The Golan, towering almost a mile high above the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret) and nearby communities, was used by the Syrians to attack Israeli towns below in the years prior to the Six Day War. Israel restored peace to the area with its capture of the Heights in 1967. Six years later, the Syrians ran through the Golan and nearly captured the Galilee in the Yom Kippur War. In 1981, Israel annexed the Golan Heights, rendering it an intrinsic part of the State of Israel.
Trade Minister Ehud Olmert, who, unlike Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was not involved in planning the program to construct several hundred new housing units in the Golan and develop tourism packages there, told BBC on Friday that there is no plan to expand the Golan Heights towns.
Syria blamed Israel yesterday for "ruining all chances for peace," in light of the reports of the new program. "This is part of Israel's policy of thwarting any advancement towards peace," said Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Haddam. The U.S. State Department spokesman has said that Israel has related to the issue, "but it is not clear what is going on in the Golan Heights at present."
In the meantime, Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz is adamant about the importance of his program. "Let [Syrian leader Bashar] Assad see how the Golan is blossoming," he said last week, emphasizing that the Golan is and will remain Israeli. "It's ours, and we have no intention of giving it up," he said.
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. The Golan is currently home to the 6,500 inhabitants of the city of Katzrin, as well as another 10,500 residents in 31 smaller communities.
Katz has said that the program is planned as a response to Syria's recent peace feelers. "On the one hand, Syria's Assad announces that he's interested in peace," according to Katz, "while on the other, he continues to openly support Palestinian terrorism."
The other side of the coin features U.S. concern at the extent of Syrian cooperation with Saddam Hussein between 2000 and 2003. American media continue to report the recent revelations of the smuggling of military hardware to Hussein by a Syrian firm headed by a cousin of President Assad, and controlled by members of the president's Baath Party and Alawite clan. The smuggling helped turn Syria into Hussein's main channel for circumventing the UN arms embargo.
IDF Intelligence Chief Gen. Aharon Ze'evi told the Cabinet this morning that Syria continues to fund and aid Hizbullah, as well as Palestinian terrorist organizations such as Fatah.
It was reported on Friday that Syria has blacklisted an Italian ship - the Favola - for doing business with Israel. Syria recently removed two ships - the Sparrow from Portugal and the Baku from Turkey - from its list of blacklisted carriers after their operators pledged that the ships would stop doing business with Israel.
Golan heights communities map