Living at Hinge of History in Golan

Emotions run deep in the Golan Heights, where Syrian families, holler greetings across the Shouting Valley to Israeli-held lan

The wedding is still a long way off, but that doesn't stop Shakre Shalan - megaphone in hand - from calling across no-man's land to her fianc, to make arrangements.

She is on the Syrian side of the divide that was created when Israel moved to occupy the strategic Golan Heights in 1967; he is several hundred yards away, in a town that remains under Israeli control.

They are university students in the Syrian capital, Damascus. To keep in touch during the summer break they use the Shouting Valley. It is a ritual that hundreds of Syrian families have taken part in for nearly 30 years, shouting over barbed-wire barriers and an electric fence to pass on greetings and news.

Promises of peace last year between Syria and Israel raised hopes here that the Golan Heights might be returned, but the peace process has now been frozen by Israel's new right-wing government. Reunification of these families, even for weddings, seems distant

"We're always optimistic," Miss Shalan says, wearing a bright red hat and almost matching lipstick. "I wish, I hope, the Israeli government will consent to give Syria back the Golan. There would be such a big get together."

Shalan seems unperturbed that her message of love - and that of her fianc in return - echoes across the Wadi al-Surakh, or Shouting Valley, for all to hear.

Shalan's wedding will be complicated. She will marry in Damascus. Then the party will make its way to Kuneitra - a town on the Syrian side. Accompanied by the Red Cross, the newlyweds will walk across the border there. The families will meet in the center, then Shalan will leave hers for his. She will tell her family about her new life in Majdal Shams by megaphone across the Shouting Valley.

Smaller than Long Island

At about 40 miles long and 15 miles wide - smaller than New York's Long Island - the Golan Heights is the most disputed territory in the region. Its regional strategic and symbolic importance couldn't be greater.

A long, narrow highland, it gives great military advantage to its possessor. In fact, Israel's listening post atop the Golan's Mt. Hermon enables it to eavesdrop on Damascus, some 30 miles away.

In 1967, amid rising Israeli-Arab tensions, which included Syria's shelling of Israeli towns from the Golan Heights, Israel grabbed the strategic strip of land. But in 1973, a slice of the Golan was taken back when Syria and other Arab nations attacked Israeli forces on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

Ever since, Syria's aim in peace talks has been to get the rest back.

Symbolically, a solution here - meaning a full peace between two of the region's fiercest enemies, Syria and Israel - would pave the way for a de facto acceptance of Israel in most of the Arab world. It would also almost surely result in peace in southern Lebanon, where Israel and Syria wage a proxy war. And it would change the face of the troubled Middle East political landscape.

Despite a broad understanding in 1992 to exchange land for peace - the formula outlined by the US - progress has been slowed by the new Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, which rejects the land-for-peace idea.

Israel has instead built hundreds of new houses for militant Jews, expanding the dozens of Jewish settlements in the area. Senior Israeli ministers have vowed that the settlers will not be "abandoned."

Hope fades

For the Syrians, such actions cause deep pessimism.

"The hope was greatest six months ago," says Shalan's Aunt Suad, who fled the fighting in 1967. "We were looking forward to seeing our relatives, but that hope has now faded. Our homeland, our orchards ... our family is there."

Emotions run deep at the Shouting Valley. One mother, Anam, weeps after talking to her daughter, who is married and lives on the other side. "It's very difficult," she says. "You look at your village, and it's occupied."

One older man was part of the Syrian unit that recaptured his home village near Kuneitra in 1973. "I kissed the ground, smelled the earth, and knew how precious my own land is," he says, a smile revealing an uneven patchwork of teeth. He returned last year, moving into a house rebuilt by Syria. Israelis patrol a few hundred yards away.

The man says there is no way Syrians can live peacefully with Israeli forces so close. "Land means dignity and honor," he says. Though nothing remains of his original home, his happy childhood memories remain.

"It's difficult to explain to my children, what it was like," he says. "My hope is that they can live peacefully, happily - that's my only wish."

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