At best, Syrians expect a 'cold peace' with Israel

Last week's Barak-Clinton effort to restart Israel-Syria talks stillpoints to the Golan.

Each time Abdullah Sheikh visits the Syrian town of Quneitra for a picnic with his family, he carries a clunky pair of Russian-made binoculars. As the rest of his family spreads out Arab dishes and fresh bread on a blanket, Mr. Sheikh stands on the roof of a gutted hospital and looks west, to the Israel-controlled side of the Golan Heights.

His family once owned land in a village there, when Syria controlled the heights. But today he sees Israeli workers labor among the lush trees of well-groomed orchards. And Israeli civilian and military traffic moves along a hillside road.

"I often come back to reminisce about prewar days," Sheikh says, referring to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Despite reminiscences, Syrians like Sheikh are hardened by a half century of conflict. Though the Golan is just 1 percent of Syria's total land, it is the focal point for every grievance here. And many Israelis - some of whom have built up the Golan for a generation, and so are loath to leave - can't envision peace with longtime enemy Syria, either.

Even if Syrian and Israeli leaders are able to secure a peace deal, comments heard here show how a "peace between peoples" may be much harder to accomplish in fact.

"There is a saying in Arabic that 'your grandfather's enemy cannot be close to you,' " Sheikh says, noting that he lost 17 members of his family when Israeli troops captured the Golan - along with the Sinai, West Bank, and Gaza Strip - in the course of the 1967 war.

"Even if there is peace today, I won't walk with Israelis because we suffered so much."

A number of regional experts echo these sentiments. "I don't think Syrians, on a personal, individual level feel comfortable having peace with Israel," says Nabil Sukkar, an economist in Damascus. "Syrians will probably accept a peace, if it is a fact forced upon us. If Israel was like any other state, we would swallow our pride. But they are the ones who took Arab land.

"King Hussein can make peace, but this is not Jordan. This Arab nation has another feeling, and so it will be a very cold peace."

The Golan in exchange for security

Any peace accord is likely to return the Golan to Syria in exchange for peace and security. Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak has said he has "reconciled himself" to a sizable handover.

Still, opponents say that the high plateau of the Golan is too strategically important for Israel to give back.

The Israeli-Syrian border - today an uninhabited no man's land monitored by UN troops - has been tense since Israel's creation in 1948, despite an armistice between the fledgling state and Syria in 1949. Border skirmishes and moves to assert control over bits of the demilitarized zone caused steady deterioration. By 1966, the UN secretary-general lamented, Syria and Israel together had generated some 66,000 official complaints about each other.

A Syrian military offensive in 1973, part of a joint Arab attack, made Israeli forces withdraw from some points in the Golan. Yet before pulling out of Quneitra for good, Israeli troops flattened the town with explosives and bulldozers.

Among those who know those tit-for-tat battles firsthand is Mithat Saleh, a heavyset man from Majdal Shams, one of five Golan villages controlled by the Israelis that maintains its Syrian roots.

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Saleh says he belonged to the "Secret Movement Organization," a group of a dozen young men determined to make Israeli troops pay a price for the occupation.

He would dig up Israeli antipersonnel mines and replant them where Israeli units would patrol, Saleh recalls. The night they were caught, in August 1985, they had walked across the smoothed sand near the electrified border fence, then severed it with wire cutters. Within hours, using the footprints, Israeli troops tracked the culprits down and arrested them.

Saleh was held for 12 years in a series of Israeli jails, he says, and most remembers the methods used to make him talk - such as being hung with his arms above his head by handcuffs for long periods.

"They wanted information about the resistance," says Saleh, who after his release fled to Syria and is now a member of Syria's parliament for the Golan constituency. "They wanted to know what you did, and who was with you. However strong a person is, it's difficult to endure this." Five members of Saleh's group are still in prison, he says. But he detects changes from the vantage point of his official position. Although Israeli and Syrian leaders continue with their usual barbs, they're also - for the first time - exchanging compliments, too.

"We are hearing a new song now, but it's all still just talk," Saleh says.

"We have made a strategic decision for peace. Before 1991, we thought we would get the Golan back by force. We're not asking for anything extraordinary. We're just asking for implementation of UN resolutions [demanding that Israel withdraw from there]."

Though some Israelis say they would move if it brought peace, many say that the cost of relocating and compensating 17,000 settlers for bountiful farms and wineries will be high. Reportedly, settler groups widely assume that the US government will compensate them, as it has bankrolled previous deals.

Some estimate a peace price tag of $10 billion to deliberately dampen enthusiasm in Congress for a Golan handover.

Syrian resoluteness

And there are few signs that average Syrians have changed their attitudes. On top of the Quneitra hospital, staring across at the Israeli side, Ayman Sadadin says he brings his five-year-old son, Hamed, here to show him "what the Israelis did and how much they destroyed."

What will he tell his son if Syria actually signs a peace with Israel? "I will tell him that [Syrian President Hafez] al-Assad liberated the land," Mr. Sadadin says. "Whatever they [Israelis] do, we can never speak good of them, a people who occupied and raped our country. We can't teach our children to trust them."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.