AS Israeli and Syrian peace negotiators sit down in Washington this week to discuss Israel's first-ever concrete offer to withdraw from parts of the Golan Heights, no one is more immediately concerned than the Druze villagers whose homes and apple orchards lie along the border.
And after more than 25 years of Israeli occupation, they are torn over what to think about the prospect of being returned to Syrian sovereignty. A few prominent figures, including the Israeli-appointed mayors of the four Druze villages on the heights, are outspoken in their preference for remaining under Israeli rule - an attitude unthinkable in any of the other Israeli-occupied territories currently under negotiation in the Middle East peace talks.
Another small group makes no bones about wanting to see the Golan Heights revert to Syrian rule, as they say illegally occupied Arab land naturally should.
But most of the 16,000 villagers, guardedly keeping their own counsel, are maintaining the age-old Druze tradition of self-protective secrecy, uncertain which way their future will be decided.
"I can tell you I am pro-Israeli or pro-Syrian, but you won't know what I really think," says Hani Zahawi, a local trade union official. "We always keep things to ourselves, because we are a small people."
The Druze inhabitants of the Golan Heights, who have lived here for over four centuries, stayed in their villages when the other 125,000 Syrian residents fled during the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, in which Israel occupied the strategic plateau.
They belong to a distinct Arab ethnic group, spread over mountainous regions of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel, whose ancestors broke away from orthodox Islam nearly a thousand years ago. Still today, they keep the tenets of their faith a closely guarded secret.
"The Druze are great survivors in history," says Shmuel Shamai, an Israeli expert on the Druze at the Golan Research Institute. "They can change [outward] identity if need be because their soul is Druze, and a lot of deception goes on, especially in geopolitical situations where they don't know which side they belong to.
"Before all else," he adds, "they are pro-Druze." This characteristic caginess is evident from the way in which villagers who only a few weeks ago were willing to say openly they hoped Israel would retain the Golan Heights are now tight-lipped.
Sensing that a territorial compromise with Syria is in the wind, "if someone says he would rather stay under Israeli rule, maybe tomorrow the Syrians will come, and that would spell trouble for him," explains Shufi Aref, a local apple farmer.
Although Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is resisting Syria's demand that Israel withdraw from the whole of the Golan Heights, as mandated by United Nations Resolution 242, chief Israeli negotiator Itamar Rabinovich last week offered "withdrawal on the Golan Heights."
And Israel would have to pull back only a mile or two from the current cease-fire line to leave almost all the Druze under Syrian rule again.
"It would be more difficult politically [for Israel] to give up one Jewish settlement on the Golan Heights than to give up 16,000 Druze," says Dr. Shamai.
This does not deter a handful of fiercely pro-Israeli Druze, such as restaurant owner Salim Shufi, from saying bluntly that "I feel Israeli." But Mr. Shufi is one of the 5 percent of Druze who chose to take Israeli citizenship after Israel annexed the Golan in December 1981.
HIS outlook is shared by Samir Daboussa, the mayor of Ein Kinya, who says he would rather stay under Israeli rule because "what is important to me is that first and foremost I feel Druze, and that there is a government I can live with in peace and advancement, that hasn't tried to tell me what to do."
Mr. Daboussa's stress on economic prosperity and freedom is echoed by many of those who would rather live in Israel than in Syria, and who point to the relative poverty and political straitjacket in which their relatives in Syria live.
Such thinking, however, is little short of treasonous collaboration to other Druze, who feel Syrian before they feel Druze, and who insist that Syria is their natural home.
"The only way you can live normally, and enjoy your life, is when you are part of your community," argues Atef Abu Saleh, a Majdal Shams shopkeeper. "And our community is Syria. Here, we are isloated."
Tayseer Maray, a biochemist fervently opposed to Israeli occupation, is even blunter. "During the Syrian period, we were treated as any other Syrian," he recalls. "In Israel we are not, and we never will be equal to a Jew, because Israel is by definition a Jewish state."
That the Golan Druze are more prosperous than most of their cousins in Syria is undeniable. "But we don't think about that," says Abu Rabiyah Assad, who runs a grilled chicken joint in the village of Buqaata. "We are not worried about material issues, we are worried about the national question and principles."
And while acknowledging that Syria is no democracy, advocates of a return to Syrian rule point out that the Druze have not been allowed to hold even municipal elections since they came under occupation 25 years ago.
Both those who say they would rather live under Israeli rule and those who say they would prefer to revert to Syrian sovereignty claim their outlook is shared by 80 percent of their fellow Druze. But most villagers say they have no real idea of how the majority of their people feel.
Druze expert Shamai, who believes that "a large majority" would prefer to be under Israeli rather than Syrian sovereignty, "not because they are deeply pro-Israel, but because of the choice they face," suggests that the ideal solution for the Druze would be "autonomous, with open borders to both Israel and Syria.
"That way, they wouldn't have to pay a price," Shamai points out. "But realistically, they will end up on one side or the other of the border, and it will probably be on the Syrian side."
But whichever side of their villages the new border falls in any peace agreement, the Druze will have played no role in fixing it. "We don't decide whether we stay [in Israel] or not," says Mr. Zahawi. "If the decision were in our hands, we would not be afraid to express ourselves."
As it is, the only point on which almost all the Druze seem to agree, and on which they are open, is that come what may, people will stay in their homes. Having lived under Turkish, French, Syrian and Israeli rule over the last 100 years, "the Druze will never leave," says farmer Aref.
"The Israelis can come, the Russians can come, the Americans can come," he laughs. "We stay."