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'The Golan Heights is Israeli, period'

Bennett announces major drive to quadruple population of Golan Heights

PM says increasing Israeli presence on plateau captured from Syria is a ‘strategic goal,’ notes Biden administration hasn’t reversed US recognition of area as Israeli territory

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends the Golan Heights Conference on Economics and Regional Development on October 11, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends the Golan Heights Conference on Economics and Regional Development on October 11, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced Monday that the government intends to dramatically increase the number of people living on the Golan Heights and stressed that the Biden administration continues to recognize the northern plateau as Israeli territory.

Speaking at the Makor Rishon Golan Conference in Haspin, a moshav commonly known as Hispin, Bennett said that in six weeks the government will present a plan to greatly boost the population, including the construction of two new communities.

The ultimate goal, he said, was to hit 100,000 residents, almost four times the current population of around 27,000.

“The Golan Heights is Israeli, period,” Bennett said to applause.

Describing the Golan as a “strategic goal,” he said “our aim is to double, and then double again the number of residents on the Golan Heights.”

Bennett noted that the Biden administration had adopted former US president Donald Trump’s recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli.

“Exactly 40 years ago, the government of Israel led by Menachem Begin made an incredibly brave and important decision: to apply Israeli law to the Golan Heights,” Bennett said. “Almost three years ago, we were informed of another significant development: the decision of the previous American administration to recognize the Golan Heights as part of Israel – a perception that has been adopted by the current administration.”

In 2019 Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the strategic plateau, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed in a move not recognized by the wider international community. A new town, named Trump Heights, was later inaugurated on the Golan to honor the US president’s move.

A sign at the community named after US President Donald Trump in the Golan Heights village of Kela Alon on November 7, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Following rumors in June that the Biden administration planned to reverse the recognition, sparking uproar in Israel, a US State Department spokesperson said, “US policy regarding the Golan has not changed, and reports to the contrary are false.”

Previously, in February, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Israel should continue holding onto the territory so long as dictator Bashar Assad was in charge in Syria, adding that “as a practical matter, the Golan is very important to Israel’s security.”

However, addressing the conference, Bennett said that “our position on the Golan Heights has no connection to the situation in Syria.”

“It is true that the atrocities taking place there for a decade convinced many around the world that maybe it is better for this beautiful and strategic piece of land to be in Israeli hands, that it is preferable for it to be green and flourishing than another theater of killing and bombing,” he said.

“Even in a scenario in which, as can happen, the world changes its position toward Syria, or toward Assad, this would have no bearing on the Golan Heights,” Bennett added, stressing Israeli sovereignty over the plateau.

Bennett also said that Israel was “closely following, very closely,” developments in Syria and that country’s affinity to Iran.

Iran, he said, via its proxies in Syria, “is striving to establish another army on the border of the Golan Heights. We will continue to act where needed, and when needed, proactively and on a daily basis, so that the Iranian presence in Syria folds.

“They have no business being there,” Bennett continued. “Their adventurism on our northern border needs to end.”

The prime minister’s remarks came days after an airstrike attributed to Israel hit an airbase in central Syria, reportedly killing two Damascus-allied foreign fighters and wounding several Syrian service personnel. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said two foreigners were killed in the Friday raid on the T-4 airbase, but their nationality was not immediately clear.

The attack targeted a drone depot at the base, according to the war monitor, a pro-Syrian opposition organization of uncertain funding based in the UK.

Syrian state media confirmed “a volley of missiles” hit the airfield. Contacted by AFP, an Israel Defense Forces spokesperson said the military does not comment on foreign media reports.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Israel has launched hundreds of strikes against Iran-linked military targets in Syria, but rarely acknowledges or discusses such operations.

Israel fears Iranian entrenchment on its northern frontier, and it has repeatedly struck Iran-linked facilities and weapons convoys destined for Hezbollah.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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