Israel announced its intention to double the number of settlers living in the occupied Golan Heights, with a multimillion-dollar plan meant to further consolidate Israel’s hold on the territory it captured five decades ago.
“This is our moment. This is the moment of the Golan Heights,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday speaking at a special Cabinet session being held in the territory.
“After long and static years in terms of the scope of settlement, our goal today is to double settlement in the Golan Heights,” Bennett said, following up on his announcement about the development plans earlier in December.
The plan is to increase the territory’s population from 52,000 by 50 per cent by 2025, and then double it by the end of the decade.
Bennett further stated that both the recognition by the Trump administration of Israeli sovereignty over the swath of land, and the Biden administration’s indication that it will not walk that decision back, prompted the new investment in the region.
However, the plan has been heavily criticised by green activists and organisations in the country.
The Israeli Society for the Protection of Nature issued a statement slamming the plan earlier in December, calling it an “exceptional and unreasonable measure”.
“There is a contradiction in the plan regarding the complexity of planning in the Golan Heights, which is filled with nature reserves, active firing zones and areas of high environmental sensitivity,” the organisation said, further stating that the complex nature of the area requires “careful and intelligent planning”.
Entrenching Israeli control over the territory would complicate any future attempt to forge peace with Syria, which claims it as its own.
Israel occupied the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed the territory, promoting settlement and agriculture there as well as creating a thriving local tourism industry.
The US was the first country to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan, in a brazen move by former president Donald Trump, which the rest of the international community regards as Israeli-occupied.
Bennett said the war in Syria made the idea of Israeli control of the territory more acceptable to its international allies, saying the alternative would be much worse.
Israel has long argued that the strategically important area has, for all practical purposes, been fully integrated into Israel since it was captured from Syria and that control of the strategic plateau is needed as protection from Iran and its allies in Syria.
Tens of thousands of Israelis live in the Golan Heights, found some 60 kilometres from the Syrian capital Damascus.
The area is also home to a number of formerly Syrian Druze villages, some of which oppose Israeli control.