Southern Golan Heights – Heavily subsidised Jewish-only settlements, large Israeli military areas and tanks dot the rolling green hills in this part of the Golan Heights; Syrian territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East war.
In addition to the ubiquitous signs warning of landmines, remnants of Syrian life are everywhere; bombed-out homes, dilapidated schools, crumbling hospitals. Most of the region’s indigenous Syrians – an estimated 90,000 Christians, Muslims and Druze – were expelled from the 70 percent of the Golan Heights under Israeli control.
Today, only some 20,000 Syrian Druze live in six villages still standing in the territory, while more than 21,000 Israeli settlers reside in dozens of Jewish-only colonies built atop villages demolished after the war.
It is here that Afek Oil and Gas, an Israeli company, has been granted exclusive license to conduct exploratory drilling for oil. Afek is a subsidiary of Genie Energy Limited, a New Jersey-based company for which former US Vice President Dick Cheney is an adviser.
On September 11, Afek won approval to conduct exploratory drilling in 10 possible locations throughout the Syrian territory. Shortly thereafter, the Israeli High Court froze Afek’s efforts due to a petition submitted by environmental activists. The petition remains undecided.
Though the project has been harshly criticised by a slew of Israeli politicians from across the political spectrum, the condemnation has also been voiced on nearly uniform environmental grounds.
Dov Hanin, leader of the left-wing Hadash political party, has “particularly expressed concerns for the fate of the nearby [Sea of Galilee]”, the Israeli daily Jerusalem Post reported in July.
Opposition to the drilling plans is not about environmental protections as much as Israel's taking resources from the indigenous Syrian population in the Golan Heights.
On the other side of the spectrum, centre-right politicians Rabbi Dov Lipman, a member of Yesh Atid, told Al Jazeera that the Israeli public “has no idea” what the environmental impact will be. He further stressed that with sufficient investment, Israel could meet 80 percent of its energy needs through renewable resources by 2040.
“There’s no need for [drilling in the Golan],” he said. “There are other avenues we can take.”
Aamer Ibrahim, 24, is a founding member of the Majdal Shams-based activist group Uploading Conscription, a reference to what they see as Israel’s militarisation of the Golan Heights.
He explained that opposition to the drilling plans “is not about environmental protections as much as Israel’s taking resources from the indigenous Syrian population” in the Golan Heights.
“These plans should be seen in the broader context of [Israeli] economic projects in the region, which include its utilisation of both human and natural resources,” he added.
Israel claimed to have annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, but, as is the case in East Jerusalem, the international community does not recognise the move. Though Israel offered citizenship to the remaining indigenous Syrian population, the vast majority rejected that offer, and instead, hold Israeli-issued travel documents that classify them as “stateless”.
John Quigley, an international law expert and professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, explained that a “belligerent occupant is a trustee for the population of the territory it occupies” and is only permitted to stifle the rights of the indigenous population “for strictly military purposes”.
Because the claim to annexation of the Golan Heights is considered “unlawful”, Israel “may not extract wealth for its own benefit”, Quigley told Al Jazeera.
Israel is regularly criticised for plundering resources in the occupied Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, particularly water and land. Lesser-known, however, is its long history of exploiting natural resources in the Golan Heights.
According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the occupied Golan Heights control “the main water sources” of Israel. The BBC reported that the area accounts for a third of Israel’s freshwater supply.
Al Jazeera contacted Afek about possibly violating international law regarding pillaging while drilling for oil in an occupied territory.
In a response approved by its parent company, Genie Energy, a spokesperson wrote to Al Jazeera that: “Afek has obtained all required permits and approvals, and all applicable authorities, including the Ministry of Environment and the Water [Authority],” emphasising its commitment to environmental safety.
When pressed on the issue of pillaging, Afek responded plainly that they were “a private company”.
Golan Heights-based activists and local human rights groups fear the decision to drill for oil is part of a broader trend of increased Israeli settlement activity and strengthening of Israeli institutions and businesses.
According to a report posted on the local Arabs48 news site, Israeli authorities intend to invest greatly in the Golan settlement of Katzrin.
The funds will go to the Ohalo College, an Israeli academic institute, as well as encouraging “local tourism through 19 million shekels [more than $5.5m] worth of financial investments in museums and parks” and religious centres.
In January 2014, Israeli authorities approved a plan to expropriate 30,000 dunams (more than 7,400 acres) of agricultural land in the Golan.
“This plan involves the establishment of 750 farming estates with a $108m investment from the Israeli government to provide agricultural training, water system upgrades, and landmines clearance over the next four years,” reports the Majdal Shams-based Al-Marsad human rights group.
Al-Marsad accuses the Israeli government of “a calculated effort to establish ‘facts on the ground’ in order to solidify their illegal annexation of the Golan in the midst of a brutal and protracted conflict in Syria”, which the United Nations estimates has killed more than 191,000 Syrians since violence broke out in March 2011.
Both the Israeli prime minister’s office and the interior ministry declined to comment on these allegations.
Yet, Uploading Conscription’s Ibrahim echoed Al-Marsad’s claims, asserting that plans for exploratory oil drilling in the Golan are “part of this pattern of exploitation”.
“The ongoing Syrian civil war and the world’s focus on it have provided Israel with an opportunity to expand its presence here [in the Golan] and continue violating international law publicly without much attention from the international community,” Ibrahim said.