Golan Days

by Helena Cobban

April 1998

This text is a series I published in Al-Hayat (London), after spending some time in Israel and Golan doing research for my book The Israeli-Syrian Peace Talks: 1991-96 and Beyond.  The text is in five parts:

Part 1: Golan and the human dimension

Broad sweeps of fertile land being farmed by prosperous Israeli settlers. An embattled Arab community maintaining a tough-minded collective resistance to the occupation -- even as it fights to hang onto its remaining lands. Deep divisions among the settlers over whether they would ever be prepared to leave... All this and more I discovered on a recent visit to the occupied Golan Heights, a journey that helped to put a human face on what many outsiders look at mainly as a 'strategic' or military issues: the issue of the Golan.

On my journey I met community organizers from Majdal Shams and other Syrian- Arab villages, who under difficult circumstances are keeping alive the spirit of resistance they showed most publicly during the successful 1981-82 campaign to resist having Israeli identity cards imposed on them. I met an Israeli Member of Knesset, one of the first settlers on the Golan back in July 1967, whose successful agitation against any withdrawal acted as a strong brake on Rabin's diplomacy back in 1995, and whose role in forming a new political party, 'Third Way', helped to bring down the Labor government in 1996. And I met a different kind of settler leader, too: a spokesman for the point of view that in the event of a full peace with Syria, all options including a full withdrawal should be considered -- and he pointed out that while 'Third Way' gained only 17 percent of settlers' votes in '96, Labor, which remained committed to a withdrawal won more than 50 percent...

Altogether, the situation on the Golan, both demographically and politically, has many features different from the parallel occupation being run just a few kilometers to the south, in the occupied West Bank.

What is the same between the two, however, is the daily battle of the indigenous Arab communities to hang onto their land and their national- political identity in the face of concerted Israeli attempts to strip them of both.

* * *

The first thing that strikes me, after I have taken the zigzag road up from Lake Tiberias that is now listed as 'Israeli National Route Number 98' as it climbs uphill from the southeast corner of Lake Tiberias, is just how broad the occupied area of Golan is. Yes, I have been here before, and driven along other roads that snake up the 800 meters between the lake-shore and the top of the steep hills immediately to their east. But never before have I even started to explore the broad areas on top of the elevated Golan plateau.

Like many other political analysts I have heard (over and over!) the claims of many Israelis (though notably not, in his later years, that experienced old military-political leader Mr. Rabin) that the topography of the Golan means that any Israeli withdrawal from it would fatally threaten Israel's security. And I have heard more thoughtful analysts pointing out, in addition, that the fact that many parts of Golan are higher than Damascus, as well as uncomfortably close to it, means that any continuation of the Israeli occupation poses a constant and continuing threat to the Syrian capital.

These are tough military-strategic problems -- though as the record of the last months of the Syrian-Israeli negotiation in 1995-96 `showed, they are ones that political leaders sincerely interested in peace can certainly find a solution to. (The key in this case, as elsewhere in the world, being a combination of the concepts of demilitarization and verification systems.)

But in addition to their role in the diplomacy of security arrangements, the Golan Heights are also just plain big. They have a lot of wonderful, fertile land. At its widest point, even after Israel's very partial withdrawal in 1974, the Golan is still more than 25 kilometers from east to west. From the Yarmouk in the south to Jebel al-Sheikh in the north, the occupation zone stretches 70 kilometers. Altogether, we are talking about 1,250 square kilometers of land, more than half of it very fertile. Moreover, the snow and rain that fall on Jebel al-Sheikh's broad reaches can be conveyed by simple irrigation systems to most of the plateau's flat, broad fields...

Until June 1967, the Syrian province of Quneitra was peopled with two cities, 139 villages and 61 farms: a total population at the time of 130,000. But during the chaos and trauma of the war, nearly the entire Syrian population of Golan fled -- with many also chased out by the invading Israeli forces.

According to one account, by June 10th, 1967, of the entire population, only 6,400 people, housed in Majdal Shams and five other villages clinging to the treacherous slopes of Jebel al-Sheikh, remained. Almost immediately, the whole of the rest of the Golan -- all the broad farmland on the plateau -- was fenced off. All access routes were mined to prevent any attempt by the other villagers and townspeople to return, and the few who had sought refuge in Majdal Shams were forced to leave. (And even as that was happening, in July 1967, as today's Knesset member Yehuda Harel recalls, he and seven Israeli comrades came to an area just west of Quneitra, near the emptied villages of Mansoura and Bab al-Hawa, and established the first Israeli settlement on the Golan, 'Merom Golan'.)

As I drive around the Golan today, I see traces of the Arab villages everywhere. Sometimes, on a little rise or knoll, there are heaps of stones covered with untidy vines and with prickly-pear hedges somewhere near: as inside 1948 Israel, these usually bespeak a destroyed village. Sometimes near the stone-heaps, or at a crossroads, you can see slightly more complete structures that have been blown up with explosives: roofs collapsed in at crazy angles on long-empty rooms, with any remaining walls pocked by attempts at using them for target practice. And at one place not far from the lake (I estimate it must have been the village of Sheikh Ali), a cluster of sturdy- looking houses built from solid blocks of the Golan's dark-red basalt stands mute beneath the trees, the stones and mortar still standing, though the roofs and windows are long gone...

The tour directors on the many Israeli tour buses which cruise around the excellent road system up here presumably do not point out such 'sights'. They like to stop at the numerous 'Lookout' points established along the western edge of the plateau, often in positions the Syrian army occupied until 1967, in order to explain to their Israeli and foreign tourists how easy it was from here for the Syrians to shell what they describe as 'Israel's northern settlements'. (What they do not tell, which is well described in the memoirs of the U.N. chief at the time, the Norwegian General Odd Bull, is that most or all of those 'Israeli' settlements that were attacked were actually settlements being established by Israel in contravention of the Armistice agreements, inside the demilitarized zone evacuated by the Syrian Army in 1949.)

Maybe the main thing the Israeli tour directors point out these days are the rolling dunums of cultivation that the 32 settlements up here have established. Think about it. 133 abandoned villages once host to more than 100,000 people have been replaced by 32 settlements, totalling only around 16,000. Imagine how much land -- good land -- is available for the settlers here!

Gradually over the years, the mines that were laid to prevent the villagers' return were cleared, and much of the land was re-opened -- for the use of the settlers. Now they have apple-trees, olives, vegetables, grape vines, often stretching as far as the eye can see.

Or, the tour directors will take their charges to the 'town' of Qatzrin, the largest of the settlements which is rapidly being developed as a regional center. Here, along with other light-industry projects, is the huge headquarters of the 'Golan Winery', famous already amongst many of the Jewish American tourists, whose community back home often likes to toast special occasions with its 'Golan champagne'.

Or, the tour-buses will to one of the many settlements that have developed tourist facilities: guest-houses, restaurants, pony-trekking centers, or, up on Jebel al-Sheikh, even ski-ing. Many of the road-signs to such settlements announce proudly to the tourists -- in Hebrew and English -- which of the particular organizations in world Zionism contributed to its founding. Either broad Zionist organizations like the United Jewish Appeal, or those close to the Labor Party. Unlike on the West Bank, none of the settlements up here was founded by Gush Emunim or Jewish fundamentalists. For though Israel's ever- industrious archaeologists say they have found a number of ancient Jewish sites up here, still, the religious-nationalist fanatics do not generally consider it to be part of the historic 'Land of Israel'.

* * *

'Neve Ativ' is the settlement closest to the ski slope. Its 'cute', stylized-Alpine-style houses cling to the south slope of Jebel al-Sheikh, and it has many guest-cabins available for summer or winter tourism. Because there is so little flat terrain up here, the settlement has been built on land that straddles the little mountain road. And if that means that the heavy iron gates at each end of the settlement are rolled closed each night for the settlers' security -- why, in their view, that probably does not matter since it is 'only' the villagers of Majdal Shams just round the hill who are badly inconvenienced.

Neve Ativ even has the all-American amenity of a Howard Johnson lodge, also built in steep-roofed Alpine style. The day of my visit is a Saturday, and snows have recently fallen up here on the mountain. At lunch-time, Neve Ativ is alive with ski-ers and other visitors from the warmer parts of Israel.

One problem. This settlement is built on the site of the village of Joubbata al-Zeit. And part of the lodge is built right on one part of the village's cemetery.

Just another case of American capitalism at work? Or a more potent symbol, perhaps, of how the easy acceptance by many Americans that Golan really "is" a part of Israel has blinded Howard Johnson's to the realities of ethnic cleansing that underlie most of Golan's present, very Israeli-looking face?

Whatever the explanation, none of the Israeli kids throwing snowballs on their Saturday outing here, or their parents, seems to care.

Go to:   Top of page (Index & Part 1)      Part 3     Part 4     Part 5    

Part 2: The Indigenous Resistance

There are only 16,000 of them left. But the resistance that the residents of the Golan's five remaining Syrian villages have maintained to Israeli attempts to appropriate their lands and their national-political loyalties have turned them into a pivotal part of the history of Syria's attempts to regain this occupied region.

As you approach the village of Mas'ada from the area that the Israelis have cordoned off under the name of the 'Ya'ar Odem Nature Reserve', you immediately see the villagers' apple orchards starting to spread in terraced rows on the lower slopes of Jebel al-Shaikh as it soars heavenward to the north. Trees in every degree of maturity, from new saplings to elders with broad and wizened trunks. But all carefully pruned and well tended, the earth between the rows neatly ploughed, the terraces well maintained. And dotted everywhere between the trees, the rusty red of vast, cylindrical rainwater tanks, filling in spring to guarantee water through the long summer months to come.

The villages themselves are cramped and hard to get around in. "Please tell me how to get to the clinic," I ask at the gas station in Majdal Shams. Everyone knows where it is. It is the only clinic in town, run by the Arab Association for Development, one of two non-governmental organizations established in recent years by activists from the villages.

The two AAD health centers that I saw in Majdal Shams look like excellently organized facilities. The emergency center is open round the clock. In the other center, specialists in a wide variety of medical fields, including pre- natal care, cardiology, physiotherapy have their rooms. Smaller AAD clinics open in the other villages for a number of hours per day, and make referrals to the specialists here in Majdal Shams.

Until the AAD established these clinics four years ago, no such health services were available to the residents of occupied Golan. "There were a couple of Israeli doctors who came here, but they were only open a few hours each day," explained AAD board member Dr. Tayseer Maray. "For most of their care, the people here would go to hospitals in Safad, which is 70 kilometers away. As a result there was little primary health care, and practically no preventive medicine being practiced here at all."

Now that the clinics are running smoothly, the Association has ideas for projects in other fields. The idea is to provide community services the local people need, and to do so in a way that is independent from the unelected, puppet 'municipalities' that the occupation regime has installed here, and from all the other repressive apparatuses of the occupation regime.

Some sectors, the resisters have difficulty having much influence on. One is the school system. After the Israelis first occupied Golan in 1967 and engaged in their ethnic cleansing of all the lower-lying areas, they seemed to have special plans for the folks in these five mountain villages. Because nearly all of them were Druze, the Israelis seemed to think they could easily assimilate them in with their own population of 'Israeli Druze'.

At that time, the five villages only had a population of about 6,500 people between them: it proved impossible for them to hang onto their national school curriculum, in the way that the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were able to keep the outlines of, respectively, the Jordanian and the Egyptian school systems still in place. So the schools here were forced to switch, nearly overnight, from using the Syrian curriculum to using the 'Israeli Arab' curriculum, with its heavy doses of Hebrew language and Jewish history, as well as its ideologically distorted view of Muslim and Arab history.

Then, in the mid 1970s, many Druze in Israel started openly resisting Israeli authority. The Israelis decided to try to counter that resistance by splitting the Druze off from the broader 'Israeli Arab' curriculum, and establishing an entirely new 'Israeli Druze' curriculum. This was what then got imposed on the Golanis. "So now we have 'Israeli Druze history', 'Israeli Druze biology', 'Israeli druze mathematics'!" Dr. Maray exclaimed. "It's a crazy system, not at all what our young people need in order to develop."

In order to make up for the deficits of the formal school system, the AAD and the Golan Academic Association and other community organizations have for the past few years run a children's camp every summer that combines creative activities like music and sport that the formal schools have no time for, with attempts to keep alive in the children a strong memory of who they are and what their people stand for.

In last year's camp, for example, each group of kids was given the name of one of Golan's destroyed villages, and was asked to find out as much as they could about it. Camp directors take the young people for trips around the Golan, as well as to Jerusalem and other parts of the occupied Palestinian lands. When I took a short driving trip around some of the villages of north Golan with two of these kids in the back of the car, they showed a lively interest in identifying the names of the destroyed villages whose ruins we could still see -- as well as a strong desire to continue resisting the Israeli occupation.

The Israelis' attempts to integrate the Golani Syrians into the 'Israeli Druze' population came to a head in 1982, in the aftermath of the december 1981 Knesset vote to 'extend Israel's full jurisdiction into Golan', i.e., in effect, to annex the area to Israel. In the months that followed that vote, the Israelis tried to impose Israeli nationality onto the Golanis. Their plan presumably was to say to the outside world -- none of whose governments except that of Micronesia has ever accepted the move as legitimate -- that "Look! All the indigenous people of the Golan have taken Israeli citizenship and are asking us to stay!"

But the attempt never succeeded. The Golanis resisted with a months-long general strike and a series of rallies, some of which were broken up very forcefully. When finally it became clear to the Israelis that they could not force their nationality onto these people, a compromise of sorts was reached: the Golanis were given the option of keeping their existing identity cards, but for travel they, like the Palestinians of east Jerusalem, would use an Israeli-issued travel document with the space for nationality marked 'Undetermined'.

In the years that followed the Golanis' partial victory of that year, the Israelis tried to hit back using harsher forms of administrative repression. One that has been much used here, as in the occupied Palestinian areas, has been harsh restrictions placed on land-use in both the agricultural and the residential areas. In Majdal Shams, in particular, the overcrowding experienced by its 8,000 residents seems severe -- but households are only allowed to build on a small proportion of the village land that they own.

Regarding agriculture, in the early years of the occupation, many of these villagers found that the apple orchards their families had established in earlier decades were at the peak of their productivity and profitability. (The need to protect such valuable long-term investments was one reason a larger proportion of people here than in the flatter lands to the south stayed on after the Syrian defeat of 1967. Another was that the elders here kept a strong folk memory of what had happened during the Syrian revolt of 1925, when the French burned down the houses in many of these villages after forcing the residents to flee. This time, they vowed, they would not make the mistake of leaving.)

In the early years, too, the high elevation of these orchards gave the Golanis' apples an intensity of flavor that was unrivalled by any apples being produced inside Israel. The relatively high prices the villagers were able to command, and the need they immediately understood to protect as much land as possible from expropriation by planting it, led them to develop considerable new acreage into apple orchards over the years -- from 6,400 dunums in 1967 to 15,000 dunums in 1993. But at the same time, Israeli settlers were also planting huge apple orchards in the other areas of the Golan plateau, so the prices of the villagers' apples started to fall.

At the same time, they were running out of water for their orchards. The Israeli water company 'Mekorot' had diverted and piped away much of the water from the nearby springs, and the villagers were prohibited from digging new wells. With great ingenuity, they developed a new means of assuring summer irrigation: the huge new rainwater cisterns that started to dot their fields like so many unfinished natural-gas tanks. "But now, they are telling us we cannot build any more tanks, we have to number the ones that we have and install water-meters in them to register and pay for how much water we are collecting," said Dr. Maray. "What is this? Now, even the rain in the air belongs to the Israelis?"

The Arab Association for Development is concerned about the many issues the villagers face in protecting and developing the agriculture that is the staple of their life, and is considering new solutions. "We are sure the Israelis want to stifle our agriculture, so we become wage laborers for them inside Israel," says Dr. Maray. "That way, they hope they could control us better."

Dr. Maray and his colleagues in the two non-governmental associations are determined to resist that fate. He recalled that during the hopeful parts of the post-Madrid peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, some of the villagers started to hope that at last their dream of an end to the occupation was on the brink of being realized. Now, they are far less hopeful, and are more resigned to digging in for the long haul of preserving the steadfastness of their communities.

They have a few ways of keeping in touch with family members and friends who are in Syria. The "Hill of Tears" where family members can shout at each other across the demarcation line through a megaphone is one way. Another is to keep up contact through the handful of students from the villages who are allowed to go to Syria to pursue their university studies every year. And since the peace agreement with Jordan, a small number of Golani villagers have been allowed to travel to Jordan, where they can meet relatives who travel there from Syria. But permits to make both those kinds of trips are carefully controlled by the Israelis and the small group of collaborators whom they work with in the villages, and are often used by them as an additional means of leverage over other villagers...

Nationalist activists among the villagers say that despite the dangers, they are glad to encourage such visits. In particular, they say, the young people who go to study in Syria soon repudiate any links their parents may have had with the occupiers. "Our situation is better than that of the Palestinians in this regard," they add. "We are such a small population here that we know everyone: we know exactly who is collaborating, and to what extent. But still, we always continue trying to persuade them not to, and often we are successful."

Such then, are the small but momentous steps and painstaking daily decisions that have to be taken by people who are determined to maintain a longterm resistance to what now looks like a rather long additional period of foreign occupation. But the people of these villages have a high degree of pride in the history of their community's resistance to foreigners.

The village square in the center of Majdal Shams has a twelve-foot-high statue that sums up the region's history: it represents three local men and one woman who were heroes of the region's 1920s battles against the French. "And where," asked one of today's nationalist activists, "has French power in this region gone to now?"

Go to:   Top of page (Index & Part 1)      Part 2      Part 4    Part 5    

Part 3: Conversation with a Settler

In some ways, Israel still feels like an endearingly small country. I was interested in finding out more about the role played in the mid-90s by the movement that grew up within Labor called 'Third Way', which was formed on the one issue of resisting any talk of an Israeli withdrawal from Golan. I asked some Israeli friends how to contact the movement's leader, Avigdor Kahalani, now Minister for Public Security in Bibi Netanyahu's government. "Oh, don't bother with Kahalani, he's not very smart," my friends said. "The person you want to see is Yehuda Harel, who's another one of Third Way's four Knesset members. In fact, he's the chairman of their Knesset faction."

"And how do I contact him?" I asked.

"It's easy," they said. "Just call the Knesset."

So I got out my Fodor's travel-guide to Israel, found a telephone number for tourist information at the Knesset, called it, found someone who spoke English, and soon enough, Mr. Harel was on the line in person. "Yes, sure. You can come up to my kibbutz on the Golan and talk with me on Saturday."

"I hope it's no problem for you it being the Shabbat?" I asked.

"No, no problem," he laughed.

* * *

So now, here I am, waiting for Mr. Harel at the 'Cowboys Restaurant' in his kibbutz, Merom Golan. There is plenty of symbolism here. For many of the 17,000 or so Israelis who have settled up here, Golan does feel like what the 'Wild West' probably represented to early American pioneers. There is plenty of great land that the state makes freely available to them here, unlike the relatively cramped confines of Israel proper: broad unpeopled vistas, with 'the enemy' conveniently far out of sight over the horizon. Space to grow crops, and also space for cows to roam in (unlike the cows inside Israel, which never get to roam anywhere outside their muck-filled sheds).

Space, in short, to indulge the all the fantasy of the cowboy.

To judge from the steady buzz of cars coming to park in the restaurant parking lot, under the wing of the huge volcanic cone-hill that shelters the kibbutz to the east, the restaurant is also a good money-maker for the kibbutz.

Across the road, more symbolism: the paint already starting to peel at the edges of a huge painted sign put up last July to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the kibbutz's founding.

Mr. Harel comes to meet me, takes me to his house. It is full of his adult children and young grandchildren late on the Sabbath afternoon. Harel himself has the wizened face and the casual friendliness of an old pioneer. He clears us a space at the cluttered table, and talks a little about how he and his wife Tzipka started raising their children in a kibbutz on the other side of Lake Tiberias, in the Upper Galilee. "Then in July 1967, I came here with seven others and we founded the first kibbutz on the Golan. It was still dangerous then, so my wife stayed with the kids at our old kibbutz and came over later, once it was more settled."

Like the vast majority of the Golan settlers (oh, don't call us 'settlers', call us 'people', he says at one point) -- like the majority of them, Harel's traditional political sympathies were with Labor, not Likud or the religious parties. Building settlements on the Golan was always much more of a project for Labor than it was for Likud, which does not consider this area really to have formed part of the historical 'Land of Israel'.

In the elections of 1996, after Third Way split off from Labor and ran its own party list in the elections, Harel tells me that two-thirds of the votes they won came from people who were formerly with Labor. And they got enough votes in 1996 to win four seats in the Knesset: enough to make them a politically significant force inside the Knesset, and to cause Netanyahu to woo them into his coalition with promises of generous help to the Golan settlers, along with promises never to 'abandon' them.

But earlier, during the crucial points of Rabin and Peres's negotiations on the Syrian track between 1994 and early 1996, Third Way was still a powerful presence inside the Labor Party. From that position, they were able to exert powerful pressures on the Labor leaders...

Harel tells me he spent his early years in Merom Golan in various branches of agriculture. More recently, he became involved with a kibbutz project to find uses and a market for the red-brown basalt stone found everywhere around here. "We crush it in a crushing plant a few kilometers from here," he says. "My job for a long time was to find uses and a market for the crushed stone. It makes a good neutral medium for hydroponic agriculture."

No, he says emphatically, he never liked to take much time away from his work here to get involved in politics. Apart, that is, from a couple of years in the early 1980s, when his close friend Yitzhak Rabin persuaded him to go down to his office to help him orchestrate one of his many leadership campaigns inside the Labor Party against Shimon Peres... Yes, he was that much close to Rabin.

"So do you think that with all the progress being made in the talks on the Syrian track in 1994 and 1995, that in the end Rabin would have been prepared to withdraw from Golan in return for peace?" I ask.

"Look, I talked with him every two or three weeks in that time. Rabin hesitated a lot on the issue of withdrawal, and of course, we can never know now whether he would have been prepared to withdraw. But my guess?" He takes a sip of strong Nescafe and considers a moment: "Yes, I believe he would."

I ask: "So if Rabin had all these links with you and with the other settlers -- sorry, people -- here on the Golan, what do you think, from your talks with him, were his main reasons for thinking of withdrawing?"

"I believe he was very afraid about the time of non-conventional weapons, and he wanted to use the time before the Arab states got them in order to make strong peace agreements."

"Did you notice, while he was engaged in those negotiations, that he was cutting back at all on the aid the state gives to the settlements up here?"

"No, he never made any moves to stop investment in the settlements. Because you see-- " a shy smile here "we have quite a lot of political power. And now, Bibi has to give us support because we're in his government. Four Members of Knesset is a lot here!"

Harel talked some about his hopes for further development of the region. "We don't need new settlements," he said. "We have 32 already. What we need is for all of them to grow. Especially Katzrin."

Katzrin is the regional center the Israelis have been developing 20 kilometers to the south from here. "Right now, we only have a high school there," Harel says, tapping his cigarette on the table. "But the government will be moving a teacher's college there, and then we will develop that into a university."

What do you say, I ask, to those who say that Golan is not really part of the historic Land of Israel?

Another smile, broader this time. "Nobody knows the borders of the 'Land of Israel'," he replies. "We are the only country in the world that doesn't have fixed borders -- because we are still making our borders! Look, the border on the River Jordan has only existed since the 1920s. The one with Egypt only since 1903. This so-called border with Syria only in 1927..."

He continues. "And then, the Syrians didn't even recognize this 1927 border up till now. They want the 4 June 1967 border. They are right. This so- called international border is only a colonialist border drawn up between France and Britain. No-one asked the Syrians about it at the time, and no-one asked me."

But Mr. Harel, no other country in the world has recognized the validity of Israel's claim to sovereignty over Golan. Doesn't that bother you?

"So, people don't recognize even that West Jerusalem is part of Israel, either. We learn to live with it. Yes, we have to form our own borders."

Later, I ask him a question about some key legislation that was introduced into the Knesset in 1995, with strong support from Third Way, that would have strengthened in some hard-to-understand technical way the legislation that the Knesset successfully passed in 1981, which 'extended Israeli jurisdiction' to the Golan. Many apologists for Israel in the west have held that the 1981 move fell somehow short of outright annexation. Could Mr. Harel just please help me to figure out what this was all about: what was the difference between 'extending jurisdiction' and clear annexation, and what was the intended effect of the 1995 bill in the Knesset (which came at a key time in the negotiations, and was defeated only because the Knesset votes were split 60-60 at the final count)?

"Look, as far as I can see, there is no difference between extending jurisdiction and annexing," he said. "We Israelis have a whole history of annexing areas precisely through this mechanism of extending Israeli laws to them. First of all, we had the areas of Palestine that the U.N. had not given to the Jewish state in the Partition Resolution: Acre, Nahariyeh, Nazareth, so many areas we extended our law to in the 1940s. Then, there was East Jerusalem. And thirdly, in the vote of 1981, there was Golan. So if what we did in 1981 wasn't annexation, then maybe the others weren't annexation either? But that's unthinkable!"

No, he continued, in his view the importance of the legislation proposed in 1995 was that it would make it harder for any government to undo the vote of 1981. It would require that any Israeli government would need a majority of all registered voters, not just of those who actually voted, if it wanted to claim victory in a referendum on the voters' readiness to give up Golan for a peace accord.

Are there any circumstances, then, in which Harel would be prepared to consider an Israeli withdrawal from Golan in the context of a peace?

"Look, if Syria will be democratic and we have a neighbor there like America has with Canada... Personally, I don't believe in relations between states but I believe in relations between people. If we were to move the borders here and where we are now became Sweden or Canada, then it wouldn't be a problem at all exactly where the border is -- for the Syrians or for us. But unfortunately-- " (a little dig here at Shimon Peres) "unfortunately, we are in the Middle East, not in the 'New Middle East'."

I asked him to look back again at the Rabin era. "Well, we had three years of very intense struggle here under Rabin. But our movement made lots of progress because we got lots of support from the Israeli population through our demonstrations, hunger strikes, and so on. When we forced Rabin, in 1994, to promise to have a referendum before implementing any withdrawal from Golan, that was good, because Asad would worry that even if he offered us everything in a peace agreement, maybe he would end up with nothing. So yes, it was good."

It is time to leave. The last of the grandchildren has been carried out, sleepy, to his parents' home in another part of the kibbutz. "Yes they all live in Golan," the grandfather informs me proudly. And no, the children are not all raised apart from their parents, as in the old days of kibbutz life. There is more individualism now.

He walks slowly with me to the car. We pass an overgrown air-raid shelter with old, discarded lawn-furniture blocking its entrance, and a couple of earth-built defensive positions now slowly starting to collapse.

"Now, those are just decor," Harel tells me. "Before, we used to need them. But now, yes, things here are good."

Go to:   Top of page (Index & Part 1)      Part 2     Part 3     Part 5    

Part 4: A Different Kind of Settler

From behind me, the sun was sinking fast into the hills of Galilee, as I drove up the road that winds uphill into Golan from the northeast corner of Lake Tiberias. "When you come to Maale Gamla, come through the gates, take the first left, and ours is the last house on the right," I had been told. At first glance, this settlement looks significantly different from the kibbutz I visited earlier, at Merom Golan. Maale Gamla is a moshav. People here built their own houses (with good financial incentives from the state). There is not the same uniformity of architectural styles as in the kibbutz. In fact, the little streets here, with large houses set well back behind thick rosemary bushes, olive trees, and richly falling curtains of bougainvillea, make it look like a small resort on the French Riviera.

Yigal Kipnis has been looking out for me, and meets me at the street with a ready smile. "Come in," he says, and presses me to drink the ubiquitous cup of Nescafe.

Kipnis has plenty of time these days to meet and talk with stray strangers. "We are not so active now as we were back in '96," he says. Back in the early and middle months of '96, what he and his friends were doing was trying to organize a different kind of movement amongst the Golan settlers, to counter the strong, anti-withdrawal voice of 'Third Way'. They called the new movement 'The Way to Peace'.

In a manifesto issued in May 1996 by residents of 13 of Golan's 32 settlements, 'The Way to Peace' noted that, "For us the Golan is a home, a community, a place of employment and a lifetime's achievement... We freely chose this path and preferred it above all others. We insist that every effort be made to enable us to continue, but have never placed our personal interests above those of the nation and will not do so now. We acknowledge the mandate that every Prime Minister has to conduct negotiations with the Syrians. We support the government's peace process and understand that the borders of peace, should this be achieved, will be based on the needs of the State, with security as a primary consideration."

"Until a couple of years ago," Kipnis explains, "people heard only one opinion from the people in Golan. That was the voice against the peace process with Syria. But there is another point of view, though it is not so often heard. We started to express our point of view only after the killing of Rabin... Look, we who live here have an inner conflict on this matter. But after the murder of Rabin we started to understand that silence, in a democratic process, has consequences. We understood that the strong attacks against Rabin from the other people in Golan had the effect of delegitimizing the whole peace process -- precisely because Rabin was always so close to Golan."

Though Third Way was always very vocal inside Israel and abroad, its anti- withdrawal viewpoint was never, in Kipnis' view, a majority view amongst the settlers in Golan themselves. "There was an opinion poll published just before the elections in '96," he recalls. "It was a poll just of Golan residents, conducted by the Dahav Institute. And the question was whether the people would support a full withdrawal from here in return for a peace treaty with security arrangements. Forty-five percent said yes. And then, when the actual elections came round, Peres got 50 percent of the vote from the Golanis -- more than what he got in the rest of the country! And the Third Way Party got only 17 percent of the votes from Golan -- even though they claimed they were acting in the name of Golan!"

We sit down at the table in the spacious kitchen, looking through broad arches into a living-room decorated with embroideries and with baskets that Kipnis' wife, a chemistry teacher, has woven out of the nobbly fronds from date trees.

"I resent Yehuda Harel [a leader of Third Way] claiming to speak in the name of the Golan residents," Kipnis says. "As for us, what we said when the negotiations started in 1991 was that the Golan residents should leave the whole issue of the negotiations to the specialists."

He leaned forward, his voice cracking with urgency. "You have to understand. The body that calls itself the 'Golan Residents Council' here doesn't let anyone express any opinion that is different from theirs. But after Rabin's death, we started to express our own opinion. We established a forum, had meetings here with various political people and specialists -- people like Yossi Beilin, and Moshe Maoz. For Beilin, we had about 100 people came. I personally don't feel we Golan residents should have any special voice in the peace process. But I do think it is important that we speak our own minds as residents of the Golan... The number of activists we have in The Way to Peace is the same as the number in the Residents Council. But they have lots of money, lots of big bucks from elsewhere."

Have there been big arguments at any of the meetings The Way to Peace has held?

"No, because the people here on Golan are not fighting people."

Kipnis sits back a bit and talks about his life here in Maale Gamla. This settlement was founded only in 1976. As a moshav, its members 'own' their own farms. Kipnis has 40 dunums, much of it down on the shore of the lake. He grows mangoes, bananas, and apples, and raises turkeys on it, too. He generally doesn't employ any help, but goes down to the land early to work for a long morning, then comes back up to the house for a siesta and an evening with his books, or socializing. He was trained as civil engineer, but has gotten some satisfaction out of the farming.

"We have a good life here," he said. But he also noted that, "In general, the moshav is starting to wither." The young folks don't seem, in his view, nearly as interested as his generation in pursuing the farming life. He has two children in the army, and a 15-year-old and an 11-year-old at home. Most of them seem more interested in living in a big city, or in travel, than in staying in Maale Gamla, he says with a shrug.

"In '91," he recalled, "peace with Syria started to become an option for us -- an option, though not a certainty. The people and the politicians needed to start preparing themselves for a change in outlook. All Israel's former Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers, and Defense Ministers started seeing this...

"We need to remember that we came here in 1967 to protect our own settlements inside Israel, and to protect our water rights -- not to take any extra land. Our presence here was and is still intended to provide that protection. But if we have a peace agreement with Syria, the situation would be quite different -- provided those things were protected."

"I understand," he continues, "that Asad wants to get Golan back, though I don't necessarily think he has the right to do so. But I also don't think that just because I live here, Israel should have to stay."

So would he think of staying on in some way under Syrian sovereignty if there were a withdrawal?

"I didn't plan for that scenario yet, because it didn't come close. I did understand, though, that most of the settlements would not have been allowed to stay as outposts of Israeli sovereignty if there were a withdrawal. I don;t know whether there was any talk about them staying here under Syrian sovereignty.

"But it's also important to me what the Syrians do have here if they regain it. If there were two million Syrian towns here, of course it would affect the water in the Kinneret (Lake Tiberias). The presence of Syrian civilians here, and civilian activity, would help to keep the peace."

Is that the same idea that Peres was talking about? I ask.

"Well, Peres' mistake was to talk about grandiose projects. We should talk about small projects here."

One notable absence from Kipnis' conversation as we talked at his kitchen table was any reference to the Syrian Golanis still living in the five remaining Syrian villages a few kilometers to the north. When I asked him what he knew about their situation, he said, "Their situation seems strange, because they preferred to stay here, but they have also kept their Syrian nationality. It makes it hard to trust them."

Perhaps he should start to try. Because at another point in the conversation, he recalled that when he and his friends started to speak out in the name of 'The Way to Peace' in 1996, "One of the things I had in mind was to speak with Syrian public opinion as well as Israeli public opinion." (This desire seemed on the face of it to be genuine: Kipnis was one of the few people I met during my time in Israel who, upon learning that I was also going to Syria, expressed any real interest in knowing what I might find there.)

But then, if he really wants to start a dialogue with 'Syrian public opinion', what better place to start than with his besieged Syrian neighbors living in the Golan villages so close to the north?

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Part 5: Faces of the Displaced

The story of the human dimension of Golan cannot be told without sitting with the naziheen: those Syrian nationals now numbering around half a million whose families fled the Golan amidst the chaos and trauma of the Israeli invasion of their land in 1967...

Often, in the quest for understanding, it is left to the researcher to ask difficult questions, the questions some people would rather not think about much. The question of why the 'ethnic cleansing' of nearly all of the Golan that occurred in June 1967 was so complete is one such question. To answer simply that the people were forced out of the area by the Israelis is not to provide a complete answer, though the responsibility of the Israelis for not allowing the peaceful civilian population to return to their homes and farms after cessation of the immediate hostilities, in line with the norms of international humanitarian law, is certainly inescapable.

For the people of the Golan, the events of Friday, June 9th 1967 were devastating. By that day, the Israeli military had more or less achieved their objectives on the Egyptian and Jordanian fronts. They had also, back on the first day of the war, attacked Syrian air-bases and destroyed the bulk of the Syrian air force. Now, at 11:30 on that Friday morning, the weight of the Israeli ground forces and air forces, enjoying unchallenged air superiority, was turned against the Golan.

According to Moshe Dayan's memoirs, "the breakthrough operations lasted seven hours, until evening, and they were indeed violent hours. But during the night, the Syrians continued strong opposition only in one position. In all other sectors, after we had broken into their fortifications, the Syrian military system collapsed... The battle for the Golan turned out therefore to be a one-phase operation, the breakthrough phase. Thereafter, the Syrian troops retreated -- and in many places fled -- in confusion and disorder toward Damascus..."

This is not the place to examine the decision of a Syrian leadership which made the defense of Damascus its first priority, or to look at the seeming flaws in the way the military withdrawal in question was executed. But this is a place to note the devastating effects that the chaotic withdrawal of the Syrian forces had on the local Syrian population. Perhaps the very closeness of the identification that the local people had enjoyed up until then with their defending forces (unlike, for example, in the West Bank) acted in this particular case to exacerbate the situation, once the military forces had left in disarray. But whatever the complex web of considerations in the traumatized minds of the civilians of that time, the outcome in all except the five or six northernmost villages of the region was the same: nearly the entire civilian population, 140,000 men, woman and children, took flight.

* * *

Where are they now, the naziheen from 1967? I started looking for an answer to that question back in the late 1970s, when I visited Syria often on journalistic missions. It was not an easy quest. My friends in UNRWA had little contact with the Syrian naziheen, and could provide little information. My friends amongst the Syrian officials seemed wary and embarrassed about the whole issue. They would willingly organize tours of the broken stones of 'liberated' Quneitra, but they seemed less eager to set up meetings with the people of the Quneitra region.

But now, two more decades have passed. A small number of the naziheen have been resettled in 'Madinat al-Ba'th' and the other new towns the regime has built in the lands regained through the disengagement agreement of 1974. But the vast majority of people of naziheen origin remain scattered throughout Syria, and in the community of Syrian migrant workers in the Gulf. Their numbers have also, not surprisingly, increased a lot since 1967, and quite a good number of them have made their way to significant positions within Syria's business and intellectual communities. Today's 500,000 naziheen can be encountered in government offices, business offices, schoolteachers' rooms, and university departments throughout Syria, and further afield.

"At first," one Syrian specialist on this issue told me, "the naziheen thought they would be able to return to their home properties within a few weeks. Then, when they understood there would be no quick return, they saw they had to try to adapt to the situation... "

* * *

Back home in the Golan before their flight, most of these people had been villagers, farmers, semi-settled pastoralists, or cattle-breeders. According to Syria's college-level geography textbook, of the 153,000 people in the Quneitra Muhafaza in May 1967, only around 27,000 lived in Quneitra, and a far smaller number in the region's only other town, Feeq. The rest lived in 131 villages, and 140 of what are classified as 'hamlets and farms'.

In addition to animal husbandry, the people engaged in a lot of cultivation, helped by the relatively high levels of annual rainfall, which were especially high atop the broad Golan plateau. Here, they raised good crops of winter wheat and barley, and in spring and summer, vegetables. They had many hectares of orchards -- in the higher elevations these were primarily apple and cherry trees, while down nearer the heat of Lake Tiberias they grew citrus and bananas. Quneitra hosted good markets, several light industries, and all the services of a regional center, while Feeq also provided some services to the villages around.

In June 1967, both these towns, 107 of the villages, and 128 of the 'hamlets and farms', came under Israeli occupation. Of the population of those areas, only around 6,400 people, residents of the five mainly-Druze villages in the extreme north, stayed.

Housed at first in public buildings and tent-camps in various parts of southern Syria, including Damascus, few of the naziheen found it possible to find jobs in areas they were familiar with. Over the years, the government opened up as many jobs as it could for them in various public-works programs, but there were few jobs for them in agriculture. Rapidly, they became urbanized. Another specialist explained that today there are five principal neighborhoods inside Damascus where the naziheen ended up settling, as well as eight areas outside Damascus -- "but virtually all of them became urbanized."

Faced with having to build their lives anew, many of the naziheen proved extremely industrious. Over the years, according to this specialist, most of them became able to buy their own homes, and many were able to establish profitable businesses. "They were given good access to education, including at the university level," he said. "Altogether, by now, maybe 35-40 percent of the naziheen families are living in acceptable or even good conditions, though many of them remain in poverty." Already uprooted once, a fairly high proportion of the naziheen were open to looking for economic opportunity elsewhere than in Syria. This specialist estimated that around 190,000 of today's naziheen-origin people nowe live in gone to Syrian-emigrant communities, mainly in the Gulf countries.

"They may have become similar to their non-naziheen neighbors in many ways, but they can never forget they are naziheen from Golan," he added. "And all of them wish to go back. Everyone, whether born inside Golan or, since 1967, outside it, wants to go back and reconstruct this area."

"The naziheen," the first specialist told me, "are psychologically totally ready to go back once the conditions for a return are right. But this doesn't mean they put any pressure on the government in this regard. They leave this question to the government. Because as we say in Syria, 'too many cooks spoil the broth'."

He assured me that, like the rest of the Syrians, 99 percent of the naziheen want peace with Israel. "Personally, I don't care about politics. But it is clear that Syria must have the whole of its land back, and then the people will be ready for peace."

One of the specialists I talked to showed that he, at least, was aware that the matter of simply 'returning' to the homes and farms left behind by the naziheen would not be a simple one. "Look, the naziheen have become half a million. People have started to own homes and workshops where they are. It is not easy to go back overnight. If a person goes back, he will find his house is no longer there, and there is no work for him there, either. The Israelis will take everything away from the houses, as they did in Quneitra: every screw, every bolt, every window-frame." (I did not dare to tell this good and decent person that in truth, the Israelis have long ago destroyed all the original houses in Golan to a degree far worse than this.)

Even with good help from the government and from the international community, this specialist understood that it would take "several years", and much well- organized planning, to rehabilitate the naziheen back inside the Golan. At the governmental level, and amongst the naziheen themselves, there were several rehabilitation projects discussed back in the mid-90s, when the negotiations with Israel seemed quite positive. After liberation, he said, it would be quite easy to build about 12 new dams in the golan, providing water for agriculture, as well as some hydro-electric power. The strong winds on the Golan could also, he thought, perhaps be harnessed to generate electricity...

But for now, with the complete cessation of Syrian-Israeli peace talks under Netanyahu, all such ideas for rehabilitation projects are on hold. Which leaves many of the naziheen a little regretful about the 'what-may-have-been' of the peace process. "The Israelis," one of them told me, "talk on and on about strategy and things like that. They feel very aggressive towards us. But we just wish to live as human beings in peace. And we want to get our land back."

* * *

The nazih hoping for return; the Syrian villager who stayed on his land and resists from 'within'; the settler who talks about making new frontiers for Israel through his settling; and the settler prepared to consider leaving in the context of a peace agreement: all these are among the faces of the human dimension of the Syrian-Israeli conflict. It is, at the end of the day, a conflict that is not just about armies and governments, but also about whether these people can ever live side-by-side as (cold or warm) neighbors.

In my days in Golan, and in the world of the 'Golan spirit' that is still occupied by the naziheen, I encountered all these faces. Do these encounters leave me hopeful that, if the two governments resume the work that they suspended (at Israel's insistence) in March 1996, the human parts of a settlement of the Golan issue can also be brought about? In general, they do. The sturdy spirit of nationalist resistance upheld by the Golanis living under Israeli occupation gives them (and by extension, their compatriots throughout Syria) the self-confidence they will need when the time comes to engage in an honorable peace: this certainly is not a conquered population. The quiet stoicism and determination to overcome their 1967 trauma that have been shown by the naziheen are also attributes that the Syrian people, in general, can be proud of. Then on the other side, the realism and readiness to compromise that are shown by leaders of the Israeli group 'The Way to Peace', and the figures they convincingly show for the prevalence of their viewpoint amongst all the other Israeli settlers on Golan, indicate that most members of this population will be far easier to make peace with than, for example, most of the settlers in the West Bank.

But what about the hard line of a settler like the Third Way's Yehuda Harel? Can a person with a worldview like his ever be persuaded to compromise for the sake of peace, and to treat his Arab neighbors with neighborly respect?

Maybe, or maybe not. But if a peace agreement is ever successfully concluded in the future between Israel and Syria, both sides are going to have to make hard decisions. Dealing with the (relatively few, but well-organized) hardliners amongst the Golan settlers will be up to the Israeli government.

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