A human face on Mideast's severest divide
A rejuvenated peace process has rekindled hopes among Syrians and
DAMASCUS, SYRIA — When it comes to the people of the Golan Heights, it is difficult to tell where the deepest emotion lies.
Is it with the Syrian villagers who were forced to flee when Israel, clashing with Arab neighbors, occupied the strategic plateau during the 1967 war? Or is it with a younger generation of students, who live in limbo on both sides of the line?
Each provides a rare glimpse of the oft-forgotten human face of a conflict that for three decades is usually only described in terms of strategic moves.
But as signals emerge from Syria and Israel that peace talks may be renewed sometime soon, Syrians displaced from the Golan 32 years ago last week are rekindling hopes that one day they will be able to go home.
Israel's new left-leaning Prime Minister Ehud Barak, elected last month, says he wants to resume talks after a three-year break. For Syrians, that means only one thing: a return of the Golan Heights.
Eager for homecoming
"I think that peace is coming," says Abdulmajid Faouri, a teacher and former Syria parliament member for the Golan who was thrown out during the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict. "And when it does, I tell you that all my sons, our fathers, and grandfathers will return to the Golan by walking - not by cars."
Bouyed by powerful experience and memories, Mr. Faouri's dreams have sometimes outpaced political events. For years after 1967, he and his family lived in tented camps in southwest Syria, expecting a quick return home. In 1970, his father died in a tent - demanding that Faouri rebury his coffin in their village as soon as he could return.
Faouri remembers the apple, olive, and fig orchards of his village in southern Golan, Kafar Hareb - today the Israeli settlement there is called, in Hebrew, Kfar Harouv.
People there were farmers, and the next village had three hot springs of different temperatures.
When he was forced to leave, "the first thing I did was make a map of the Golan and draw my village on it," Faouri recalls. "Then I taught my sons: Israel occupied our land. If I die you must struggle until you get your right.
"Ask my son," he says, "and he will speak of our village as if he lives there."
That younger generation is also looking forward to a return of the Golan to Syria. Among them are residents of five Druze villages on the Israeli side of the dividing line.
Members of the Druze, an Arabic-speaking, secretive Muslim sect that broke with mainstream Islam in the 11th century, live under Israeli control but consider themselves Syrian.
In special border crossings arranged by the International Committee of the Red Cross, a few hundred Druze pilgrims per year, and 280 or so Druze students of Damascus University, cross the border to Syria and back.
These students have an almost unique experience. Travelers of any kind are not allowed into Syria if they have an Israeli stamp in their passport or are even suspected of having been to Israel - the countries are still technically at war. But Golan students can study in Syria, then during the summer months return to the Israeli side to see their families and work in lucrative construction jobs in places like Tel Aviv.
Young women from the Druze villages are often hired by nearby Jewish settlements to harvest crops.
Conversant in two worlds
The students see two different worlds that almost never meet anywhere else. This is the severest divide in the Mideast, yet they are as conversant in Israeli shekels as in Syrian pounds, and speak perfect Hebrew and Arabic.
What do the students tell Syrians about the "enemy"?
"They are people like us, and they have good soldiers," says Farah Farhat, a Druze student from the Golan Heights village of Buqata interviewed in Damascus, where he is studying to be a pharmacist. "But to deal with them is so difficult. They want us to be Israelis, but we refuse, so here they see us as heroes."
"We haven't become Israelis," concurs Iyad Abu Shahin, a twentysomething farmer interviewed separately in Buqata, on the other side of the divide.
He dismisses all assessments among Israelis that the Druze would rather remain part of the Westernized Jewish state than face autocratic rule in Syria.
"It's not a question of where you have better living standards; it's a question of your land," says Mr. Abu Shahin. "It's a spiritual matter. If we were in Syria, we would depend on our fields, not work in Israel."
Agriculture, he says, has been made more difficult because Israel controls the water resources and charges high rates for its use.
While discussing their future at a dusty sidewalk cafe on Buqata's main street, other young men pipe up in agreement. "The feeling here is like a baby returning to its mother, because Syria is where we really belong," says Haitham Suboh.
One of the few opportunities for limited communal meetings are colorful cross-border weddings, in which a Damascene bride is escorted across the border to the Israeli side by her Golanese husband.
There is a joyful and tearful one-time meeting of the two families in no man's land, then the bride waves to her family for the last time.
Still, there are many drawbacks to their current "in limbo" status, say the students in Damascus. Nobody on the Golan side carries the passport of either nation, only an Israeli identification card, "like what they give a dog crossing a border," says Ata Farhat, a cousin of Farah's, who is studying to be a journalist at the University of Damascus.
"When you tell people you are from the Golan, people here [in Syria] really help you," says Farah Farhat. "I feel like I grew up here."
Even for this young generation, there are memories.
In the Spartan apartment that he shares with other Golan students, Ata Farhat pulls out a photo album and then points to a picture of an older woman: "This is my grandmother, the martyr," he says. Ghalia, the grandmother, was killed during a 1987 pro-Syrian demonstration in their village. Peace will help assuage the memory, Mr. Farhat says.
For former Syria parliament member Faouri, too, there is hope that peace will help him forget the lines of an emotional poem called "My Village" that he wrote in 1970, when three years after the war had felt like a long time:
"I'm looking to reach my village, which shone like a star in the sky," he recites. "I ask myself how it was a theater for the sun and the moon, and now how it has become darkness, darkness, darkness."
*Ilene R. Prusher contributed to this report from Buqata, Golan Heights.