Golan tug-of-war thwarts Mideast peace

Occupied by Israel since 1967, the Golan Heights remain a strategic and emotional prize for Syria.

Fawzieh Khalil points to the village of Majdal Shams, a cluster of simple concrete houses clinging to a hillside several hundred yards away on the other side of a deep valley.

"Our village is called Tannoury," Ms. Khalil tells her grandchildren. "It is just the other side of Majdal Shams. It has four springs. We used to grow wheat and keep sheep."

"It looked like paradise to me," she adds, wistfully. Khalil's description is probably embellished by nostalgia, for she has not seen her village since 1967.

Both Tannoury and Majdal Shams lie in the Golan Heights, a strategic volcanic plateau that was occupied by Israel after the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967, and annexed into the state of Israel in 1981. The fate of this 750-square-mile plateau lies at the heart of the peace process between Syria and Israel.

Syria demands the return of the Golan in its entirety. Past Israeli governments have expressed willingness to return the Golan, except for a narrow strip running along the northeast edge of the Sea of Galilee, a move that would deny Syria access to its waters. But Syria is unwilling to cede any part of the land.

The fate of the Golan Heights is seen by Syria as a litmus test of Israel's real intentions regarding peace. Damascus has refused to discuss other aspects of peace – such as normalizing political, economic, diplomatic, and cultural relations – until it gets a guarantee that Israel will fully withdraw from the Golan. "The Israelis say that the disputed area is not so big," says Adnan Omran, the Syrian minister of information, referring to the strip of territory along the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee. "But everybody knows it's not their land. They just want us to go down on our knees and surrender. Just the feeling that part of Syria remains occupied would make a peace treaty a joke."

But away from the politics, the occupation of the Golan Heights represents a very human tragedy. Some 110,000 people fled their homes in 1967, according to estimates by historians and observers. Today, that number has swelled to around 500,000. They are housed in sprawling camps near Syria's major cities. The largest is the Wafieddine camp, a vast, dusty collection of cinderblock homes lying beside a highway outside Damascus and home to 20,000 refugees. "We don't like this life," says Sleiman Mahmoud Ali, the septuagenarian mayor of Duka village, which once stood on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee. "The government looks after us and gives us what we need. But we want to go back. There's nowhere here for our sheep, goats, and chickens. We are all farmers, that's what we do."

Israel's occupation and annexation of the Golan was accompanied by the gradual eradication of its Arab identity. Most of the original Syrian villages and farms were bulldozed and dynamited to make way for around 18,000 Jewish settlers. Only the residents of five villages in northern Golan, populated by adherents to the Druze faith – a splinter sect of Islam – refused to flee in 1967. Today they number about 22,000.

Each weekend, refugees flock to a hillside viewing point near the village of Ain Tineh from where they can shout across the yawning 1,000-yard valley to residents in occupied Majdal Shams for news of their relatives. On a cloudless spring day, it is an idyllic location. The Mount Hermon foothills lying to the north are striped with the last of the winter snows. Poppies, buttercups, cornflowers, and purple-headed thistles create a colorful patchwork on the rolling Golan hillsides to the south. Behind low walls of black basalt and pine-tree windbreaks, farmers plow the chocolate-colored soil and tend to wizened olive trees.

But the apparatus of occupation is also visible. On two Mount Hermon peaks above Ain Tineh squat a pair of Israeli army listening posts, allowing clear views of Damascus just 40 miles to the northeast. An Israeli army jeep drives slowly along a patrol road beside an electrified fence in the valley below Majdal Shams, drawing the excited attention of Ms. Khalil's grandchildren.

The greetings across the valley have grown less frequent since 1995 when the Israeli telephone network allowed people in Israel to call direct to neighboring Arab countries. "We still come here because we want to show our children that this is their land," says Hassan Khalil, Fawzieh's son.

Annual festivals and weddings also attract large crowds to the shouting valley.

Emotions can run high at these gatherings as suggested by the grave of Qassem Amasha, a former resident of Majdal Shams, lying beside the viewing point. According to the inscription on his white marble tombstone, he collapsed and died in February while waving to his family on the other side of the valley.

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