Israel’s exploration of the Golan Heights – is it just about oil?
Israel’s decision to begin drilling on the Golan Heights will not only help quench its thirst for oil and water, whilst establishing greater control over the disputed territory. Syria’s reaction will be key to determining whether the move adds further tension to an already volatile region.
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By Ashay Abbhi
Moses led the Israelites to the one place on earth that had no oil. This joke, however, may soon become redundant. After sitting on speculated oil in Golan Heights for twenty years, Israel has finally decided to start drilling. Leftovers of one-time Syrian occupation still haunt the hills, which will soon be echoing with the sounds of large rigs, drilling deep into the core of the earth to search for oil. Ahead of the ripples to come when drilling starts, the international community is already feeling the reverberations. The friction between Israel and Syria, two countries that share joint-custody of Golan Heights, is set to increase considerably.
Golan Heights, arguably the Kashmir of the Middle East, was occupied by Israel in 1967 during the Six-Day war. It wasn’t until 1981 that civil law and administration were extended to it. With 21,000 citizens at present, Israel has slowly increased its presence in the region.
Syria, who owns whatever piece of land that it could retain in the war, still has settlements in the region. Considering the turmoil in Syria, those living in Golan are increasingly accepting Israeli citizenship. According to the latest count, there were around 20,000 Syrians in Golan Heights loyal to the flag and ostracizing the ones defecting to Israel.
Just how and why did Israel decide to pursue the Golan Heights now?
Back in 1996, the National Oil Company of Israel estimated Golan to be holding around two million barrels of oil. Netanyahu had then rejected the company’s requests to drill on the site, but Silvan Shalom, Israel’s Minister of Energy and Water Resources, has now strangely opened it up for oil exploration. This will help Israel achieve multiple goals – to quench its increasing thirst for oil, to perhaps export some of it to Europe and even the US; to establish greater control over the disputed Golan Heights.
Let’s look at these two points one by one.
First, Israel imports nearly 97% of its oil needs, has considerable natural gas production but still needs to import a fraction of it. Given the country’s development drive and sustenance of the protracted occupation of Palestinian territories, its energy requirements have been increasing. Even though oil and natural gas prices are currently low, this golden period is bound to last only for a little while longer, by which time, Israel could possibly be looking at an even higher import bill. Developing the Golan Heights for oil production would not only somewhat ease its oil burden, but could also make it an exporter to Europe or even to the US through pipelines.
Second, the Golan Heights has long been a point of contention between Israel and Syria. While both have tried hard to establish themselves as sovereign authority over the territory, Israel’s move to allow a company to drill in the region carries the risk of political confrontation. The Knesset is well aware of Syria’s injured fiscal and political situation, and could not find a better opportunity to give the world another example of kicking the enemy when they are down.
Another angle to this clever manoeuvre by Israel could be prompted by the United States of America. Afek Oil is the Israeli subsidiary of a New Jersey-based company called Genie Energy Limited, which has Dick Cheney, former Vice President of the US, as an advisor. This could well be enough to make it clear why Afek Oil has been allowed to explore in the politically-sensitive region. This will also provide the US with an opportunity to increase its leverage, either through Israel or directly, over Syria. The US could be looking at eventually arm-twisting Assad through the Golan Heights, which, even though small, gives it significant presence in the region. When seen from this perspective, the role played by the US in accessing the resources in the Golan Heights can’t be ignored.
The Golan Heights holds significance for Israel not only in terms of oil but also water, which it has a lengthy history of exploiting. Israel may therefore be looking to satiate its two major thirsts; one literal and the other metaphorical.
There have been environmental protests against Afek Oil’s drilling in the region, which is expected to commence in February. The company’s website provides a stage-by-stage process that it will carry out over a period of three years; the time for which it has been granted an exploration license. Afek Oil declared that it will not be indulging in environmentally-detrimental operations during this phase, but the issue here includes much more than the environment, which ironically, Syria has not yet raised.
Israel’s move into the Golan Heights is controversial, and open for speculation by the rest of the world. What Syria may make of it and how it will react in the wake of its fractured economy and military is something that remains to be seen. Israel’s increasing hunger for land and resources, and the haughtiness that stems from unconditional US support, could well be a giant in the making. Assad may have to cover his south-western end to prevent another major outbreak, as the probability of the rebels being fed on Israeli-American resources looms large with their increased presence in the region. Could the noise of oil rigs in Golan silence the guns or will it lead to a bloodier quest for the troubled territory?
Ashay Abbhi is based out of India. An analyst in the field of contemporary energy issues, Ashay’s interests also lie in nuanced issues of war and conflict. With his specialisation in tow, Ashay has explored different angles of energy sector, one of which includes the comprehension of the geopolitics of energy.
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