To whom does the Golan Heights belong?
From biblical sources to modern times; a brief history of the Golan Heights.
The Golan Heights Photo: Seth J. Frantzman
Referred to as “Bashan” in the Bible, the Golan Heights was considered part of
the Land of Israel. Its main city, “Golan in Bashan,” (Deuteronomy 4:43, Joshua
21:27) was designated a “City of Refuge” (for those who had committed
The area was assigned to the tribe of Menashe
King Ahab of Israel (874- 852 BCE) defeated Ben- Hadad
I of Damascus near Kibbutz Afik in the southern Golan (I Kings 20:26-30), and
the prophet Elisha prophesied that King Yehoash of Israel (801-785 BCE) would
defeat Ben-Hadad III of Damascus, also near Kibbutz Afik (II Kings
During the late 6th and 5th centuries BCE, the Golan was settled
by Jews returning from exile in Babylon. In the mid-2nd century BCE, Judah
Maccabee and his brothers led the Jewish army to rescue Jewish communities in
the Golan who were attacked by their non-Jewish neighbors (I Maccabees 5). Judah
Maccabee’s grandnephew, the Hasmonean King Alexander Yannai (103-76 BCE) later
added the Golan to his kingdom.
At the beginning of the Roman war against
the Jews, the historian Josephus Flavius wrote of the siege and conquest of
Gamla, the main Jewish town of the Golan, where he alleges a mass suicide took
place. Excavations of the site revealed the oldest synagogue in Israel, dated to
the Hasmonean period, around 80 BCE.
Twenty-five Jewish villages and
synagogues from the Second Temple and Talmudic periods have been found
throughout the Golan. Jewish life flourished there until the mid-8th century CE,
when an earthquake and/or the Muslim invasion destroyed these
Except for a few small Druse villages built during the 15th
and 16th centuries, and later, Circassians, the Golan remained desolate until
the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Jews bought land between the
modern-day B’nei Yehuda and Kibbutz Ein Gev, on the eastern shore of Lake
This community survived until 1920, when several of its members
were murdered in the anti-Jewish riots of that year; isolated and unprotected,
the rest left.
In 1891, Baron Rothschild purchased approximately 18,000
acres of land about 15 km. east of Ramat Hamagshimim, in what is now Syria.
Between 1881 and 1903 (the “First Aliya”) Jews established five small
communities in this area, but they too were driven out by Arab gangs.
dispute between Britain and France, the Golan became part of the French Mandate
after WWI, and was included in Syria when it became an independent state at the
end of World War II.
THERE WAS little significant civilian Syrian
presence on the Golan Heights during Syrian occupation; it was used primarily as
a military base from which to attack settlements in the Hula Valley and, in
1965, Syria attempted to divert the sources of the Jordan River, Israel’s main
water supply, almost provoking war.
Conquered by the IDF during the Six
Day War (in 1967), it was overrun by Syrian forces in 1973 (the Yom Kippur War),
reconquered by the IDF and officially annexed by Israel in 1981.
there are nearly three dozen Jewish communities on the Golan Heights, most on or
near remnants of ancient Jewish towns.
Arguments for retaining the Golan
based on its strategic and military importance, or its natural resources may be
overcome. Israel’s historic and legal claims, however, are unique and
Birkei Yosef (Orach Chaim 489) discusses performing mitzvot
and the relative sanctity of the area east of the Jordan River (territory
occupied by the tribes of Reuven, Gad and Menashe) Chazon Ish proves that
wherever the 12 tribes conquered and lived is automatically considered Eretz
Yisrael, by referring to the laws of shmita, the sabbatical year, which depend
on all tribes living in Eretz Yisrael. If Jews living east of the Jordan River
weren’t included, then shmita would not apply to any area for
None of the Rishonim wrote that the area east of the Jordan River
is not part of Eretz Yisrael. The Ran (Nedarim 22a) writes that certain mitzvot,
like omer, did not apply in areas east of the Jordan River – implying less, but
not no sanctity.
The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist
living in Jerusalem.