*Golan (GO)

Territory designation

* denotes disputed and/or occupied territory 


40,000 to 50,000

Main towns

Katzrin (Jewish settlement) and Majdal Shams, largest Syrian-Druze town

Constitutional status

*Categorised by the UN as Syrian territory held under occupation by Israel

The Golan, also known as the Golan Heights, is a rocky plateau in what is internationally recognised as southwestern Syria. Israel seized the Golan from Syria in the closing stages of the Six Day War in June 1967. Spanning a total of 690 square miles (1,800 sq. km), the area has long assumed a strategic and political importance way beyond its size.

Panoramic vantage point

The Golan shares borders with Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, from the tip of the Sea of Galilee in the southwest of the area to Mount Hermon in the North. The Syrian capital Damascus is visible from certain vantage points and the Heights offer panoramic views of Galilee. Between 1948 and 1967, Syria used the advantage of the Heights to shell northern Israel.

Six Day War

Syria lost control over most of the Golan Heights during the Six Day War of June 1967, in which Israel defeated Syria along with Jordan and Egypt. Israel gained control of two thirds of the Golan Heights, approximately 450 square miles, and has occupied this strategically important area ever since. It now administers the area it occupies as part of Israel. Syria retains control of the remaining third of the territory making up the Golan.

In 1973, Syria failed in its subsequent military attempt to reclaim the Golan territory under Israeli occupation and it has failed so far to negotiate their return. Israel passed a law in 1981 that - de-facto - annexed the Heights. 

The people of Golan

Israel began immediately to settle the Golan following the 1967 conflict. There are now approximately 30 Jewish settlements and roughly 20,000 settlers. There also remains approximately 27,000 Syrians, mostly from the Druze sect who start settling north Golan and the slopes of  Mount Hebron in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Israel has offered the Druze Israeli citizenship with equal rights and citizenship cards. The offer has been greeted with mixed feelings, not least because people fear reprisals by Syria on grounds of disloyalty should Damascus ever regain control of the Heights.

Yom Kippur and Syria's recapture attempt

Syria attempted to recapture the heights In the October 1973 conflict between Israel and neighbouring Arab states, known as the Yom Kippur War. Israel suffered significant losses in the conflict but managed eventually to thwart the Syrian attack. Syria and Israel signed an armistice, and UN peacekeepers have been present on the Heights ever since the ceasefire.  

Golan Heights Law

In December 1981, the Knesset passed the Golan Heights Law, officially applying Israeli law and government to the Heights. The international community recognised the legislation as, effectively, a declaration of annexation. Later that month, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 497, declaring Israel’s unilateral action “null and void and without international effect.”

Syria still insists on the return of Israeli-occupied Golan as part of any future peace deal. In 1999-2000, the Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak indicated a possible return of most of the Golan to Syria. However, a sticking point has been Syria’s demand for Israel to withdraw to the pre-1967 border, which would give Damascus control of the eastern shore of the Galilee, Israel’s most important source of fresh water.

Golan of critical importance to Israel

Israeli public opinion largely views control of the Golan as critically important. Former US President Barak Obama tried to restart negotiations between Syria and Israel but the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011 put paid to US attempts at resolving the issue. The conflict even reached Golan ceasefire lines in 2013. Syria re-opened its main Golan border crossing to UN observers in 2018.

White House recognition

In March 2019, the Trump administration formally recognised Israel’s annexation of Golan and its sovereignty over the year, a uniliteral move that was not followed by the rest of the international community.  

Key dates

332 BC - 34AD
The generals of Alexander the Great seize Golan and the rest of the region which are then occupied by various peoples
34 AD - 636 AD
The Romans and then the Byzantines control Syria and Golan, also known as Bashan
The Mamluks defeat the Mongols at the Battle Ain Jalut just south of Galilee and annex the region including the Golan
636 AD
ARRIVAL OF ISLAM: The Rashidun Caliphate, the first of 4 major caliphates established after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, defeats the Byzantine Empire at Battle of the Yarmuk in Syria
1400s - 1500s
The Druze begin to settle in northern Golan and on the slopes of Mount Hermon
BATTLE OF MARJ DABIQ: The Ottomans defeat the Mamluks and add Syria and other territories to their growing empire
400 years of control by Ottoman Empire ends with World War 1 Armistice
French mandate ends and Syria's independence is declared
1948 - 1967
Intermittent shelling by Syrian artillery at Israel from the huge vantage point afforded by the Heights
June 1967
SIX DAY WAR: Israel occupies Golan towards the end of the Six Day War
Oct' 1973
YOM KIPPUR: A determined assault by Syrian troops fails to take back the Golan from Israel in the Yom Kippur War
Israel and Syria sign an armistice
THE GOLAN HEIGHTS LAW: Israel's Knesset passes Golan Heights Law effectively annexing the Golan
DEC' 1981
UN REACTION: The United Nations Security Council adopts Resolution 497, declaring that Israel's Golan Heights Law is "null and void and without international legal effect." The UN calls own Israel to rescind its action
Dec' 1999
GOLAN TALKS: Israel's premier Ehud Barak meets Syrian officials to discuss the Golan issue. But talks break the following January
Jan' 2000
US-brokered talks over return of most of the Golan collapse over arguments as to whether Israel should also return a tiny parcel of land near the Sea of Galilee, a critical water supply for Israel
June 2007
Israel say it is willing to trade land for peace if Syria's president Bashar al-Assad cuts ties with Iran and hostile militias
Sept' 2007
DEIR EZ-ZOR ATTACK: Israel bombs a nuclear reactor under construction reportedly with the help of North Korea at Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria
Jan' 2008
Indirect talks involving Israel and Syria resume through Turkish intermediaries
Sept' 2008
Golan talks put on hold following resignation (on un-related matters) of prime minister Ehud Olmert
Syria complains there is no Israeli partner for talks on the Golan. initiative fizzles out
Syrian civil war impinges on the Golan. Israel returns fire against Syrian rebels and later against Syrian troops
April 2016
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a cabinet meeting in the Golan and announces "Israel will hold the Golan Heights for ever."
March 2019
President Donald Trump signs a proclamation recognising Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights. The UN sticks with Resolution 497 and insists that "the status of Golan has not changed."