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Yearning for the Golan Heights: why Syria wants it back

The disputed territory is key to the broader US goal of Arab-Israeli peace. On Monday, Washington hosted the first high-ranking Syrian official in five years.

By Julien Barnes-DaceyCorrespondent / September 28, 2009

Children stand on a street in the village of Ghajar, which straddles the border between Lebanon and Israel captured from Syria during the 1967 Middle East War. Ghajar was annexed along with the occupied Golan Heights which Syria wants back in return for its cooperation in the Middle East peace process.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters/FILE

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Damascus, Syria

The US demonstrated its commitment to reengage Syria as a partner for Middle East peace Monday, advancing a process that some Arab countries had declared dead in recent weeks. At Washington's invitation – the first one extended to a high-ranking Syrian official in five years – Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad came to town to meet US officials.

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Syria's cooperation is crucial to the chief goal of President Obama's Middle East policy: Arab-Israeli peace. With ties to three Israeli enemies – Iran, and the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas – Syria says it can moderate the threats against the Jewish state and thus pave the way for reciprocal Israeli concessions to the Palestinians and their Arab allies.

In return, Syria wants one thing: the Golan Heights.

Occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, the fertile territory on the Sea of Galilee's western shores is prized by both countries for its agriculture, high ground that serves as a military lookout, and abundant water; about one-third of Israel's fresh water supply currently comes from the Golan. Syria insists on the return of the full territory in exchange for peace.

"We do want to get the Golan back on a silver platter," said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem this summer. "Let's face it – it's our land and our right to have it back is the most normal thing in the world."

Yet even as the Obama administration pushes for a renewal of peace talks between Syria and Israel, the Golan's original Syrian inhabitants worry that their situation is being neglected and are striving to instill in their children the same longing they feel for their ancestral land.

While intermittent peace talks between Syria and Israel as well as international attention have long focused on the status of final-border boundaries, control over water, and security issues, little attention is given to the displaced Golanese population. In 1967 approximately 150,000 Syrians fled the Golan into mainland Syria as Israel began its occupation of the territory. Now, taking descendants into account, that number could be as high as half a million.

If a peace deal is eventually reached, the Syrian government says that many of the Golanese refugees will return to the territory – a prospect that Omar Ali has been yearning for since he fled as a 9-year-old in 1967.

'Our children will not forget'

Surrounded by Arab enemies that it believed were readying for war against the Jewish state, Israel had launched a preemptive strike against its neighbors. Amid the scrum of Syrians rushing to escape oncoming Israeli forces, young Omar lost his family.

"When we left we didn't think we were fleeing. We thought it was just for a few days and so we only took a few simple things with us," recalls Mr. Ali, who was reunited with his parents after three days. "We should never have left."

Forty-two years later, Ali has never returned to his home in the village of Rawiye. Instead he lives in a Damascus suburb known as Black Stone, one of the main concentrations of Golanese refugees. Today, most Golanese refugees live in the Syrian capital, in fact, spread throughout various suburbs. While fully integrated into Syrian society, they congregate together keeping alive old Golanese traditions and instilling in their young a longing to return.

"My house in my village calls me back, the dream obsesses me," says Ali, adding that he purchased a second house on the Syrian border town of Quneitra just so he could gaze over at the Golan whenever he wanted. "Homelessness is for all generations. Our children will not forget."