Katzrin settlement in the Occupied Golan Heights

Syrians in the Golan face threats to freedom of expression amid settlement expansion

PNN/ Bethlehem/

On 25 March 2019, President Trump signed an executive order recognising Israel’s claim to sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan (‘Golan’) – territory in southwest Syria occupied by Israel in 1967 and later annexed in 1981 in a move the international community unanimously rejected.

In the subsequent period since Trump’s order, an emboldened Israeli government is not only seeking to cement its illegal occupation of the Golan, but also to silence those voicing concerns about human rights violations in the region.

Just over a week after Trump’s announcement, it was reported that Israel was pursuing a tenfold increase in its settlement population in the Golan while hoping to build 30,000 new settlement units. Not long after this, Israel announced plans for a new illegal settlement in the region named ‘Trump Heights’ to thank the President for his decision. Currently, there are just over 27,000 Israeli settlers living in 34 illegal settlements in the Golan– many of which are built on top of Syrian villages and farms destroyed by the Israeli army following the 1967 occupation.

In June 2019, an Israeli energy company, Energix, which is seeking to build wind turbines in the Golan, sued Al-Marsad under Israel’s controversial ‘Anti-Boycott Act.’ Al-Marsad – the only human rights organisation operating in the Golan – had the unfortunate honour of being the first organisation under Israeli control to be prosecuted by this law.

Energix’s lawsuit claims that Al-Marsad violated Israeli law through publication of a legal report and facilitation of public meetings addressing the legality of Energix’s wind farm project and its impacts on the indigenous Syrian population. Energix’s lawsuit is rooted in a controversial law that has been widely condemned for violating freedom of speech. The suit’s purpose seems to be to intimidate and silence Al-Marsad and others.

In a recent hearing for the suit in February 2020, Energix appeared eager to agree to a court suggested settlement that would have made Al-Marsad retract elements of its legal report while allowing the court to avoid addressing the question of the controversial Anti-Boycott Act. Al-Marsad, standing by the integrity of its work and in defense of the fundamental human rights and freedoms of the indigenous Syrian population, rejected the settlement and will now defend its work on the merits. Al-Marsad hopes that this suit will vindicate its unique work in the Golan, slow Israel’s attempts to shrink space for civil society and dissent, and draw attention to the human rights abuses still taking place in the Golan.

One year on from Trump’s reckless and damaging order, the Syrian population in the Golan suffers from the consequences as an emboldened Israeli government has seized the opportunity to tighten its grip on the region it illegally occupies and side line its indigenous population. In fact, the Israeli government has been supporting Energix’s project, knowing well that it threatens Golani Syrians’ access to and use of their homes and farmland. Therefore, Al-Marsad calls on the international community – State governments, the United Nations, civil society, and media – to continue to reject Trump’s recognition of the Golan as part of Israel and demand that the basic human rights of the indigenous Golani Syrians are protected.