Vivian Bercovici: Critics of Trump’s Golan Heights order need to brush up on facts

Vivian Bercovici: Critics of Trump’s Golan Heights order need to brush up on facts

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March 28, 2019

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For years, the West paid virtually no attention to this very real threat on Israel’s borders. Israel was never the aggressor

June 5, 1967: Following two decades of Arab rejection of the newly established state of Israel, war erupts, again.

In a pre-emptive strike, Israel virtually destroys the entire Egyptian air force fleet, grounding it. This is in response to hardline Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, at the time the undisputed leader of the Arab world, and his increasingly violent rhetoric pledging to destroy the Jewish state, backed up by military manoeuvres and buildups on the ground, and threats to cut off Israel’s maritime access to the Gulf of Aqaba, and the world.

The following day, Syria and Jordan attack Israel on the eastern and northern fronts. Both borders, particularly the short one with Syria, had bristled with tension from serial terrorist raids attacking Israeli civilians.

There was absolutely no question that Syria had attacked Israel

By any rational test, there was absolutely no question that Syria had attacked Israel. None. Unfortunately for Syria, within five days of its initial attack, the IDF not only repelled its forces but also captured the Golan Heights, an elevated plateau.

The area has little, if any, religious significance for anyone, was and remains sparsely populated (in ’73 by approximately 20,000 Syrian Druze), and Palestinians have never lived there, nor do they claim it as ancestral territory.

It also happens to be an enormously important strategic asset, from which Syrian soldiers used to shoot regularly at Israeli civilians in villages and farms below. More recently, the Golan Heights has abutted the scene of heavy fighting between the Syrian army, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which opposes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad), and ISIL.

Syrians protest on March 26, 2019, in the northern city of Aleppo, against the United States’ decision to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images

Several years ago, when fighting raged along the Israeli-Syrian border, I had occasion to visit the area. One of my colleagues pointed to a rather unremarkable hill, approximately 500 metres from where we stood. It was a wind-scrubbed, sun-baked, desolate little bump, by Canadian standards. No village. Nothing.

A battle had been ongoing for weeks between FSA forces and ISIL, the latter having captured the hill and immediately planted their black flag at the top. Unknown numbers of fighters on both sides died in these battles.

As I looked through a super-powerful set of binoculars at the flag, within 60 seconds, the bare hilltop suddenly swarmed with more than 20 ISIL fighters. Many of them had binoculars, and were watching me watch them. We lay in the dirt, flak jackets and helmets on, and waited. One of the more seasoned members of our group warned that when ISIL feels “watched,” they fire. Fortunately, they did not on that day.

We lay in the dirt, flak jackets and helmets on, and waited

The West paid virtually no attention to this very real threat on Israel’s borders. Yet, the international media and political communities, having transformed into overnight military and legal experts, are now slamming Israel regarding the Golan Heights, for what they deem an affront to international law.

Perhaps they are a little rusty on the historical facts.

Six years after the 1967 war, Egypt and Syria launched a full-out military offensive (Jordan, wisely, chose to sit this round out). It also happened to be Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, when everything in the country shuts down.

A photo taken from the Syrian town Ain al-Tineh shows the Druze town of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on March 26, 2019. Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

The surprise attack put Israel in an existential situation for the first few days of the war. Of course, the Arab intention was to recapture territory lost in the 1967 war and, while they were at it, destroy the rest of Israel and repatriate the Palestinians.

Again, the IDF prevailed, maintaining control over the Sinai desert and the Golan Heights. In both wars, the Arab countries were very much the aggressors, bellicosely so — a critical point when it comes to considering international law.

Because international law, as understood since the Second World War in particular, denounces the situation where the aggressor occupies land in an armed conflict. There seems to be consensus that such situations violate our collective sense of decency and fairness. So, for example, the Iraqi attack on Kuwait was roundly abhorred by the international community. As was the Russian aggression vis-a-vis Crimea.

A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stands near a sculpture in the Syrian town of Qunaitra, in the Golan Heights, on March 26, 2019. The writing in Arabic reads: “The Golan is ours.” Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

These situations have been raised recently as being somehow corollary to the Golan. Which they are not. The truth is that international law is focused on the more usual paradigm, where the aggressor keeps the land. Israel is a singular case and the facts challenge the rather brittle thinking and “logic” that the international community is determined to apply in this context.

Had Crimea attacked Russia and lost territory, that would be analogous to the Israel-Syria-Golan situation. Had Kuwait attacked Iraq and lost territory, that would be analogous to the Golan situation.

Israel did not attack Syria. Indisputable historical fact.

Israel did not attack Syria. Indisputable historical fact

Often invoked to discredit Israeli claims to the Golan, United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, addressing the ceasefires of 1967 and 1973, respectively, do nothing of the sort.

As a matter of fact and law, neither resolution precludes the actions taken earlier this week by the United States and Israel. People can hate and vilify U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu all they want. This isn’t personal. It’s factual.

On Monday, during a ceremony at the White House, President Trump signed an Order proclaiming U.S. recognition of the Golan Heights as being part of Israeli sovereign territory, and specifying: “Any possible future peace agreement in the region must account for Israel’s need to protect itself from Syria and other regional threats.”

U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a signed Proclamation on the Golan Heights while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, centre, applauds at the White House on March 25, 2019. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

In response, Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed the profound appreciation of a nation, noting that Israel won the Golan Heights in just wars of self-defence.

“Your proclamation comes at a time when the Golan is more important than ever for our security,” he said, addressing Trump, “when Iran is trying to establish bases in Syria to strike at Israel. From across the border in Syria, Iran has launched drones into our airspace, missiles into our territory.”

There should not be a different standard of compliance with international law for Israel. Based on the reactions of many states to the American recognition Monday, including Canada’s, there is.

— Vivian Bercovici is Canada’s former ambassador to Israel. She lives in Tel Aviv.
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An Israeli military outpost in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights is seen from the Syrian town of Qunaitra on March 26, 2019. Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

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