Golan Heights could be price of settlement

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ASIDE FROM the baking heat, the Golan Heights looks like a piece of Scotland transported to the Middle East. It is a flat heath set on a plateau, bisected by narrow gullies and deep glens, and overlooked by the peak of Mount Hermon.

The Heights is also the most strategically important territory in the region.

To the north is Damascus, the Syrian capital, only a couple of hours' drive away in a tank. At the foot of the Golan Heights to the east is Lake Tiberias and the steep hills of northern Israel. It was captured by Israel in 1967 and held by the Israeli army in the face of a massive Syrian tank attack in 1973. There are rusted tangles of barbed wire from earlier conflicts, with notices warning of old minefields.

There are less obvious signs of the impact of war. Tumbled piles of dark rock and cactus mark the remains of Syrian villages from which 100,000 people were driven after 1967. The current inhabitants of the Golan Heights area are 17,000 Israeli settlers, living in capacious red-roofed villas, and the same number of Druze, an Islamic sect, living mostly in four large villages in the shadow of Mount Hermon.

The return of the Golan Heights to Syria has always been the price Israel would have to pay for a peace treaty with the Syrian President, Hafez al-Assad. Negotiations with the government of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister assassinated in 1995, made progress but never decided the final Israeli withdrawal line.

Syria wants the 4 June 1967 border, which is slightly in advance of the frontier agreed in the 1920s. Israel is keen to prevent Syria occupying the eastern shoreline of Lake Tiberias.

Whatever the territorial settlement, a peace agreement will be hedged about by elaborate measures for demilitarising the Golan Heights and the land to the east and north. Monitors will prevent surprise attack. Benjamin Netanyahu, the previous Israeli prime minister, says that Syria secretly agreed during his three years in power that Israeli monitors could stay on Mount Hermon.

There has been no fighting there since the May 1974 Separation of Forces agreement under which part of the Golan Heights was returned to Syria and the two sides were separated by a UN buffer zone. During invasions of Lebanon by Israel in 1978 and 1982 the Golan front remained quiet.

The Israeli settlers are less ideological and militant than in the West Bank. Many belong to the Israeli Labour Party and would go quietly if a peace agreement with Syria is reached. One Golan area wine producer has already started planting vineyards in Galilee to stay in business after an Israeli withdrawal.