By Jeslyn Tan, The New York Times
Israel and Syria take the backseat, leaving Palestine and Iran to broker peace.
The last time the Golan Heights belonged to Syria, it was five decades ago in 1967, before it was torn away by Israeli forces during the Six-Day War. Most of the Syrian-Arab inhabitants fled the area during the conflict. An armistice line was soon established and the region henceforth came under Israeli military control.
After fifty years of contention over the territory, the Arab League has gathered to tackle the issue of sovereignty over the Golan Heights and hopefully end the political deadlock over the area.
The general consensus of the council was that the Golan Heights rightfully belong to Syria. There was demand for the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from the territory as the occupation of the Golan Heights was deemed grossly unethical. Delegates of multiple countries condemned Israel for her refusal to retract her militant forces from the territory that she had forcefully claimed.
It was understood that non-militant tactics are paramount in brokering peace and maintaining stability in the region. Delegates believed that the key to peaceful resolution and the minimal loss of capital is diplomacy and negotiation, not bloodshed and violence – two characteristics which have previously shaped confrontations between Israel and Syria during the 1973 Middle Eastern War and the more recent 2013 Syria Civil War.
The delegate of Israel expressed his willingness to negotiate for the return of the Golan Heights to Syria, but was unwilling to allow for complete unconditional return of the territory in question. The conditions raised were the removal of Syrian-allied militant forces from the territory and the assurance that Israel would be allowed to retain their water supply located in the Golan Heights.
The water reserves in the Golan Heights made up a large one third of the entire Israel water supply, and the delegate of Israel expressed his concerns over how the unconditional return of the Golan Heights would greatly negatively impact Israel. Considering that Israel must protect her national security and preserve her economic prosperity, their willingness to listen to alternative views was laudable.
However, the delegate of Palestine raised a pertinent point – Israel was the offender in this situation. He strongly believed that the provocateur in a conflict should not have the right to raise a compromise, and was extremely vocal while shooting down Israel’s attempt to offer conditions for the return of the Golan Heights. He went on to steer the direction of the discussion to how the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) could be better employed.
The delegate of Palestine and Iran banded together to caution against the expansion of UNDOF’s buffer zone, describing how the move would lead to an overstretch of the existing UNDOF Peacekeeping forces. They instead offered the possibility of introducing more peacekeepers to the current territory in order to ensure that the ceasefire between Israel and Syria would be observed. Of note was Palestine’s and Iran’s insistence on preventing Israeli and Syrian peacekeeping forces to be deployed in this buffer zone as both forces would not act in an impartial manner.
Despite Israel and Syria being the main stakeholders in the pertinent issue of the Golan Heights, their voices were drowned out by the strong points raised and delivered by the delegates of Palestine and Iran. It soon became clear that Palestine and Iran were the driving forces of the discussion, which was problematic as the key players in this discussion were unable to effectively voice out their viewpoints. The delegates of Israel and Syria had the potential to have taken a more active role in the discussion, but were unfortunately unable to.
The delegate of Palestine carried the flow of the conversation and responded smoothly when asked whether Palestine prioritised the repartition of the Golan Heights over the maintenance of peace and stability in the region, stating that it was possible to maintain both since both were of equal importance.
He said, “There is a false dichotomy drawn to maintaining peace and stability, and the repartition of the Golan Heights”. In the short term, he assured that the rightful return of the Golan Heights was the main goal, but “in the long term, there will be peace.”
Later discussions set the direction for the council to maintain peace in the region through the agreement on simultaneous retraction of Israeli and Syrian forces from the the Golan Heights. The council believed that the onus lies on the Gulf states to withdraw their own militant forces in order to maintain peace in the region. A consensus was reached on inviting the United Nations as a neutral party to oversee the joint withdrawal of militant forces of both states.
There was, however, a lack of discussion on how humanitarian aid could be offered to ease the Golan Heights’s return into the hands of the Syrian government. The council believed “with peace comes humanitarian aid”, as raised by the delegate of Palestine, which was a gross misinterpretation of humanitarian aid. Humanitarian aid is of utmost importance whenever a territory is in the midst of recovering from the presence of hostile forces, in order to ensure that human rights violations do not occur. It is especially crucial to ensure that the people in the Golan Heights receive the necessary aid to alleviate from the trauma they have faced.
As the delegate of Syria mentioned, the aim of the council’s discussion was to “remove conflicts between Syria and Israel’s bilateral relationship… (and) maintain the stability of the region as a whole”. Peace is the end goal here, and with it, the rightful return of the Golan Heights to Syria. The council carries the hope of a great many people, and the conclusion they reach by the end of council proceedings should be one that provides a win-win situation for all parties involved.