The "Heights" refer to the topography of the area, which is a high plateau that rises as high as 2,800 meters at Mt. Hermon, although most of the area under Israeli occupation ranges from below sea level, around the Sea of Galilee, to about 800 meters (about 2,400 feet). The Golan borders the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River, which also mark the pre-1967 boundary between Syria and Israel.
Israel's Invasion and Occupation of the Golan Since 1967
Israel invaded the Golan in June 1967 during the Six-Day War. It has occupied it since, ostensibly for strategic reasons--to defend against a surprise Syrian attack (although Israel captured the Golan in a surprise attack of its own). Syria attempted to reclaim the Golan during the 1973 October war with Israel, but was repulsed.
Moshe Dayan, Israel's defense minister during the Six Day War, cast doubt on the commonly held belief that Israel was holding on to the Golan for security reasons.
An Occupation for Farmland, Not Security
As The New York Times reported in 1997, "in conversations with a young reporter five years [before his death in 1981, Dayan], said he regretted not having stuck to his initial opposition to storming the Golan Heights. There really was no pressing reason to do so, he said, because many of the firefights with the Syrians were deliberately provoked by Israel, and the kibbutz residents who pressed the Government to take the Golan Heights did so less for security than for the farmland. General Dayan did not mean the conversations as an interview, and the reporter, Rami Tal, kept his notes secret for 21 years -- until he was persuaded by a friend to make them public. They were authenticated by historians and by General Dayan's daughter Yael Dayan, a member of Parliament, and published ... in the weekend magazine of the newspaper Yediot Ahronot."
1981: Israel's Illegal Annexation
Ironically, it was in the year of Dayan's death, 1981, that Israel annexed the Golan. The annexation was a clear violation of international law and confirmed, Milton Virst wrote in Sands of Sorrow: Israel's Journey From Independence (Harper & Row, 1987), "Syria's contention that only war could dislodge Israel from the territories. [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat, who had been assassinated in Cairo a few weeks before, looked foolish in retrospect for the confidence he had placed in Israel's goodwill."
Israel and Egypt had signed a peace accord in 1979, returning the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and ostensibly putting Israel on course to achieve similar land-for peace agreements with Syria and the Palestinians. The annexation however, Virst continued, "signaled unambiguously how [Israeli Prime Minister Menahem] Begin intended to exploit Egypt's self-imposed impotence." In December 1981, United Nations Security Council 497 declared Israel's annexation of the Golan "null and void and without international effect."
Obstacle to Peace with Syria: 400 Meters
Syria's intention to reclaim the Golan has never wavered. In the late 1990s then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak pursued the possibility of a land-for-peace agreement with both Syria and the Palestinians, a strategically questionable approach that gave both Syria and the Palestinians the sense that neither was a priority for Barak. Barak, for his part, proposed to return the Golan to Syria--minus 400 meters, or about 1,200 feet, off the northeastern portion of the Sea of Galilee. The condition was meant to deny Syria a foothold onto the Sea, even though pre-1967 international borders recognized just such a foothold. Syrian President Hafez el Assad refused the deal.
In 2008, Israel had about 15,000 settlers living in illegal outposts in the Golan. Almost an equal number of Syrian Druze live in the area.