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‘Trump Heights’: A symbol of US shift on Mideast policy

Along with backing for normalization deals and green light for settlements, US president has changed dynamics of the dispute between the Jewish state and the Palestinians

A construction truck enters Trump Heights on September 21, 2020 (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)
A construction truck enters Trump Heights on September 21, 2020 (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

On a dusty plain in the Golan Heights, a golden-lettered sign with Israeli and American flags stands before a rusty wire fence as the gateway to “Trump Heights.”

But this is no luxury hotel or golf course set up by the property developer turned president.

Instead, it is an Israeli village, inaugurated in June 2019 by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a celebration to mark US President Donald Trump’s recognition of the Golan as Israeli territory.

For residents, it is the most visible legacy Trump has had here.

Haim Rokach, head of the Golan regional council gives an interview about Trump Heights in Katzrin on September 21, 2020 (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

“There is indeed a big change,” said Haim Rokach, head of the Golan regional council, his eyes sparkling at the mention of the US president’s name.

“Since Trump’s declaration and the decision to build the place, we see a lot of interest from investors.”

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and annexed it in 1981, a move not recognized by most of the international community.

Trump’s recognition of the Golan was the latest in a string of steps away from global consensus, including recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and giving Netanyahu the green light to build settlements deemed illegal under international law.

Along with Trump’s backing for normalization deals between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — lamented by Palestinians as a “stab in the back” — Trump has changed the dynamics of the dispute between the Jewish state and the Palestinians.

This picture taken on September 21, 2020 shows a view of an empty street in Trump Heights (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

As he battles to stay in the White House for a second term, Trump’s strongly pro-Israel stance has further endeared him to evangelical Christians, a powerful voting bloc.

The most ardent evangelical faithful believe the State of Israel was established in line with biblical prophecy and as a prerequisite for the second coming of Christ.

Expansion

While the Trump Heights sign is new, the village is not. It was founded in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union when hundreds of thousands of Jews emigrated to Israel.

One group of around 15 families carved out a village there, but the associated farming life is tough. Many struggled to make ends meet, and just five families remain, many of them elderly.

A man walks past recycled safety shelters waiting to be attached to new housing units at Trump Heights on September 21, 2020 (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

Naming the village after Trump has given Israeli authorities an opportunity to revive the community, and 20 Jewish families are due to move to the remote spot by the end of November.

Diggers were recently leveling the land ready for their homes, with the aim of 20 families arriving each year for the next decade, said Shai Toni Yeheskel, from the local Golan council.

“For the first time in almost 30 years they have hope,” Yeheskel said. “It’s going to become one of the centers of the Golan.”

Living in run-down houses, the aging residents have steered clear of outsiders who have visited the village since it was renamed.

But a group of teenagers live in the community, where they are put through a six-month program ahead of national service.

Israeli teenagers take part in camp activities at Trump Heights on September 21, 2020, where they are put through a six-month program ahead of national service (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

“There are some lonely elderly residents here,” said Ayelet Schwab, 18, from the settlement of Efrat in the West Bank.

“We help them, to carry things they buy, we talk to them, we check on them.”

Standing beside her, 18-year-old Adi Hazan said one of their goals was to have more people move in.

“New people will arrive to build this place, they will bring life to it,” said Hazan, from Porat in central Israel, as the other teenagers painted stones to decorate a campfire site.

The US policy shift encouraged investors because they believe the land will remain under Israeli control indefinitely.

US President Donald Trump, seated, holds up a signed proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, standing center, in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in Washington, DC, March 25, 2019. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

There may even be an opportunity for a luxury hotel.

“We have plenty of hotels in the Golan, but not enough rooms. Especially exclusive rooms,” said the local council’s Yeheskel.

“Hopefully we’ll have many more hotels here in the near future.”

Time will tell if one of those will be a Trump Hotel.

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