Israel Covets Golan’s Water and Now Oil
On June 1, Israeli police burst into the home of an Israeli journalist, confiscated his computer and camera, and arrested him for “incitement to violence and terrorism.” His employer, Iran’s government broadcasting company, said the Druze reporter had antagonized the Netanyahu government with his hard-hitting reports on Israel’s plans for “stealing” oil from the Golan Heights, a 460-square-mile region of Syria seized by Israel during the Six Day War in 1967.
Such reports come at a particularly sensitive time for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other right-wing Israeli politicians, who are seeking to take advantage of the ongoing war in Syria to cement Israel’s control over the Golan. Their allies include such influential Americans as Rupert Murdoch, Dick Cheney, former CIA Director James Woolsey, and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, all of whom are backing an oil-drilling operation of doubtful legality in the occupied region.
Besides its strategic value and potential oil, the Golan Heights is a major source of Israel’s fresh water and agricultural products and a leading tourist destination. If exploratory drilling unlocks as much oil as some geologists predict, the occupied region could turn Israel into “an energy powerhouse.”
Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, in violation of the United Nations’ 1967 General Assembly Resolution 242, which called for the eventual withdrawal of Israeli forces from the occupied territories. Rejecting Israel’s claim, the U.N. Security Council immediately declared the attempted annexation “null and void and without international legal effect.” Within a few months, however, the controversy was overshadowed by the international crisis following Israel’s massive invasion of Lebanon.
As recently as January 2010, the U.N. General Assembly once again reaffirmed the illegality of Israel’s claim to the land and called on Israel to desist from “changing the physical character, demographic composition, institutional structure and legal status of the occupied Syrian Golan and, in particular, to desist from the establishment of settlements” in the area. But that demand came much too late to stop Israel’s systematic land grab.
The respected Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported in 2010 that “Neglect and ruin are everywhere. . . . Apart from the four Druze villages at the foot of Mount Herman, [all Syrian villages] were all destroyed, in most cases down to their foundations. . . . Most were wiped off the face of the earth in a systematic process of destruction that began right after Israel’s occupation of the Golan.”
Challenging the myth that the local population simply fled during the 1967 war, the newspaper reported that the Israeli Defense Forces systematically expelled villagers and then began destroying their homes. An Israeli commander estimated that 20,000 civilians “were evacuated or left when they saw that the villages were starting to be destroyed by bulldozers and they had nowhere to return to.” Census figures indicate that more than 100,000 Syrians lost their homes and property.
Israel has no intention of ever letting them return, even if that means putting aside peace with Syria forever. Instead, Israel today has entrenched more than 20,000 of its own settlers in the Golan. Last year, the right-wing minister and Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett announced a five-year goal of spending hundreds of millions of shekels to settle 100,000 more Israelis on the mountain.
This April, Prime Minister Netanyahu hosted a special cabinet meeting on the Heights, calling it “an integral part of the state of Israel in the new era.” He vowed that the region “will remain in the hands of Israel forever” rather than returning to “Syrian occupation.”
As usual, the U.N. Security Council rejected the Israeli claims, to no practical effect.
Israeli leaders acknowledge that a major reason they will never hand back the Golan Heights is economic: it provides precious fresh water to Israel.
Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs states flatly, “The region’s strategic importance derives from its location, overlooking the Israeli Galilee region, and from the fact that it supplies Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) – a major source of water for Israel – with one third of its water.”
But there is another economic motive driving Israeli policy, as the recently arrested Druze journalist had reported: the smell of oil.
Last fall, an Israeli geologist working for the American company Genie Oil and Gas reported evidence of a huge oil find in the Golan Heights — with the potential to supply billions of gallons of crude, enough to make Israel a net oil exporter. Rejecting complaints by environmental groups, Israeli authorities granted the company a two-year extension of its right to carry out test drilling on 150-square-miles of occupied Syrian land.
Genie Oil and the Israel Lobby
Genie Oil is no ordinary drilling company. Its American CEO, Howard Jonas, is a major campaign donor to Netanyahu. The chairman of its Israeli subsidiary, Brig. Gen. Efraim Eitam, is a former leader of the National Religious Party who called for expelling Palestinians from the occupied territories and murdering their leaders.
He said of the Palestinian people, “These are creatures who came out of the depths of darkness. It is not by chance that the State of Israel got the mission to pave the way for the rest of the world, to militarily get rid of these dark forces.”
The company’s shareholders include at least two billionaire supporters of Israel: multinational media magnate Rupert Murdoch and retired investment banker Lord Jacob Rothschild (whose family foundation donated the Knesset and Supreme Court buildings to Israel).
Murdoch and Rothschild also sit on Genie Oil’s well-connected “strategic advisory board.” Its chair, Michael Steinhardt, is a prominent Wall Street hedge fund manager and a major financial backer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish, neoconservative think tank noted for its fear-mongering against Palestinian leaders as well as Syria and Iran.
Other advisory board members include former Vice President Richard Cheney; James Woolsey, former CIA Director and chairman of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies Leadership Council who has called for tougher U.S. military intervention against Syria; former Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, who sponsored the U.S.-Israel Energy Cooperation bill; former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson; and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers.
Potential for Regional Conflict
Genie’s drilling in the Golan is part of an energy boom that is transforming the outlook for Israel’s economy. Israel has raised “consternation” in Jordan by claiming a major oil reservoir near the Dead Sea, potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Israel has also discovered enormous reserves of natural gas off the coast of Israel and Gaza in the Mediterranean Sea, and is reportedly close to signing a huge gas export agreement with Turkey. The latter deal could undercut long-term plans by Iran and Syria to export gas to Europe.
A report by the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, released in December 2014, noted that recent energy discoveries put Israel “ahead of all East Mediterranean countries in terms of gas reserves and resource prospectivity.”
It warned, however, that conflicts over disputed ownership of oil and gas fields could lead to a regional war between Israel, Lebanon, Syria and other countries. It cited Israel’s drilling in the Golan Heights, in particular, as creating the “potential for another armed conflict between the two parties should substantial hydrocarbon resources be discovered.”
The report added ominously, “U.S. security and military support for its main allies in the case of an eruption of natural resource conflict in the East Mediterranean may prove essential in managing possible future conflict.”
Owing to Israel’s expulsion of most Golan residents in 1967, that occupied land rarely makes the news. Ever since the Six Day War, however, Israel’s conquest mentality has subverted peace negotiations with Syria. If Israel now succeeds in tapping commercial oil reserves underneath the Golan, its illegal occupation may once again fan the flames of regional conflict.
If the United States does help “manage” that conflict by supporting its ally, no one should be surprised — but it will represent a terrible dereliction of America’s duty to uphold international law and to seek a just and peaceful solution in the Middle East.
Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international affairs, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic (Stanford University Press, 2012).