40 Years Ago Israel Extended Sovereignty Over The Golan Heights; Here's The Man Who Stood Behind It

© AFP 2022 / JALAA MAREYGolan Heights. File photo
Golan Heights. File photo  - Sputnik International, 1920, 26.12.2021
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Shimon Sheves was only in his twenties when he arranged a petition that was signed by nearly 750,000 Israelis demanding that the government apply Israeli law to the disputed territory. That public pressure did the trick.
It was mid-December 1981, when Israel's then-prime minister Menachem Begin surprised many by proposing a bill that would extend the country's sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which had been captured from Syria in 1967 during the Six Day War.
Normally, the voting process, which is comprised of three readings takes days if not weeks to be completed. The case of the Golan Heights was different. All three rounds were conducted in a single day, with 63 members of the Israeli parliament supporting, and 21 rejecting the move.

Utter Happiness

Shimon Sheves, an Israeli political advisor, activist and businessman, says he remembers well that historic day that brought joy and happiness to many of his countrymen.
"I felt utter happiness," he recalls. "The Golan has always been in the Israeli consensus. It was not a matter of right or left. Everyone understood their significance and the importance that they would be under Israel's control".
However, reaching that point of pushing the government to declare sovereignty over a disputed strip of land was a long and laborious process.
Since 1967, when the area fell into the hands of Israel and up until 1981, the Golan Heights had been under the military control of the IDF and the Israeli government had dragged its feet in changing that status quo. This was partially due to international pressure, but mostly it was because the area was not part of Mandatory Palestine and as such it could not be annexed by a simple government decision. It required the legislation of basic law.

Time's Running Short

But while the government had been hesitant, Sheves felt that time was running short.
In 1979, Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in which the Jewish state agreed to evacuate the Sinai peninsula. Three years later, Israelis had left the settlement of Yamit, and Sheves was worried that the future of the Golan Heights might be similar.

"The Camp David Accords [that led to the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt- ed.] stipulated that the pact would serve as a paradigm for any other agreements that would follow suit."

Sheves believed it was something that Israel could not afford.
The Golan Plateau has been of a strategic importance to Israel. Boasting an average altitude of 1,000 meters, the area overlooks the Hula Valley, the Sea of Galilee and the upper Jordan River Valley. The practical implication of this was that when the area was under Syrian control, nearby Israeli communities were under constant artillery and sniper fire. Agriculture and fishing was difficult and at times impossible.

Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands

The capture of the area put an end to this threat, but fears that the Plateau would one day be returned to Syria as part of a potential peace deal, made Sheves and many other residents of the area shiver. And this is the reason, why he decided to act.
Back then, Sheves -- still in his 20s -- was serving as the chairman of the Central Committee of the Golan, a union of towns and communities of the area. Together they engaged more people, residents and influencers of the north, creating a massive movement that advocated for extending Israel's sovereignty over the disputed Plateau.
For two years, Sheves, along with other activists, would tour the country, give out interviews on TV and press and apply pressure on decision makers to take the important move.
He also prepared a petition and obtained 745,000 signatures from Israelis who supported the initiative.

"We published that petition in newspapers and people used to cut it out, sign it and hand it out to us. I engaged hundreds, if not thousands, of young activists, who would collect these signatures. And then I brought them all in one suitcase to the Knesset and presented them to Begin."

International Pressure

Public pressure did the trick. But as soon as the bill passed and became a law, repercussions swiftly followed.
The United States, Israel's main ally, announced that it was suspending its strategic pact and arms deal with Israel. A number of European states denounced the move.
The situation is not much different today, 40 years after the historic move. Although Washington recognised Israel's sovereignty over the area relatively recently under Donald Trump, many regional and international players still consider it occupied Syrian land that needs to be returned to its rightful owners. Some are even taking measures to force the Jewish state to surrender.
In 2016, it was reported that France had started labelling Israeli products that were manufactured in the West Bank and the Golan Heights, a move that allegedly hurt the income of Israeli companies.
A similar move was also taken by Belgium and the fear is that it will soon be done by all European countries.
Sheves acknowledges that the 1981 decision has impacted Israel's regional and international standing. But looking back, he says he has zero regrets.

"Look at the situation now. Syria and Iran are allies. Lebanon's [Shiite militia] Hezbollah has 200,000 missiles. Imagine what would have happened if the Golan was not under Israeli control. The Plateau is an important defence arm of Israel and we cannot give up on it."

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