As the prospects of a Middle East peace conference inched toward realization and the "land-for-peace" principle moved to center stage, Israel's apologists in the United States launched an effort to persuade the American public that asking Israel to give up the occupied territories was like asking it to commit suicide. The territories, we are told repeatedly, were taken in self-defense after the Arabs launched an aggressive war in 1967. Therefore, Israel has no obligation to return them, since its very survival is at stake.
This argument is pressed most vigorously in the case of the Golan Heights, which until the Six-Day War of June 1967 were part of Syria. William Safire of The New York Times took the standard Israeli line when he wrote in July that the Golan Heights were "so often used as the launching site of attacks on Israel, and won from Syria after its 1967 aggression." Other examples could be given. According to this line, the peaceful farmers of nonthreatening low-lying kibbutzim were continually shelled by bloodthirsty Syrians from the Golan's strategic vantage point. Israel had no choice but to seize the property. Returning it would only invite future repetition of the aggression.
What Preceded the Shelling?
Just as one is apt to get a distorted view of a movie plot if one walks in after the show has started, so one is bound to misconstrue events involving the Golan Heights if one looks no further than the standard version of this story. Yes, there was shelling from the Heights. But an important question is, what preceded the shelling? The answer is: much.
We have to go back to the aftermath of the 1948 war between the new state of Israel and the Arab countries. In that war, fighting occurred between Israel and Syria along their border. Although the Israeli side of the border was part of the land allocated to the Zionists by the 1947 UN partition resolution, it contained fertile farmland and villages long occupied by Palestinians. Syria occupied a small part of this land during the war, but withdrew under an armistice agreement, which also required the demilitarization of the territory by both sides. Under the agreement, the Jewish and Arab villages were to coexist, protected by police forces drawn from their respective communities. The armistice agreement was to be temporary, pending a peace treaty. Syrian President Hosni Zaim offered a full peace agreement in return for concessions on Palestinian land, but Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion turned him down.
Instead of negotiating for peace, Israel declared sovereignty over the demilitarized zone. To carry this out, it violated the prohibitions on having military forces and fortifications in the zone by disguising soldiers as police. It also aggressively developed the area, draining water from Arab farms, leveling Arab villages, driving out residents, building roads and transplanting trees in order to move the frontier eastward to the old Palestine border. Israel refused to let the protests of the UN observers stand in the way. Swedish General Carl von Horn, of the UN peacekeeping forces, observed that "gradually, beneath the glowering eyes of the Syrians, who held the high ground overlooking Zion, the area had become a network of Israeli canals and irrigation channels edging up against and always encroaching on Arab-owned property. …