Israel invests millions in occupied Golan Heights settlement college

Israeli police and soldiers at a checkpoint in the occupied Golan Heights, where occupation authorities are increasing their colonization efforts through settlement promotion.

Patrick O. Strickland

An Israeli college in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights is offering a wide range of financial incentives to prospective students in order to increase its enrollment, according to a recent Arabic-language report at the Arabs48 website.  

Ohalo College, located in the illegal Jewish-only Katzrin settlement, aims to double its enrollment to 2,500 students over the next seven years, according to Arabs48. In order to do so, Israeli authorities will invest millions in the settlement, including building new student accommodation, and provide monthly stipends of up to 75 percent for rent fees.

Ohalo College was located in the Tiberias region of present-day Israel until 1998, when it moved to Katzrin and became the first Israeli academic institution in the occupied Golan Heights.

Israel occupied the Golan Heights during the 1967 war and drove out most of its indigenous Syrian residents. Though it claims the territory as part of “Israel” and formally annexed it in 1981, the United Nations has time and again confirmed the illegality of this occupation.

Around 20,000 indigenous Syrians – mostly from the Druze religious community – live in six villages still standing in the occupied territory. Residents hold Israeli-issued travel documents in which they are considered “stateless.”

Meanwhile, an estimated 21,000 Israeli settlers live in 33 Jewish-only colonies subsidized by the Israeli government.

“No option”

The Katzrin settlement, home to an estimated 6,700 Israeli settlers, is built on lands that belong to the historical Syrian village of Kisrin, which was home to Syrians expelled from their lands once Israel occupied them.

More than 131,000 Syrians were driven from the Golan when Israel occupied the land in 1967, according to Al-Marsad, a local human rights organization.

The Ohalo College incentive program was approved by the Israeli government and is to be implemented by the Ministry of Development in the Galilee and the Negev.

In addition to the monthly rent stipends for students, Ohalo College will “increase the number of academics, academic disciplines and scientific researchers in Katzrin in particular, and in the Golan Heights in general,” according to Arabs48.

“The program will also encourage local tourism through 19 million shekels [around $5,507,246] worth of financial investments in museums and parks, the ‘historical village’ of Kisrin, and Talmudic Jewish religious centers in the settlement,” the report adds.

Meanwhile, indigenous Syrian residents have few higher education opportunities. There are no recognized Arabic-language academic institutions in the Golan Heights.

“We lack academic institutions in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights,” Aamer Ibrahim, 24, a Majdal Shams-based activist, told The Electronic Intifada. “There is no option to stay in our hometowns and study history from an Arabic perspective, or Arabic literature and culture, for instance.”

“This is what we expect as an occupied community,” he added. “As the natives on this land, it’s not possible for an occupier to operate on our behalf in any situation. I believe the main concern is how to build an organized movement and campaigns in order to resist it.”

Increasing colonization

Syrians in the Golan must therefore either choose between making the difficult trek to the non-occupied majority of Syria in order to study, or to enroll in Israeli universities, infamous for anti-Arab racism and complicity in Israel’s decades-long occupation of Arab lands.

And since the ongoing violence in Syria has continually worsened since its outbreak in March 2011, it has become much more difficult to study in Damascus and elsewhere. As this writer reported for Middle East Eye last month, Israeli authorities tightened restrictions on Golan students who choose to study in Syria, allowing them to return to visit their families once a year at most.

Though hundreds of students used to travel from the Golan to Damascus to study each year, the number has now fallen to a few dozen.

The Ohalo College program is part of broader pattern of Israeli authorities increasing colonization efforts in the occupied Golan Heights since the outbreak of violence in Syria.

A government-funded Zionist organization recently attempted to secretly promote civil service among Syrian residents, as The Electronic Intifada reported recently. Upon becoming aware of the group’s connections to the Israeli government, locals rejected participation in the plan.

In January 2014, the Israeli government approved a plan to develop 30,000 dunams (7,400 acres) of Syrian land for agricultural use. “This plan involves the establishment of 750 farming estates with a $108-million investment from the Israeli government to provide agricultural training, water system upgrades, and land mine clearance over the next four years,” according to a report published by the Al-Marsad human rights group.

Oil and gas

“Given the historical and political context of this region, this proposed agricultural expansion will only benefit the Jewish settlers in the occupied Golan and further marginalize and economically disadvantage the indigenous Syrians in this region,” the report adds.

Similar efforts were taken by Israel in December 2013, when Israel’s Energy and Water Resources Ministry “granted Genie Energy, an American-Israeli company, an exclusive license to explore for oil and gas in a 153-square-mile radius in the southern part of the Golan,” another Al-Marsad report notes.

Dick Cheney, former US vice president and one of the architects of the disastrous 2003 US invasion of Iraq, will serve as an advisor for the exploration project in the occupied Golan. “This action violates international law and therefore it is illegal,” Al-Marsad notes.

Activist Aamer Ibrahim said that these efforts are nothing new.

“For decades, Israel has tried to destroy all the cultural, political and historical ties between Syrians in the Golan and the rest of Syria,” he said. “On the contrary, they have tried to promote the Zionist Israeli presence and its institutions.”


Patrick Strickland

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Patrick O. Strickland is an independent journalist and frequent contributor at The Electronic Intifada. He is presently working on his first book for the London-based publishing house Zed Books. See his in-depth coverage for EI.