Published in partnership with MintPress News.
GOLAN HEIGHTS — Israel is taking advantage of the chaos in Syria to expand its illegal settlements in the Golan Heights, just as new oil reserves were discovered in the contested region.
Israel took control of the Golan Heights region, 460 square miles near the border with Syria, after the Six Days War in 1967. Israel soon began building settlements in the occupied region, displacing previous occupants, including the native Druze ethnic group. The Heights were officially annexed by Israel in 1981, and the expansion of occupation continues despite international opposition and multiple U.N. resolutions opposed to the growing settlements.
Now, Israel hopes to quintuple the size of its settlements over the next five years by adding an additional 100,000 settlers to the region. The plan was proposed by Naftali Bennett, a senior Israeli minister and member of the right-wing Jewish Home party, and, according to a report from The New York Times last week, Bennett is just one of “many Israeli leaders and thinkers seizing on the chaos in Syria to solidify Israel’s hold on the Golan.”
The proposal comes after months of fortification of the region by Israeli forces, alongside intensive exploration of the region’s energy reserves. Heather Hartlaub, a co-editor at Muftah, an independent news site dedicated to spreading English-language news of the Middle East, noted:
“Just two years ago, Israeli military engineers overhauled the forty-five mile border fence with Syria and replaced it with a steel barricade that includes barbed wire, touch sensors, motion detectors, infrared cameras, and ground radar, putting it on par with the Wall Israel has constructed in the West Bank.”
Major fossil fuel companies with both American and Israeli investors have also been pouring big money into the region. Afek Oil and Gas Company, a division of New Jersey-based Genie Energy, whose investors include some of the world’s richest moguls like Dick Cheney, Rupert Murdoch, and Jacob Rothschild, has a three-year contract to explore the Golan Heights for oil.
That contract seemed to have paid off last week, when a geologist for Genie Energy told Israel’s Channel 2 television of a major new discovery in the Heights, as reported by Haaretz:
“We’ve found an oil stratum 350 meters thick in the southern Golan Heights,” said Yuval Bartov, the chief geologist of, Genie’s Israeli unit, Afek Oil & Gas. “On average worldwide, strata are 20 to 30 meters thick, and this is 10 times as large as that, so we are talking about significant quantities.”
Reactions in the media range from celebrating the discovery’s potential to “make Israel energy self-sufficient” to concerns that it could spark a new war with Syria, while some experts caution that the size of the oil reserve has yet to be determined.
The United Nations and much of the global community still consider the land part of Syria, and Israel’s occupation of it to be illegal. The Times noted that Bennett and other, unnamed Israeli officials “say that international — or, at least, American — recognition of Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan would be an appropriate salve to Israeli security concerns in the wake of the nuclear deal with Iran.”
With the situation in Syria growing ever more unstable — instability that is actively supported by Israel and its Western allies who hope to control the region — even the local Druze population is beginning to despair of ever regaining their home, according to representatives interviewed by The Times:
“‘These hopes are less and less and maybe became quite to zero,’ said Qasem Sabbagh, a restaurant owner in the Druse capital, Majdal Shams. A longtime activist, Mr. Sabbagh said he had been ‘less active in the past years, because there is no politics here, there is a war only.’”