As Winds of War Whirl, Golan Residents Dig in ON THE ISRAEL-SYRIA LINE

Article excerpt

There are rumblings that war is more likely in this region than it has been in many years, but to ask local residents, it is a time to sow their seeds and put their family roots deeper into the Golan.

At Kibbutz Afik, the mood was festive as members decked the dining room with bright decorations for Hanukkah, which celebrates the miraculous rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Jewish victory over the Syrian-Greek Army in 165 B.C.

Some Israelis say they could again be headed for war with the ancient enemy. Syria says peace can only come if Israel withdraws from these strategic highlands it captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Government ministers say Israel must beef up its preparedness and its defense spending in light of some analysis that Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, fed up with nearly 30 years of trying to regain the Golan, might opt for a military offensive to try recapture a piece of the Heights. While the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin expressed a willingness to withdraw from the Golan in exchange for peace, Benjamin Netanyahu, the new right-wing premier, says the offer does not stand. The 15,000 Israelis who live here say they're more focused on plans to double their numbers and attract more industry than the threat of war. Yaacov Gabriel, in charge of security on the kibbutz, says that their farming cooperative has been ordered into a state of readiness, just in case. "They asked us to prepare the bomb shelters," Mr. Gabriel says calmly, as he lunches on vegetables grown in the fertile Golan. Most residents say their lives became more secure upon the May election of Mr. Netanyahu. Since then, resident Marla Van Meter says the uncertainty that plagued this region in the past few years has lifted. In a sign of their new confidence, many residents including Ms. Van Meter, have been planting gardens. "You could see people putting in new trees, adding porches to their houses after the elections," she says. "People felt that the immediate threat was over." In another big boost to settlers here, the government this week began selling plots of land for 96 new homes in Katzrin, the largest Jewish settlement. But residents have their own expansion goals. The "Golan 2000" plan aims to spend $15 million to bring in 10,000 new residents. When Van Meter, a California native, moved here 13 years ago, she saw herself and her husband as modern-day pioneers, farming and settling the northern frontier. To her, that image changed quickly when Rabin - after making a breakthrough with the Palestinians in peace talks - began trying to reach a deal with Syria, too. In response, residents embarked on a big public-relations campaign. …