As Winds of War Whirl, Golan Residents Dig In


There are rumblings that war is more likely in this region than it has been in many years, but to ask local residents, it is a time to sow their seeds and put their family roots deeper into the Golan.

At Kibbutz Afik, the mood was festive as members decked the dining room with bright decorations for Hanukkah, which celebrates the miraculous rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Jewish victory over the Syrian-Greek Army in 165 B.C.

Some Israelis say they could again be headed for war with the ancient enemy. Syria says peace can only come if Israel withdraws from these strategic highlands it captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

Government ministers say Israel must beef up its preparedness and its defense spending in light of some analysis that Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, fed up with nearly 30 years of trying to regain the Golan, might opt for a military offensive to try recapture a piece of the Heights.

While the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin expressed a willingness to withdraw from the Golan in exchange for peace, Benjamin Netanyahu, the new right-wing premier, says the offer does not stand.

The 15,000 Israelis who live here say they're more focused on plans to double their numbers and attract more industry than the threat of war. Yaacov Gabriel, in charge of security on the kibbutz, says that their farming cooperative has been ordered into a state of readiness, just in case.

"They asked us to prepare the bomb shelters," Mr. Gabriel says calmly, as he lunches on vegetables grown in the fertile Golan.

Most residents say their lives became more secure upon the May election of Mr. Netanyahu. Since then, resident Marla Van Meter says the uncertainty that plagued this region in the past few years has lifted. In a sign of their new confidence, many residents including Ms. Van Meter, have been planting gardens. "You could see people putting in new trees, adding porches to their houses after the elections," she says. "People felt that the immediate threat was over."

In another big boost to settlers here, the government this week began selling plots of land for 96 new homes in Katzrin, the largest Jewish settlement. But residents have their own expansion goals. The "Golan 2000" plan aims to spend $15 million to bring in 10,000 new residents.

When Van Meter, a California native, moved here 13 years ago, she saw herself and her husband as modern-day pioneers, farming and settling the northern frontier. To her, that image changed quickly when Rabin - after making a breakthrough with the Palestinians in peace talks - began trying to reach a deal with Syria, too.

In response, residents embarked on a big public-relations campaign. Banners and bumper stickers proclaiming "the People with the Golan" were posted throughout the country.

The residents' committee even recently launched an Internet site that makes the case for Israel keeping the Golan: Syria's use of the area to launch attacks against Israel before 1967, Israel's military needs, the abundance of water, and the area's historical import.

The residents' committee is contemplating spending $150,000 on a knockoff of California's huge white "Hollywood" sign that will read "Our Golan." The sign, which would be 70 feet high and 200 feet long, would be near the Sea of Galilee where Israeli tourists could see it.

But some settlers are concerned about mixed messages they've been getting from the Israeli government.

Centrist cabinet members such as Foreign Minister David Levy insist the Golan must be on the table if Israel is to reach peace with Syria - and bring an end to Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon.

Netanyahu also seems to have modified since July, when he floated a "Lebanon First" plan that would have Israel withdraw from southern Lebanon without any promise of a comprehensive peace deal including Syria. Now, he says he is anxious to get back to talks with Damascus without preconditions, but with the possibility of compromise.

Talking compromise on the Golan is itself a shift from the coalition government's guidelines, which oppose giving up Israeli sovereignty on the Heights. But since then, tensions have escalated sharply.

In September, Syria moved 12,000 troops to an area within striking range of the Golan. With each side fearing the other is gearing for war, Israel also has increased its troop presence on Golan.

Some analysts say Assad may orchestrate a strike to force Israel back to the political process.

"The longer the political stalemate continues, the more likely the possibility of war becomes," says Ze'ev Maoz at Tel Aviv University's Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies.

But in a region with perennial misunderstandings, a strike by Assad would probably be the last thing to force Israel back to the negotiating table. Israeli public support for keeping the Golan is high. And any new show of belligerence would most likely add to Assad's bad reputation here as a potential peace partner and give fodder to the campaign to keep the Golan.

"Assad doesn't want the Golan, he's just concerned about keeping power," says Van Meter, as she walks by Afik's avocado farms, which offer mountainous views of Jordan and Syria over the electrified, barbed-wire fence. "I'm willing to take a leap of faith in one direction with the Palestinians, but I'm not willing to take a leap of faith toward Assad."

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