Travels to the Golan, 2008
This is a long, spiked colour feature from a few years ago - posted for anyone wondering about the Golan Heights after Israel-Syria border clashes yesterday….
LANDMINE WARNINGS are the first reminder of the war waged over the Golan Heights. There are other clues, too: lines of stone rubble that once were Syrian houses; a yellowed mosque, intact but mossy and daubed in graffiti; former lookouts, bunkers and gloomy bits of tank now labelled as battle memorabilia. This red-soiled mountain ridge is dotted with plaques commemorating Israeli soldiers and barbed wire fences carrying blunt signs: “Closed military zone. Danger of death.” Amidst cultivated fields and gushing natural spas, stretches of land lie blank, eerily quiet. Decades since the last war ravaged this mountain stretch, it is still quite tangibly spooked.
Far from the headline conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories, there’s another one raging here; calmer and less bloody, but equally entrenched: between Israel, which claimed the Golan Heights in 1967, and neighbouring Syrians, who want it back. Israel officially annexed the Golan in 1981, but international law defines the region as occupied territory. Today, the 460 square miles of the Golan is home to around 20,000 Jews who think they live in a legal part of Israel, and a roughly equal population of Arabs who denounce life under occupation and long to be reconnected to their homeland, Syria.
Now those two countries are in surprise peace talks, recently revealed after seven years of a deep freeze on discussions. Coming to power, the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced there would be no talking to Syria – but he’s been doing just that for two years, via Turkish intermediaries and with the backing of the Israeli security establishment. The Golan Heights is the bargaining chip to be traded for normalized relations with Syria – and analysts say that a “paradigm shift” within Israel makes a breakthrough more likely now. But is the country now really ready to let go of the Golan?
“I don’t need to argue about it, because it is a part of Israel, by law,” says Yehuda Harel. “After forty years, I don’t need to justify why we need to be in the Golan.” A former politician, Harel is a member of the Golan Residents’ Committee, an organisation that mobilizes against Syrian talks whenever they happen. He’s also a founding member of kibbutz Merom Golan, a collective farm set up just one month after Israel’s 1967 takeover. A pastoral oasis perched on a craggy mountain slope, the farm runs rural retreat-style cottages, permanently rented out to tourists during high-season. The Golan Heights, a stunning volcanic ridge gazing upon Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, is a constant hit with weekenders, hikers, nature-lovers and clean space-seekers. During winter, skiers use the stark and ethereally beautiful Mount Hermon (Jabal al-Sheikh), on the farthest, permanently snow-capped edge of the Golan, as a local substitute for the Alps.
“This place is a paradise, why would you leave it?” ask Harel. Before moving to the Golan, Harel had been part of the kibbutz movement, a network of Zionist-socialist collective farms. He views the Jewish settlement of the Golan as continuation of those same goals and ideals. “Where are the borders?” he asks. “Every place that we settle and develop will be the border.”
A half-hour drive away from Harel’s kibbutz, Shalom Blayer, managing director of the Golan Winery, marks a distinction over “developments” in this region “I don’t like to call these settlements because they are not,” he says. “It’s not what you find in Judea and Samaria [the Israeli term for the West Bank]. There are no religious fanatics and crazies here, and we are not going to shoot at soldiers if they try to evacuate us.”
Blayer moved to the Golan region in 1975, at the government’s encouragement. The award-winning winery he now manages opened in 1983, brought wine culture to the country and knocks out six million bottles a year. It’s perfect grape-growing territory, he says, although the wine does sometimes hit export hitches in Europe, where EU committees wonder at the bottle labels: “Product of Israel”. The Golan is not recognised as such. But like most Jewish residents here, Blayer views the land as legitimately conquered territory. “Israel captured the Golan because Syria used to sit here and attack us, fire down on us, onto towns and kibbutzes in Israel,” he says.
Along the eastern border with Syria, there’s a blustery but spectacular lookout. A pre-recorded narration installed by the Israeli tourist board speaks from a rock - over a soundtrack that Britons of a certain age will remember as the theme to the Hovis advert. Wedged between the more customary travel blurb on what to see in the region – Tractor tours! Apple picking! Deer reserves! – the disembodied voice recounts: “During the six day war in 1967, the Israeli army climbed the Golan and after two days of courageous and bitter fighting, captured the region.”
In June 1967, Israel launched pre-emptive attacks on Syria, Egypt and Jordan, seen by the Jewish state as a response to Arab troops amassed on its borders and threatening to strike. The Syrian battalion that crossed into Israel at the start of that war was the last straw on that front; by then, Israeli communities on the border had suffered occasional but serious shelling from Syrian troops who used the towering Golan Heights to full strategic advantage.
Those who question this narrative point to remarks made by Moshe Dayan, the Israeli defence minister at that time. An interview he gave in 1977 was published after his death, in 1997, revealing an Israeli practice of provoking fire: “We would send a tractor to plough some area where it wasn’t possible to do anything, in the demilitarized area [the UN-brokered buffer zone], and knew in advance that the Syrians would start to shoot,” former defence minister Moshe Dayan said. “If they didn’t shoot, we would tell the tractor to advance further, until in the end the Syrians would get annoyed and shoot. And then we would use artillery and later the air force also, and that’s how it was…”
In 1973, Syria tried to take back the Golan by force, but failed. “Only a small number of Israel troops were there to face the onslaught of the Syrian army,” the Hovis voice-over explains, just before launching into a section on mountain streams and blossoming orchards. “But they fought hard and bravely and were able to stop the invasion.”
Between 50,000 and 130,000 Syrians, left, fled or were forced to leave the Golan Heights during or immediately after the 1967 war. Up to 100 villages were destroyed. The numbers and the motivations for departure are contested by both Israeli and Syrian sources. Not under dispute is that around six thousand Syrians stayed put in a cluster of mountain villages on the edge of new border. In the main, they comprise a community of Druze - a monotheistic religion that branched out from Islam in the 11th Century, with population centres in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.
Most of Israel’s Druze community is based in the northern Galilee region and didn’t fight in the 1948 Arab-Jewish war that resulted in the creation of Israel. Today, this community has Israeli citizenship and, although not exactly equal or integrated, is considered loyal - Druze serve in the Israeli army. When Israel took the Golan, perhaps there was an assumption that the Druze of this region would be similar in outlook to the Galilean Druze. They aren’t.
“We are under occupation and the land belongs to Syria – that is very clear,” says Taiseer Maray, director of Golan for Development, which campaigns on behalf of the region’s native population. “We are not partners in Israel, but instead are forced to be part of the system, against our choice.”
The Golan Druze do not have Syrian citizenship – or any other; their status is defined as “undefined”. They have residency rights, so they can do most things in Israel except vote – although most would in any case refuse to vote in the elections of a government whose legitimacy they do not recognize. Even the regional authorities were, until the mid-1990s, ignored. “We saw the local council as a branch of the Israeli occupation and so people boycotted it,” explains Maray.
One year after annexation in 1982, Israel tried to turn this community into citizens of the Jewish state, just like the Druze of the Galilee. It didn’t go down very well. Villagers recall that officials went door-to-door delivering Israeli ID cards, but overwhelmingly, those documents were dumped. A general strike was declared in protest at the unwanted Israeli citizenship and that lasted for six months, despite frequently bloody protests and regular curfews when entire villages were effectively placed under house arrest.
“They tried to weaken us, but it just made us stronger and more determined,” recalls Amali, a 60-year-old woman in Majdal Shams, the largest Druze village in the Golan with a population of around 10,000. “It wasn’t politics, because people here in general are not politically aware,” she explains. “It’s just that we feel ourselves to be Syrian, so how could we have accepted? We would have resisted for longer than six months for such a cause.” The Israeli government backed down.
Syrian Druze never welcomed conquerors. In Majdal Shams, a multi-figured statue dominates the central square, stark reminder of how this village greeted the French colonisers of the 1920s: with swords. France got the Golan in a trade off with Britain, as both countries carved up the region following the collapse of the battered Ottoman Empire. When the bronze warrior tableau was erected in 1991 the Israeli army took it personally and blew up the stone figures. Their sculptor repaired the work, but left the bomb marks intact, so that the statue ended up a statement about Israeli occupation after all.
“From the first days of the French mandate in Syria, the Druze were the first to revolt,” says Professor Kais Firro, a specialist in the history of Middle East minorities at Haifa university. This, he adds, is a stark contrast to the Druze of the Galilee region, who traditionally acquiesced to a succession of rulers: Ottoman, British and then Israeli. The Golan villagers fought frontline against the French, and later resisted French attempts to turn the Druze into a separate state – the hallmark divide-and-rule tactic tried by European colonisers.
“The Druze realised this would place them in a delicate situation and cause rifts with other Syrians, so they began to develop Syrian nationalist ideas and an intellectual movement that was opposed to French rule,” says Firro. They remain of that persuasion, flying the national flag on Syrian Independence day and during demonstrations against Israeli control. The multi-coloured Druze flag, by contrast, has no national connotation and instead is raised as a lucky charm over newly built homes.
This Golan community of Druze does not speak of economic hardship, although there are complaints over access to water and rights to land under Israeli control. The sick have access to Israeli health-care, students can attend universities and agricultural products – notably the giant red apples grown abundantly here – are sold within the Jewish state. Conditions are far easier now than they were a few decades ago, when the Druze were governed by an Israeli military administration. But what has this got to do with anything, campaigners ask?
“It could be completely true that we are better off financially, but that does not change the fact that we are under occupation,” says Maray. “You do not define your nationality and belonging on the basis of economics.” And there is another, painful tangent of life under Israeli control: Golan Druze are physically separated from relatives living on the other side or the border, in Syria.
“Congratulations on your new car!” a wind-stretched voice relays from a scarf-waving figure in white. “Thanks! May God grant you the same blessing.” Zayna, a 73-year old Druze from Masada village in the Golan is talking with one of her brothers, Noaf, 53, who stands a few hundred metres away in Syria. They are separated by the rocky slopes of a no-man’s-land marking out the border with Israel. Behind Noaf, a white UN observation building monitors the barbed-wire border while the Israel army watches from a raised tower on the Golan side.
Situated on the edge of Majdal Shams, “the shouting fence”, has for years been used by families who relay greetings, news and gossip to each other through microphones across the testy divide. Despite the fact of mobile phone lines and web-cams enabling different forms of contact between relatives, they still keep arranging to “meet” here.
“I passed my exams!” Zayna’s niece, a pin-figure on the facing slope, shouts out from Syria. “Congratulations!” her aunt in the Golan replies. “We miss you and hope to see you soon, God willing.” Zayna is from Harfa, Syria but married in the Golan 53 years ago, when it was not controlled by Israel. She has five brothers in Harfa and an assortment of relatives – the brothers married, had kids – whom she has never met. But she did see two of her brothers last year in Jordan, a regular rendezvous point for separated families, since both sides can travel to it freely. “I walked straight past them, I didn’t recognise them at first,” she recalls of the meeting in Amman. “Then we all cried and people stopped in the street to see what was happening. Those five days in Jordan were like a dream.”
This region is full of separated families who talk of rare meetings in foreign countries and the missed marriages, births and deaths of loved ones. “Our happiness is not complete and our sadness is doubled, because we can’t be with our families in times of joy or sorrow,” says Amali, in Majdal Shams. The International Committee of the Red Cross facilitates travel from the Golan into Syria for humanitarian reasons, so that around 500 Golan Druze cross to attend university in Damascus each year, while hundreds of pilgrims are allowed into Syria for various religious occasions. Brides are also granted passage to marry (although Golan-based relatives can’t cross to attend the wedding).
Although most acutely suffering, the Druze are not the only ones to lose out in this set up. With a friendly Syrian border, Israel could get to Europe by land – a significant factor. And there are wider regional benefits to a peace deal.
“Until a few years ago, the atmosphere was that we shouldn’t even speak with Syria, especially because the US is against it and Syria is a terror state,” says Alon Liel, former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry. “Now the regional situation has changed dramatically. Iran almost encircles us geographically – it has a military alliance with Syria, it is much stronger in Lebanon through Hezbollah and in the Palestinian territories through Hamas.” According to this analysis, the push for the current talks is to persuade Syria to dislodge from its current alliances in the region and get closer to the west with enticements of much-needed trade agreements with the US, economic assistance from the EU – and, of course, the Golan.
Since peace talks last convened in 2000, some creative proposals have emerged, one being to make the Golan sovereign Syrian territory which is then leased long-term to Israel – something like Britain’s 99-year agreement with China over Hong Kong. That way residents could stay put and both countries would benefit from the region’s development – a factor that could forge ties, not freeze them.
Polls consistently show that 75% of Israelis don’t want to give up the Golan – a higher percentage than is attached to a united Jerusalem. But 50% of those polled would this land back if normalised relations with Syria could be guaranteed as a result. Analysts say that that figure would rise if a government campaign played up the peace factor. But there is worry that everything will derail in the imminent Israeli election. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faces a leadership contest in November which, if he loses, will force a general election. Olmert is said to be convinced of the need to close a deal with Syria. But the chances are that his successor will not be.