My first interview on Wednesday in Katzrin was with Ramona Bar-Lev, a spokesperson for the Golan Residents’ Committee or Vaad Yishuvei HaGolan (ועד ישובי הגולן) in Hebrew. Established soon after the Six Day War following the inception of Jewish settlement in July 1967, the committee was originally intended to facilitate civilian relations with the military. After the Yom Kippur War, it became the political activist arm of the Jewish residents of the Golan and expanded its activities to reach out the Israeli public at large.
The organization has a history of stimulating significant social activism and promoting citizen engagement with the Israeli government on issues specific to the Golan. The Golan Heights Law passed by the Israeli government in December 1981, which formally brought the territory under the jurisdiction of the state, was largely a result of a petition submitted by the committee which received 1 million signatures nation-wide.
From the 1990s onward the committee was particularly active in promoting continued Israeli sovereignty in the Golan in response to fears that the land would be relinquished to Syria in peace negotiations. Their famous slogan “Ha’am im haGolan” or “the People with the Golan” depicted in the graphic above could be seen on bumper stickers, banners, posters, billboards, and newspapers across the country.
In an effort to “bring the Golan to the people,” the committee created a mobile exhibit which toured the country, screening a film about the region followed by question-answer sessions with Golan residents. This campaign was so successful that Shalom Achshav petitioned the Supreme Court to shut down the exhibition as a misappropriation of public funds and a barrier to the peace process. The court ruled in the Golan Residents’ Committee’s favor.
Members of the committee also staged a hunger strike in 1994 at the historic site of Gamla, where in 67 C.E. several thousand Jews jumped from the cliff and died rather than be captured by the Roman troops sieging the fortress. According to Ramona, over half a million Israelis visited the strikers, pressuring then PM Yitzchak Rabin to promise that any withdrawal from the Golan would require a national referendum.
The committee was also responsible for ensuring that this promise be enshrined in Israeli law. In January 1999, the Knesset passed legislation which determined that no territory under Israeli sovereignty, namely East Jerusalem and the Golan, could be transferred without the approval of 61 of 120 Knesset members and a national referendum. Today the committee is pressing for an expansion of this legislation which would make the withdrawal of any territory under Israeli control subject to similar national approval. 66 ministers supported an earlier version of this bill in the previous Knesset seeking to clarify the referendum process and the latest version recently received the approval of 68 ministers in the current Knesset.
Until a decade ago, the public relations focus of the Golan Residents’ Committee was on the importance of the region to the continued security of the State of Israel particularly vis-à-vis Syria. Here they emphasized the security value of maintaining Israeli control over the strategic highlands and the importance of its water resources as well as the achievements of hityashvut, settlement of the land and the region’s Jewish historical roots. However, while sites like Gamla were well known, other ancient locales hardly played a significant role in the Jewish national imagination. While archaeology is alive and well in the region, Ramona insists that “we were astonished to find so many synagogues” and other Jewish historical artifacts that “we didn’t know anything about.”
The successes of modern settlement are then likely much more important to its residents than ancient history. As with my interview with Shlomo Wasserteil at the Gush Katif Museum, Ramona emphasized her personal stake in the development of the land. The Golan is hers, she asserted, “because I created it. There was nothing before we came here.” The modern city of Katzrin, which now boasts a population of some 7500 people, was founded only in 1977. At the same time, the residents of the Golan have succeeded in preserving the natural character of the region, limiting urban development while emphasizing agriculture and eco-tourism. “We could have poured cement all over the place and made it like Tel Aviv, but we didn’t do it.” The Golan remains a unique area in the State of Israel, whose strength, Ramona asserts, lies not in its numbers of residents, but its quality.
In the year 2000, a decision was made to stop making defensive claims to the land and to start emphasizing a new image of the Golan, one which focused on its natural beauty, its wineries, its products, and its tourism. The result, Ramona believes, was a move from Israelis feeling that control of the land is a strategic necessity to a “love of the Golan and its products.” Indeed, the Golan has some three million tourists visit every year, only 18% of whom are foreigners. Israelis come to the Golan to bike, hike, ski, swim, tour its wineries, and stay in its idyllic campgrounds and weekend cabins. Indeed, many more Israelis travel to the Golan than to the Jewish communities of Yehuda and Shomron.
Part of the idea of this rebranding was the belief that people make crucial choices in life based more on their feelings than their rational calculations of what is important. “If people will love the Golan, they will feel that it is part of what they need, and this is better than giving them dry information.” The Golan, she asserted, is part of Israel and one cannot simply say that its status is negotiable. Those who say that it is, need to convince her and the rest of Israel and not the other way around. Israeli public opinion polls consistently agree: even in exchange for “true peace” with Syria, the vast majority of Israelis are unwilling to withdraw from the Golan. See a large sample of polls here.
Although polling data still finds that Israelis prioritize security concerns over all others when considering such a withdrawal, I found Ramona’s perspective on the shifting perceptions of the Golan to be quite interesting. Several important factors are likely at work here:
1) The Israeli public is so convinced of the continued security threat posed by Syria that there is no longer any need to emphasize it in public relations campaigns.
2) Israeli control of the Golan is largely a “costless” occupation locally. Its non-Jewish population is Druze, which is largely loyal to the state, although there are limited exceptions. Their population is also not nearly as dense as the Palestinian population of the West Bank or Gaza. Here Israeli kibbutzim, moshavim, and towns are not actively competing for urban or rural space with the Druze communities and what disputes do exist are usually resolved amicably and legally.
3) It is also largely costless internationally. The Syrians have focused the majority of their energies on manipulating Lebanese politics and encouraging cross-border attacks first by the PLO and later by Hezbollah. As such, the border on the Golan has remained one of Israel’s quietest despite the continued formal state of war between the two countries. With the international community largely focused on Palestinian grievances, they too pay little serious attention to Syrian claims.
Aside from explicitly political activities, the committee provides development assistance to others regions of high national priority, provides emergency assistance to regions in crisis, and assists with resettlement for Israelis displaced due to security challenges and political developments. Notable among these activities was the committee’s expressions of solidarity with the residents of Gush Katif prior to the Disengagement, the convoys of doctors, nurses, engineers, and other personnel it sent on a daily basis for quite some time to those caravan communities of Gaza expellees in the south, and its resettlement of former Gush Katif residents in the Golan. During the 2006 war in Lebanon, the committee also organized emergency assistance for other residents of the north even as the Golan itself was weathering Hezbollah missile attacks.
Finally, referencing the Gush Katif expulsion, a significant question arises as to why the Golan residents have been so successful in pushing their agenda while those of Gaza were not. Many factors are at work here, none in the least the three points raised above. Gush Katif was seen increasingly by many Israelis as a security burden rather than a security asset. The Palestinians of Gaza since the outbreak of the Second Intifada made sure that the occupation was a costly one for Israel domestically, while the internationally community continually pressed Israel to withdraw.
From Ramona’s perspective as a community activist, however, the difference lies in their engagement with the Israeli public. While those on the Yesha Council arguably spent much of their energies “convincing those who were already convinced” while railing publically against its staunch opponents, the Golan Residents’ Committee took a different tact. Those who support you, you must approach, but those who adamantly oppose you, you will never convince. Therefore, Ramona insists, your focus must be on those who are undecided.
Their work targeted populations who had no stake in the Golan, like the haredim who carry significant weight in Israeli politics as well as the hilonim (seculars). The image of Golan residents as “regular” Israelis as opposed religious settlers also increases public sympathy for their cause. While secular Israelis may have seen the Gush Katif expulsion as a tragic and traumatic national event, it was one in which their personal stakes were not high. The issue was “owned” by the religious and not by the country as a whole. According to Ramona, just the opposite is the case in the Golan.
To the extent that “sectoral” issue ownership determines public support or lack thereof for territorial withdrawal, the Golan Residents’ Committee’s approach might serve as a more successful model for other opponents of territorial withdrawal. Rather than castigating those who are apparently willing to give up on Jewish control of the Land of Israel, the energies of the settlement lobby might be more productively spent on increasing the appeal of the West Bank. However, if polling data is correct and Israeli identification with the Golan truly hinges on the security situation rather than its popular appeal, the apparent achievements of Golan Residents’ Committee may have little long term impact if Israel’s relationship with Syria ever improves.