Yearning for the Golan Heights: why Syria wants it back

The disputed territory is key to the broader US goal of Arab-Israeli peace. On Monday, Washington hosted the first high-ranking Syrian official in five years.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters/FILE
Children stand on a street in the village of Ghajar, which straddles the border between Lebanon and Israel captured from Syria during the 1967 Middle East War. Ghajar was annexed along with the occupied Golan Heights which Syria wants back in return for its cooperation in the Middle East peace process.
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters/FILE
An Israeli soldier stands guard near Ghajar, on the Israeli-Lebanese border.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

The US demonstrated its commitment to reengage Syria as a partner for Middle East peace Monday, advancing a process that some Arab countries had declared dead in recent weeks. At Washington's invitation – the first one extended to a high-ranking Syrian official in five years – Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad came to town to meet US officials.

Syria's cooperation is crucial to the chief goal of President Obama's Middle East policy: Arab-Israeli peace. With ties to three Israeli enemies – Iran, and the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas – Syria says it can moderate the threats against the Jewish state and thus pave the way for reciprocal Israeli concessions to the Palestinians and their Arab allies.

In return, Syria wants one thing: the Golan Heights.

Occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, the fertile territory on the Sea of Galilee's western shores is prized by both countries for its agriculture, high ground that serves as a military lookout, and abundant water; about one-third of Israel's fresh water supply currently comes from the Golan. Syria insists on the return of the full territory in exchange for peace.

"We do want to get the Golan back on a silver platter," said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem this summer. "Let's face it – it's our land and our right to have it back is the most normal thing in the world."

Yet even as the Obama administration pushes for a renewal of peace talks between Syria and Israel, the Golan's original Syrian inhabitants worry that their situation is being neglected and are striving to instill in their children the same longing they feel for their ancestral land.

While intermittent peace talks between Syria and Israel as well as international attention have long focused on the status of final-border boundaries, control over water, and security issues, little attention is given to the displaced Golanese population. In 1967 approximately 150,000 Syrians fled the Golan into mainland Syria as Israel began its occupation of the territory. Now, taking descendants into account, that number could be as high as half a million.

If a peace deal is eventually reached, the Syrian government says that many of the Golanese refugees will return to the territory – a prospect that Omar Ali has been yearning for since he fled as a 9-year-old in 1967.

'Our children will not forget'

Surrounded by Arab enemies that it believed were readying for war against the Jewish state, Israel had launched a preemptive strike against its neighbors. Amid the scrum of Syrians rushing to escape oncoming Israeli forces, young Omar lost his family.

"When we left we didn't think we were fleeing. We thought it was just for a few days and so we only took a few simple things with us," recalls Mr. Ali, who was reunited with his parents after three days. "We should never have left."

Forty-two years later, Ali has never returned to his home in the village of Rawiye. Instead he lives in a Damascus suburb known as Black Stone, one of the main concentrations of Golanese refugees. Today, most Golanese refugees live in the Syrian capital, in fact, spread throughout various suburbs. While fully integrated into Syrian society, they congregate together keeping alive old Golanese traditions and instilling in their young a longing to return.

"My house in my village calls me back, the dream obsesses me," says Ali, adding that he purchased a second house on the Syrian border town of Quneitra just so he could gaze over at the Golan whenever he wanted. "Homelessness is for all generations. Our children will not forget."

Like many of those who fled, Ali's family was ripped apart by the occupation. His uncles remained in the territory, and he and his parents never saw them again. With no direct phone lines existing between Israel and Syria, families would in the past meet on the border and use megaphones to communicate. Today, they talk using Skype, an Internet phone service.

328 feet short of a peace deal in 2000

Meanwhile, thousands of Israelis have moved in. Israel has constructed 32 settlements on the territory it annexed in 1981 – in violation of United Nations Resolution 242, which considers the Golan part of Israel's occupied territories.

The Golan now has a population of 38,000, comprising about 21,000 Arabs loyal to Syria and 17,000 Jews. The territory has become a popular Israeli tourist destination and home to a thriving agricultural sector as well as military bases.

Peace negotiations between the two sides have been sporadic over the past decades.

In 2000, a US-brokered peace agreement was nearly reached but talks collapsed after Syria insisted on a return to the entire pre-1967 war border, which included 328 feet Israel would not give up. Turkish-mediated indirect peace talks broke up last December in protest over Israel's military offensive on Gaza.

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed a willingness to restart talks, he is opposed to a complete withdrawal from the Golan. In July Uzi Arad, a close aide to Mr. Netanyahu, told Israel's Haaretz newspaper that "if there is a territorial compromise, it is one that still leaves Israel on the Golan Heights and deep into the Golan Heights."

But Syria has never given up its claim on the territory and says its full return is the only basis for peace with Israel. Mr. Mekdad was expected to press this argument while meeting with US officials Monday.

If a peace deal is eventually concluded, Israel has indicated it would accept the return of Golan refugees so long as they do not drain water supplies from the Jewish state.

Few can cross into the Golan

Meanwhile, Syria says it's doing everything it can to maintain ties with the Arabs still in the Golan Heights, most of whom have rejected Israeli citizenship and pledge allegiance to Damascus, says Methat Saleh, director of the Syrian government's Bureau of Golan Affairs.

Mr. Saleh, who named his son Golan and spent 12 years in an Israeli prison for resistance activities, explained in a recent interview that Syria provides financial support to some living in the Golan, while trying to help the population maintain their Syrian cultural identity. The country's domestic television channel maintains a bureau in the territory and inhabitants can access Syrian TV.

Yet with the border firmly closed, direct contact is almost impossible. Among the few who can cross are a group of students whom the two governments allow to study at Damascus University. The program was initiated in 1991 and there are currently about 250 students from the Golan studying in Syria.

According to one who didn't want to reveal his name, the program strengthens the students to continue "daily mental resistance."

"As long as we don't forget that we're Syrian and as long as we're speaking Arabic in our homes, [the Israelis] won't destroy our Arab identity," says the student, who also speaks fluent Hebrew and has spent past summers employed as a construction worker in Tel Aviv.

The only others allowed across this border are Druze religious figures who make an annual pilgrimage to Syria, as well as a limited number of Syrian women who are permitted to marry men in the Golan but are then barred from returning.

Despite these hardships, displaced Syrians from the Golan say they will ensure that their Golanese identity remains alive and that when the moment arrives they will be ready to go back.

"When we return to the Golan we'll even take our dead back with us," says Ali.

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