On Syria's Side, a Legacy Of Israeli Attacks Remains

Ghost town from '67 war marks the hopes of refugees

NAZIR Mohammed Habib was writing his final school examinations when he heard the sound of aircraft followed by sirens.

Civilians in the town of Kuneitra were herded into air-raid shelters where they stayed for a few days.

``Then we left for Damascus and later heard that the town was under Israeli occupation,'' Mr. Habib says.

That was in 1967, when the Israelis attacked and first occupied the Golan Heights to stem Syrian attacks on northern Israeli settlements.

Known in Syria as Kuneitra Province, the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights is as much a blot on the national psyche of Syria as it is a jewel in the crown of Israel.

The town of Kuneitra was briefly reoccupied by the Syrians after their surprise attack as part of a combined Arab force in 1973.

Within days it was recaptured by Israeli forces and held until the Israelis withdrew under a United Nations-sponsored cease-fire agreement in May 1974.

What was not destroyed by the ravages of war was laid to waste by Israeli dynamite and bulldozers before Israel forces withdrew behind the disengagement line.

In 1974, the UN General Assembly endorsed a report by a UN committee that condemned Israel for the deliberate destruction of the town of Kuneitra and found that it was in violation of the Geneva Convention relating to the treatment of civilians in occupied territories.

Today, the devastated ghost town of Kuneitra remains a bizarre monument to what Syrians portray as the horrors of Zionism.

A well-worn path from Damascus, a mere 30 miles to the east, passes through several towns and villages and through UN checkpoints into the limited arms and demilitarized zones.

The town has been left as it was by the Israelis: buildings with collapsed roofs and piles of rubble. The buildings still standing are mere shells.

The only government building still functioning is the office of the governor or Kuneitra province where an official receives guests and explains the history of the town.

A detailed model of the town shows which buildings have been destroyed and a glossy souvenir brochure records the history of the town in quaint Arabic, Russian, French, Spanish, and quaintly unconventional English.

Jamal Salem, the governor's spokesman, insists that 153,000 Syrians (Israelis say 70,000) were expelled when Israel occupied the Golan and that the number of refugees has today grown to almost 500,000 with 20 remaining in five villages.

Salem says Syria is still waiting for the Western powers to persuade Israel to abide by US Security Council resolution 242 to quit the area. ``The people of Golan and Kuneitra are still waiting 27 years later.''

One of those people is Rima Hilal who was making her way through the snow on foot when a reporter visited Kuneitra.

``We feel sad and tired and life is hard. God willing we will be able to return to our village some day,'' Ms. Hilal says.

Salem says that since the occupation, Israel has sought to change the area demographically by introducing thousands of settlers.

``The children of the settlers will regard it as their land, and they will fight to stay there,'' Salem says.

He said there could be no alternative to a complete return of the occupied land and ruled out any arrangement whereby the Israeli settlers could remain on Syrian land.

``Their existence on our land is a temporary one. If they stayed after Israel withdraws, whose land will they stay on? Whose land will we give them?'' Salem asks.

Like all Syrians, Habib, who is clearly agitated by the childhood memories that Kuneitra evokes, yearns for the Golan Heights back.

``As President Assad says: `We want a real and just peace.' But if there is no just peace we will make war again to liberate our land.''

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