Druze wives hope to reclaim old ties

Married in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, women want permission to return to their native Syria.

In her wedding dress, Lamice Ayoub walked about 50 yards to pass through a military crossing, dividing the Syrian side of the Golan Heights from the Israeli-controlled part of this highly contentious and remote plateau.

From the Syrian side, her parents could probably see their daughter as she left behind her life in Damascus 12 years ago to marry a Druze man living on the Israeli side.

While Ms. Ayoub committed to her husband that day, she also knew that she could not return to her family in Syria, as the Druze women who cross from one side to the other are not permitted to return. She is like dozens of Syrian Druze women for whom marriage has meant a one-way ticket across the 40-year-old Syrian-Israeli divide over the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.

Now, at time of recent tension between the two countries, women like Ayoub are pressing for family visits, a move they say might even encourage a thaw in the choppy relations between the old enemies.

"What was unexpected was the level of longing for my family," Ayoub says. "Sometimes you see someone who reminds you of a person you knew back home and you begin to cry."

Numbering about 19,000, the Druze of the Golan Heights are unique in the landscape of the Arab-Israeli conflict. They are a potential bridge between Syria, which they consider their homeland, and Israel, which has given them residency and social benefits. At the same time that many work and study inside Israel, others get permission to cross the border for university studies in Damascus.

On Monday, about 40 Druze women from Golan demonstrated outside the Red Cross headquarters in Jerusalem to demand that Israeli authorities give them the same crossing rights as students and Druze religious men.

Ayoub says she's submitted at least 10 requests to travel into Syria that have been rejected. Instead, she's had make do with meeting her parents in Amman, Jordan. "Israel opposes that I visit Damascus. This is discrimination," she said. "If I visited my family in spite of the state of war, it can only contribute to a reduction of tensions, and peace."

Friction between Israel and Syria escalated in after Israel's war with Hizbullah in Lebanon last year. Talk of peace negotiations by both sides was mixed with threats of violence. A tense summer on the Golan Heights was punctuated by Israel's attack on an unknown military installation in Syria last month.

This week, the commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force that monitors the demilitarized zone between Israeli and Syrian forces on Golan said there's been a relaxation of tensions in recent weeks, though an animal caught in Israel's electronic border at night is enough to prompt the air force to scramble helicopters.

There has been a glimmer of hope for the divided Druze. Two women originally from Syria were granted authorization to return to their home to pay condolences to deceased parents. On Tuesday, Nabih Faherdin stood with three sobbing young children on the Israeli side of the Quneitra military crossing point after watching his wife, Hanan, walk back into Syria for the first time in nine years.

"The simple person isn't interested in politics, he explained. "It's humanitarian issues like this that will make their lives better."

According to the International Red Cross, which helps facilitate civilian crossings across the Syrian-Israel border, there have been 67 Syrian brides that have crossed into the Golan Heights since 1993 and 11 brides from Golan that have crossed into Syria.

A Red Cross spokesperson in Tel Aviv said that prior to 1992, the international humanitarian organization helped coordinate regular family visits. But she cautioned that the recent crossings were not necessarily a sign of a changed policy. "I'm not sure that it's a door that's been opened, it was probably a one-time thing," says Sharon Yeheskel-Oron. "I don't think we should read too much into [the fact] that family visits will start."

A spokeswoman for Israel's Interior Ministry, which handles the requests to cross into Syria, said the Quneitra crossing is a military passage but exceptions are made for Druze priests and students.

"The fact that they aren't allowed to pass through a military crossing doesn't mean that they can't visit their relatives," said the ministry spokesperson in an e-mail. "In no place is it written that you have to pass through the Queneitra crossing to pay a family visit."

For those who travel to third countries to visit relatives, Israel issues special blue identification "laissez passer" cards with "undefined" written in the space for nationality.

Druze women hope that by lobbying Israeli Arab parliament members and holding additional demonstrations they'll be able to change the Israeli policy. "I want to visit my mom when she is still alive," says Ayoub.

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