Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - The Israeli government has decided to end the freeze on development of the Golan Heights in the wake of the failed Israeli-Syrian peace talks, according to an announcement made by the Director General of the Prime Minister's office on Thursday.
The Israel Lands Authority also said that, beginning on Thursday, land would be allocated on the Golan Heights for settlement and development.
An official source in the Prime Minister's office told CNSNews.com that there had been a partial freeze on building in the Golan Heights since Barak took office last July. The source said that tourism projects as well as establishing and expanding settlements now would be permitted.
According to the source, this move is not meant as a challenge to Syrian President Hafez Assad, but the Israeli government recognizes that the peace process is not moving forward. The government doesn't "know how long it will take" to reach an agreement and [the leaders] "want to allow the people to live with honor" and continue their lives, the source said.
As might be expected, the Golan Residents' Committee reacted positively to the announcement. Spokesperson for the Committee, Marla Van Meter, said it was "fantastic."
Van Meter told CNSNews.com that the projects, approved by the previous two governments but frozen by Barak, would now go ahead as planned. The government- funded projects include new neighborhoods in existing communities, agricultural projects, expansion of tourism and new businesses.
Ramona Bar Lev, also of the Golan Residents' Committee, told CNSNews.com that she was "very happy" about the news.
However, she was also cautious. On the one hand, Bar Lev said, she is "relieved," but she knows that another "round of this boxing" will eventually come.
Van Meter said the next campaign that the Committee will undertake is to push for the complete removal of the Golan Heights as an issue from the negotiating table where it has been periodically for the last eight years.
The Golan Heights was captured by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War. From 1948 until 1967, Syrian military on the Heights regularly attacked the Jewish settlements below.
For the last 33 years, Israelis - with the support of their government - have developed the Golan Heights. With a commanding view of the Israeli Galilee, an area just 36 miles from Damascus, possessing the Heights gives Israel a strategic defensive advantage.
The acknowledgment of a secret promise by slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to give up the entire Golan Heights in exchange for "peace" led to the resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks in December. However, the negotiations broke down again after a second round held in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in January.
A final attempt by President Clinton to restart the talks two weeks ago in a summit with Assad in Geneva failed, sending a clear message that talks were on ice for now.
The halt came over a Syrian demand that Israel turn over the complete Golan Heights, including the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. While Barak was willing to give up the strategic plateau and remove its 18,000 Israeli residents, he refused to give up the shore of the Sea of Galilee - Israel's only freshwater lake from which it draws 40 percent of its drinking water.