Israel rebrands Golan settlement ‘Trump Heights’

By Ilan Ben Zion, Associated Press

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has unveiled a new settlement in the Israel-controlled Golan Heights, named after US President Donald Trump.

Mr Netanyahu’s Cabinet convened in the tiny hamlet to inaugurate the settlement, named after Mr Trump in a gesture of appreciation for the president’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the territory.

The settlement, currently known as Bruchim, is over 30-years-old and has a population of 10 people.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, his wife Sara, centre right, United States Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, left, and his wife Tammy (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Israel is hoping the rebranded “Ramat Trump”, Hebrew for “Trump Heights”, will encourage residents to help expand it.

“It’s absolutely beautiful,” said US Ambassador David Friedman, who attended Sunday’s ceremony.

Noting that Mr Trump celebrated his birthday on Friday, he said: “I can’t think of a more appropriate and a more beautiful birthday present.”

United States Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and his wife Tammy attend the inauguration (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in 1981.

Most of the international community considers the move illegal under international law.

But during a visit to Washington by Mr Netanyahu in March, just weeks before Israeli elections, Mr Trump signed an executive order recognising the strategic mountainous plateau as Israeli territory.

The decision, the latest in a series of diplomatic moves benefiting Israel, was widely applauded in Israel.

“Few things are more important to the security of the state of Israel than permanent sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” Mr Friedman said.

“It is simply obvious, it is indisputable and beyond any reasonable debate.”

After the Cabinet decision, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Friedman unveiled a sign trimmed in gold with the name “Trump Heights” and adorned with US and Israeli flags.

Addressing the ceremony, Mr Netanyahu called Mr Trump a “great friend” of Israel and described the Golan, which overlooks northern Israel, as an important strategic asset.

“The Golan Heights was and will always be an inseparable part of our country and homeland,” he said.

Mr Trump later tweeted his approval, saying: “Thank you PM @Netanyahu and the State of Israel for this great honor!”

While Israel has encouraged and promoted settlement in the Golan, its remote location, several hours from the economic centre of Tel Aviv, has been an obstacle. The area is home to small agriculture and tourism sectors but otherwise has little industry.

The eight-year Syrian civil war, which at times has resulted in spillover fire into the Golan, could also present an obstacle to encouraging new residents.

Rosa Zhernakov, a resident of Bruchim since 1991, said the community was excited by Sunday’s decision.

“We hope it will benefit the Golan Heights,” she said, standing outside her bungalow on one of Bruchim’s few streets.

She said the revitalisation of the settlement would mean “more security” for residents from any possible return of the Golan Heights to Syria as part of a future peace treaty.

Syria has demanded a return of the strategic territory, which overlooks northern Israel, as part of any peace deal.

After the devastating civil war in Syria, the prospects of peace talks with Israel anytime soon seem extremely low.

Ramat Trump joins a handful of Israeli places named after American presidents, including a village for Harry S Truman, who first recognised the Jewish state, and George W Bush Plaza, a square the size of a modest living room in central Jerusalem.

Several bureaucratic obstacles will need to be overcome to develop the settlement. With Mr Netanyahu running for re-election in the second national election this year, it remains unclear whether he will be able to complete the task.

Zvi Hauser, an opposition lawmaker who formerly served as Mr Netanyahu’s Cabinet secretary, called Sunday’s ceremony a cheap PR stunt.

“There’s no funding, no planning, no location, and there’s no real binding decision,” he said.