The Golan Heights:
plateau in the northern part of Israel
. Home to about 18,000 Jews
and 17,000 Druze
. One of the most heavily mined and fortified borders on Earth. Location of several interesting archeological sites. A resting point for tens of thousands of migrating birds. And last but not least, the source for most of Israel's water.
Although the Golan Heights were part of the British Mandate territory approved by the League of Nations, they were not part of the territory granted to Israel in 1948. This was because Britain and France had traded several sections of their respective mandates, without consulting the League of Nations, in a deal orchestrated by the British so that they could gain oilfields in Iraq. Thus, when the state of Israel was created in 1948, the Golan was under French control, and when Syria rebelled against the French in 1949 the Golan was naturally claimed as part of the new country of Syria. This sort of trading back and forth between empires has been happening in this region for at least four thousand years, and made the truth about the Golan's "ownership" extremely hard to determine.
The strategic importance of the Golan is fairly obvious when you look at a topographic map. From this area, you not only control the water supply for all of Israel, but also the high ground above the Sea of Galilee and its surrounding settlements. In addition, the mountains of the Golan are an almost perfect naturally fortified border, making control of the Golan an issue of the utmost importance. Although many people, most famously Shimon Peres, have claimed that in the age of ballistic missile warfare the Golan's defensive role is no longer of consequence, the truth is that ground troops and conventional artillery still play an important part in the area; the Golan may be slightly less important than it used to, but it is still a vital territory from a purely military point of view. *
For this reason, Israel spared no effort to take control of the Golan during the Six-Day War (1967), and immediately began to settle the Heights with kibbutzim and moshavim, reportedly displacing thousands of Druze villagers and 100,000 Syrians in the process.
The borders now claimed by Israel in the Golan are not recognized by international law, and most European maps of Israel do not include the Golan. Those that do, usually label it as a disputed territory. (Working with volunteers on a kibbutz in the Golan, I gave a few English volunteers a good shock by explaining to them that the kibbutz they had landed in was in the part of the map clearly marked as Syrian territory. Surprisingly, some guide books to Israel do not point out the political realities - the text explained the situation, but the maps used 1948 borders...) Despite the international condemnation, in 1981 Israel passed the Law of the Golan, which officially transferred control over the territory from IDF authority to civilian. Most Israelis now view the Golan as an inseparable part of Israel, and firmly believe that it would be an act of suicide to hand the Heights over to Syria. *
Today, there are 4 Druze towns in the Golan and 33 Jewish settlements. The largest town in the region is Qatzrin. There are also dozens of IDF bases in the area. The local economy depends mostly on agriculture (mainly apples, olives, vineyards, cattle and flowers)and industry (plastics, metals, mineral water and several kibbutz-owned high-tech operations). Tourism is also a factor, concentrated mainly in several historical sites, the Hermon ski resort, the hot springs in the south, and bed and breakfasts.
* - It's almost impossible to write about Israeli geography without some kind of political bias, but that's what I'm trying to do here. I can't claim to be as impartial as I would like to be; I grew up in the Golan and still see it as my spiritual home. But I am trying not to state any of my own opinions in this writeup. It is a fact that this territory is hotly disputed, and the Israeli presence there is a blatant violation of UN resolutions. It is also a fact that the Golan was home to many Moslems and Druze who were sorely mistreated in the Israeli takeover. But it is also a fact that Israel needs the Golan. When Syria controlled the Golan, they made extensive efforts to cut off Israel's water supply by diverting the springs that feed the Jordan River, Israel's only major source of fresh water. These efforts were only stopped by Israeli military action. However, Israel's very existence is a very complicated and sensitive issue, and I would rather not get into an ethics debate in what was intended to be a factual node. If anyone would care to talk about this (hopefully in a polite manner!), please /msg me.