For Jewish Settlers, To Yield Golan Is to Give Away Jerusalem
GAMLA, ISRAELI-OCCUPIED GOLAN HEIGHTS — THE sweep of Oded Ambar's weathered hand takes in the deep green canyon, rolling hills and, far below, the shimmering tip of the Sea of Galilee. A blue-rock thrush suns itself on a boulder, while a short-toed eagle cuts a silent path through the ravine. "On that day, all the people of Gamla were killed," he says with reverence. "Gamla was destroyed, left, and never built again."
It was in AD 67 that Vespasian's Roman legions attacked and destroyed the ancient Jewish city of Gamla, killing 9,000 people. Six years later, Masada, a more famous Jewish rebel stronghold fell. To this day, Gamla is known as the Masada of the north.
To Jewish settlers in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Gamla is redolent with historical significance.
"I just want to remind you that when Gamla was destroyed, Jerusalem was destroyed," Mr. Ambar notes, his eyes still playing over the ancient city.
"There are many people who believe that this land has to do with the protection of Jerusalem and the protection of many other parts of this country," he says.
In the nearby settlement of Kazrin, home to 3,500 of the Golan's 11,500 Jewish residents, Dedi Gofer puts it more plainly.
"If you give away the Golan, you give away Jerusalem," says Mr. Gofer, who looks after the settlement's new arrivals, many of whom are recent immigrants from the Soviet Union.
Settler concerns have been raised by United States Secretary of State James Baker III's shuttle diplomacy, which is aimed at reaching a Middle East peace settlement based on the exchange of land for peace. Israel captured the Golan Heights, along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip, during the 1967 Six-Day War. In 1982, the Heights were effectively annexed.
Today, settlers display a mixture of vulnerability and defiance, and look to Israel's hard-line prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, to quash all talk of returning the Golan Heights to Syria.
"We believe him," says Meir Monitz, Kazrin's deputy mayor, referring to Mr. Shamir's assurances that Israel will not agree to withdraw from the Golan. "But we're afraid. We don't know how strong he can be if the United States puts pressure on Israel."
The settlers are taking their own precautions, establishing an action committee to lobby the government against negotiating over the Heights, and working hard to attract new residents.
"If someone talks about the Golan and we have 10,000 or 11,000 people, it's a reason" not to leave, says Mr. Monitz. "But if we have here 50,000 or 100,000, it's another reason, a stronger reason."
The latest drive has filled 200 apartments that were sitting empty a year ago. Meanwhile, Ariel Sharon, Israel's hard-line housing minister, has vowed to build enough housing in the Golan for another 20,000 settlers.
Monitz says he's convinced that the Golan's 15,000 Druze - the remnants of a community that numbered more than 100,000 people before most were driven out in 1967 - are happy to remain under Israeli sovereignty. "I don't know one Druze who wants to go back to Syria," he says.
Further north, in the mist-shrouded foothills of Mount Hermon, the Druze villagers of Majd al-Shams tell a different story.
"The Golan Heights is a Syrian place," says Salman Fakhr el-Din, a local political activist. "We declared that in our charter in 1981, and we declare it every year, and every day."
Mr. Fakhr el-Din is under house arrest, on charges of inciting revolt. The charges stem from a speech he made in November at the funeral of a friend shot dead while trying to cross into Syria.
"In every wedding party, in every funeral, we have this political life," he says. "And it's all tied to Syria."
Sitting on the edge of the United Nations-monitored buffer zone, established after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the people of Majd al-Shams and nearby Druze villages still feel closely tied to Syria, despite the passage of time.
At the so-called "shouting fence," on the edge of Majd al- Shams, villagers keep in touch with relatives on the other side with the aid of megaphones.
Fakhr el-Din says the Gulf crisis raised hopes of a return to Syrian sovereignty. "People began preparing themselves six months ago, as if it would take place tomorrow," he says.
Some villagers have bought cars and agricultural equipment, in the knowledge that such things are prohibitively expensive in Syria. But after several apparently fruitless Baker visits, optimism has begun to wane.
"After the shuttle visits of Baker, the hope is becoming less and less," says Yusef Abu Jebel, a shopkeeper whose mother, father, and sisters all live in Syria.
In the absence of a settlement, says Mr. Abu Jebel, the Israeli authorities continue to limit the amount of water Druze farmers can use in their apple orchards, while making sure that Jewish settlements are adequately supplied.
"The Israelis try to use all the water resources in this area," he says. "We feel that we have the right to use some of this resource to water our orchards and our land."
Monitz admits that water, in an increasingly dry country, is vital. He puts it second in a list of reasons to hang onto the Heights. "First of all," he says, "Golan is our home."
Israelis are increasingly dependent on the Golan's mineral water, bottled at the Eden plant, close to Kazrin. Iris Hochman, a technician at the plant, is a new arrival in the Golan Heights.
"When I came here, I didn't give much thought to the fact that these areas are occupied," she says. "To me, the Golan was part of Israel.
To leave again, Ms. Hochman says, would be unimaginable. "I don't even want to think about the option that we will return all of this."