Israel announces stand-down in tension with Syria

Last summer’s Israeli invasion of Lebanon has provoked year-long speculation about a repeat performance this year. Some commentators have recently said that summer lasts a few more months here than in other places of the world, so, they said, the danger still persists.

Today, Israel announced that it is moving its troops — at least, it is rotating them — out of the Golan Heights that it seized from Syria in the aftermath of the June 1967 war. [In 1980, in an apparent fit of pique, Israel announced that it had “annexed” the Golan Heights, and it offered Israeli citizenship to its residents — not all of whom accepted the offer.]

The AP reported that “The decision by Israel’s military followed months of growing tensions along the frontier and concerns that the escalation could result in war. Over the summer, media reports of impending war alternated with announcements by Syrian and Israeli leaders that they had no interest in hostilities. The Israeli officials said Syria’s military has now reduced its war readiness, but offered no details because the exact steps taken by the Syrians are classified. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge the information to the press. Israeli forces scheduled to hold maneuvers on the Golan Heights would now be moved away from the border to the country’s south to further reduce friction, the officials said, and the army’s war-readiness status on the Israel-Syria border is now considered over … Syria demands that Israel return the heights in return for peace, but negotiations between the sides last broke down in 2000 over the extent of an Israeli withdrawal.”
Read the full AP report here.

Haaretz is reporting that “The IDF had previously increased its training exercises in the Golan Heights since the end of the Second Lebanon War last summer.”
Read the Haaretz story here.

In peace talks that broke off in the year 2000, the Syrian Government demanded the full withdrawal of Israeli forces to the water of the Sea of Galilee. Israeli negotiators reportedly stated that their security concerns prevented them from even thinking about withdrawal of a strip of territory along the shore of the lake.

Control over Israel’s water sources is one major issue here.

Israel has heavily promoted tourism in the Golan Heights in recent years, and a number of luxurious health spas attract Israeli and foreign visitors. Some of Israel’s finest agricultural produce, including wines, also comes from farms in the Golan Heights.

Despite official stances, there has been a lot of discussion in academic and political circles in Israel about hope for the establishment of peace with Syria. Earlier this summer, Israeli media reported that the U.S. was opposed to Israeli diplomatic moves towards Syria — because the U.S. wanted efforts to focus on the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The Shebaa Farms area — agricultural slopes off the Lebanese town of Shebaa, which the UN under Kofi Annan determined was Syrian territory which did not need to be returned after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, but which Syria and Lebanon both say(in different degrees of clarity) is Lebanese territory — was the flashpoint that started last summer’s Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

The present UNSG, BAN Ki-Moon, appeared ready, according to many news reports, to reverse the UN decision on the “ownership” of the Shebaa Farms, and to proclaim it Lebanese. However, Israel appears to oppose this, and has therefore also opposed a return of a UN cartographer to the region.

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