country at the time.