Reaction on the Golan: A new park, more guesthouses and an absorption campaign

Residents don't believe latest talk of Heights' return will lead anywhere.

Golan Heights 224 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski  [file])
Golan Heights 224 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Golan Heights residents don't appear too concerned about the attendance of the Syrian deputy foreign minister at the Annapolis conference. The Golan is experiencing a boom, with many new projects in various stages of development. These include the completion of the new B'not Yaakov bridge, the latest stages of work on Road 98 from the Magshimim Junction to the Bashan Junction, the launching of a new absorption campaign, the opening of an entrepreneurial course for women, a new course to train the area's community leaders, and the building of new playgrounds in several communities. In the community of Had-Nes, overlooking Lake Kinneret, 150 housing units have been made available to eager residents, with the option of building two guest lodges per property to give the homeowner an extra source of income and encourage tourism to the area. Residents of the Heights can be forgiven for not getting too excited about talk of returning the Golan to Syria and a resumption of the Syrian-Israeli track - they've heard it before, at several peace conferences during the past few decades. While the Syrian delegation to the Annapolis conference raised the issue of the return of the Golan, and President Shimon Peres said there were various forms of contacts with the Syrians, life on the strategic plateau went on as normal, more than normal actually: A regional council election took place there Tuesday, and the main issue of the election was just how the council would go about developing the Golan Heights even further and getting more Jews to buy homes there. The Golan Regional Council consolidates virtually all the Jewish settlements located on the Golan Heights. It is made up of 19 moshavim, 10 kibbutzim and other villages. While the headquarters are located in Katzrin, that town is itself an independent local council. Syria, which would only attend the summit if Israel agreed to discuss the return of the Heights, has long contended that the mountainous northern region must be returned to Syrian control. Israel captured the Golan during the 1967 Six-Day War. Eli Malka, the incumbent chairman of the Golan Heights Regional Council, was expected to win a second five-year term, and he is expected to continue focusing on developing the communities within his region. Should the Annapolis summit lead to a renewed focus not only on the Palestinian track but also the Syrian track, the regional council may have to deal with the threat of evacuation hanging over their heads. But for now, nobody is concerned with that possibility. It's full steam ahead on populating and developing the region. Last week, a large conference was held in Hispin focusing on the important role veteran Golan families have in the absorption of new families, and how to get more veteran families involved. Baruch Cohen, a senior council official, told The Jerusalem Post that the last thing on anyone's mind is Annapolis. "We are in the development phase," he says, but, and without going into details - "one doesn't discuss strategy out in the open" - Cohen hints that there are "ways of thinking about contingencies". Of the 32 communities within the Golan local council, 24 are in development, Cohen says. On the Golan and in the Galilee, you don't pay for the land, just for its development. On average, you can expect to pay NIS 100,000 for developing a plot of land, and, as a bonus, the government allows you the option of building two guest lodges on your property so that residents can have extra income and to encourage tourism. "People are building very beautiful homes," Cohen says, adding, "on the Golan, you get a real dunam [one-fourth of an acre], not the type of dunam you get in other places in the central part of the country." Since 2002, when the government made the Golan Heights and Galilee regions areas of preferred development, there has been a steady rise in the number of Israelis buying land and building homes on the Golan. Over the past three years, over 1,200 families have been absorbed and on average about 300-400 new families make their homes within the regional council area every year. The population in that area numbers roughly 12,000. Together with Katzrin, the largest Jewish town on the Golan with a population of about 7,500 people, there are about 20,000 Jewish residents of the Golan Heights, according to official estimates. Officials in local authorities and development companies on the Golan Heights are keeping a very low profile at the moment as they don't want to attract the "wrong kind of attention," especially from the Syrians. Regarding the presence of the Syrians at Annapolis, they note that the Syrians sent their deputy foreign minister, and not his boss. That's significant, says Cohen, as it is a sign that as things stand now, there is no serious movement on the Syrian-Israeli track. "We don't think that this is serious. We don't think that they will be returning the Golan Heights to Syria," said Ronit Frankel, who has lived in the area for nearly 20 years. Sheera Claire Frenkel contributed to this report.