Israel approves plan to double settler population in the Golan Heights

Plan is to build 7,300 homes for Jewish families at Mevo Hama

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Israel intends to double the amount of settlers living in the Golan Heights. AP

Israel’s government has approved a $317 million plan to double the Jewish settler population in the Golan Heights.

Forty years since Israel annexed the territory, the Cabinet voted to build 7,300 homes at Mevo Hama over five years.

“Our goal today is to double the population of the Golan Heights,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said before the meeting on Sunday.

The plan calls for one billion shekels to be spent on housing, infrastructure and other projects to attract 23,000 settlers to the area.

Mr Bennett left the meeting early when told his 14-year-old daughter had tested positive for the coronavirus, sending him into quarantine. But the vote went ahead later.

Israel captured two-thirds of the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War. On December 14, 1981, it applied Israeli law to the region, a move not recognised by most of the international community.

About 25,000 Israeli settlers live in there, as do about 23,000 members of the Druze sect who remained on the land after it was seized.

An aerial view of Katsrin city, an Israeli settlement in the Golan Heights. AFP

Former US president Donald Trump granted US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan in 2019.

Syria condemned the move as a “flagrant violation”.

“The Golan Heights are Israeli. This is self-evident,” Mr Bennett said.

“The fact that the Trump administration recognised this, and the fact that the Biden administration has made it clear that there has been no change in this policy, are also important.”

Soon after US President Biden took office in January, his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, suggested there were legal questions surrounding Mr Trump’s move.

But Mr Blinken indicated there was no thought of reversing course, especially with the Syrian civil war continuing.

Mr Bennett said that after a decade of conflict in Syria, international calls to return control of the Golan Heights to Damascus were muted.

“Every knowledgeable person in the world understands that it is preferable to have Israeli heights that are quiet, flourishing and green as opposed to the alternative,” he said.

Mr Bennett leads an ideologically disparate eight-party coalition that counts on support from left-wingers.

Some in his Cabinet, notably from the Meretz party, have vocally opposed plans to expand settlements in the West Bank, Palestinian territory also occupied by Israel since 1967.

About 475,000 settlers now live in the West Bank, in communities widely regarded as illegal under international law.

Mr Bennett opposes Palestinian statehood and is a former head of a settler lobbying council.

But he said unity on the Golan plan showed that Israeli control of the area was a matter of “national consensus”.

“The Golan Heights, the need to strengthen, cultivate and live in it, is certainly a principle that unites everyone here,” he said.

Israel and Syria, which are still technically at war, are separated by a de facto border at the Golan Heights.

Updated: December 26th 2021, 5:03 PM