Israel, Syria fight over a strip of land

ROSH PINNA (ISRAEL), SEPT. 2. Eight hundred metres seems too small a piece of territory for two countries to be fighting over. On climbing past the Mount of Beatitudes (where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount) on the hills of Galilee, the Golan Heights are clearly visible on the far shore of Lake Tiberias. In the narrow cleft where the Galilee Hills and the Golan Heights come close to each other on the top end of the Lake lies the slice of territory that remains the issue of contention between Israel and Syria.

While there are conditionalities and other details attached to the ``best offer'' package that Israel has so far advanced in the aborted negotiations with Syria, the basic element is an Israeli willingness to consider the return of the Golan. As put out by the Israelis, though the Syrians insist that Israel has offered nothing so far, the offer is that they will return the Golan Heights and most of its forward slope but not any bit of the shoreline of Lake Tiberias that lies at the foot of the Heights.

According to Israel, the international border in these parts, insofar as it was demarcated by agreement between the colonial powers Britain and France in 1923, excludes the shore- line of the Lake. Since Syria insists that the international border must be respected in all sectors, then no exception should be made with respect to the Lake Tiberias border either, the Israelis say.

In the Syrian view, however, an 800-metre strip at the north- eastern end of the Lake was under their control and sovereignty on June 4, 1967, that is on the eve of the outbreak of war. The relevant U.N. resolutions, in the Syrian interpretation, call for the evacuation by Israel from all land it had occupied after June 4, 1967 and, therefore, it must vacate this 800-metre strip as well. Israel does agree that Syria did control this strip between 1948 and 1967 but points out that if rights under international law are the matter in issue then the 1923 border line is the relevant one.

It might appear as only a matter of legal technicalities. But the Syrian argument does sound plausible that by sticking to this technicality, Israel has in real terms made its own offer worthless since it knows that Syria can not accept anything less than all of the territories captured in the 1967 war.

It also does not appear that there is anything more than the legalistic in Israel's effort to hang on to the strip. But they feel that some sign of Syrian flexibility here is necessary as a confirmation that Damascus has finally decided to end the decades of animosity.

Israel has appeared to recognise that the border line will run from the northern reaches of the Jordan river and run along it till a point before it joins Lake Tiberias. From this point along the river bank, before the shoreline of the lake, the border will run along the slopes of the Golan but a few hundred metres away from the shoreline till it finally meets the Israel-Jordan border.

Behind this effort to keep Syria away from the shore of the lake there is a concern about what would happen if their main source of fresh water was to be shared with Syria. But from the manner in which Israelis are willing to discuss some imaginative plans for skirting the problem it does appear they could soften their stance on the 800 metres.

One of the plans put forward, notably by the British journalist and expert on Syria, Mr. Patrick Seale, was that the 800 metres could be turned into an international park which both Syrians and Israelis could visit. Another, thought up by the Israelis, was that they could hire the 800-metres back after acknowledging by treaty that the land is indeed Syrian.

The Israelis know that Syria will draw water from the upper reaches of the Jordan river, and thus reduce the total supply, and that there will be a real threat of the Lake's waters being polluted once Syria repopulates the Golan. But, at least among pro-peace Israelis, there is a feeling that peace is worth the financial costs that will have to be incurred to solve these matters.

For the moment, the meek are certainly no closer to inheriting the earth or anything in it than they ever were. Whether it is 800-metres at sea level or 8000 metres on the Himalayan heights land is something that people fight over with as much determination as they did millennia ago.

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