Golan's `Shouting Hill' Puts Divided Families in Touch

MANY families discuss their affairs and local news around the dinner table. But when Samih Ayoub wants to talk to his uncle, he goes to a hill at the edge of the village, cups his hands, and yells out across a gully. Lined with mines, the small ravine marks the border between Israel and Syria. The clear mountain air stays quiet enough to relay the greetings of relatives. Yet lurking in the hills is a constant sense of the danger of all-out war between the two irascible enemies. Caught between them are people like Mr. Ayoub, one of some 16,500 Druze residents of the Golan Heights.

Israel annexed the territory seven years ago, after capturing it from Syria in the Six-Day War in June 1967. The local Druze, born Syrian, whose relatives live in a suburb of Damascus, were suddenly given the option of taking Israeli citizenship.

``It's not easy,'' explains Jamil Shofi, a farmer and restaurant proprietor. ``The Israelis say, `Why don't you just take the citizenship?' But what happens if the Golan goes back to Syria one day? Then where will we be?''

For almost 1,000 years, the Druze have been guided by such pragmatism. While they speak Arabic as a native language, their religion is an insular offshoot from Islam, separating them from their mostly Muslim neighbors throughout the Middle East.

So almost all Golan Druze have chosen to remain stateless. Many say that they are under occupation no less than the Palestinians who have been rebelling against Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza for more than a year.

``It's natural that you want to be part of where you were born,'' Mr. Shofi says. When then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin annexed the Golan, the Druze responded with a strike that kept schools and businesses closed for several months. Hundreds spent time in Israeli jails for pro-Syrian activities.

Yusef Abu Jabal and his father both spent 12 years in prison as members of a resistance movement. After they were freed in a prisoner exchange, his father went to Syria, joined by his mother and two sisters. The ``shouting hill'' is their only means of contact.

``Most of the families are split,'' Mr. Abu Jabal says. He comes to the hill with his family when he has time. Holding a megaphone, his wife, Amaza, yells down to a man tending a small field in the valley and asks after her uncle. When relatives want to meet, they pass the message via the farmer.

``Such a situation can't continue forever. All the people are looking for a political solution,'' Abu Jabal says. ``I think it is my right to live under my flag.''

Not many Israelis agree with him. ``It would be a catastrophe for Israel to give up the Golan Heights,'' says Clery Lishansky, a resident of Israel's northernmost town, Metulla, nestled between southern Lebanon and Syria. ``We have more room, more security, by having the Golan under our occupation. I don't think it would be safe for me if they gave it back.''

Before 1967, Syrian gunners entrenched in the hills used to attack the Jewish settlements below. But the Golan Druze don't accept that occupation of the heights is the answer to Israel's security needs.

``If the Israelis really believe in peace, there is no need to be afraid,'' says Ayoub, who also served time in prison for his Syrian nationalist activity. According to him, only a comprehensive peace agreement that finds a solution to the Palestinian problem can provide the ultimate guarantee for Israel.

The shouts from hill to hill will continue to mock the blocked border between two warring nation states. Just as families will always find ways to talk to each other, Shofi is bedrock sure about what shifting political claims won't change.

``No matter what happens, this is where we stay,'' he says. ``I was born here. This is where I will live all my life. This is my land.''

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