* denotes disputed and/or occupied territory
40,000 to 50,000
Katzrin (Jewish settlement) and Majdal Shams, largest Syrian-Druze town
*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.