Syria's Golan Heights Turning into an Israeli "Land without People"

Article excerpt

Syria's Golan Heights Turning into an Israeli "Land Without People"

On a cool August night in the Golan Heights, under bright stars and the holiday lights of a village square, several thousand Syrians dance the dabki. Arm in arm, they step in unison to amplified traditional music, slowly circling the bride and groom. Groups of two, four or six dancers break joyously in and out of the circle in a traditional celebration, lasting until well after midnight.

The strength and unity of the Druze community is demonstrated by more than traditional celebration. Despite 25 years of Israeli occupation, and attempts to force these Syrian Arabs to accept Israeli citizenship, most residents of the five remaining Druze villages of the Golan continue to hope for reunification with Syria. They greet recent suggestions from both the U.S. and Israeli governments that that goal will be furthered by the current peace talks with skepticism, however. Although serious solutions have been presented to the main obstacles to their reunification with Syria, involving Israeli security and Israeli-Syrian water-sharing, the historical record of Israel, and, specifically, Israel's Labor Party opposition to reunification, dampens optimism.

Most recently, for example, the U.S. is said to have discussed stationing of U.S. troops in Golan areas from which Israel withdraws to monitor demilitarization arrangements, as is the case to this day in Sinai. Although the press suggested that Israel supported this idea, the next day newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, speaking to a group representing Jewish settlers in the Golan Heights, denied that such a proposal was being considered. Meanwhile, home construction in the Golan continues, and a major campaign to attract Jewish residents is underway.

A myth promoted by the Israeli government to lure Jewish settlers to the Golan is that it always has been an uninhabited, undeveloped land. In fact, prior to its seizure by Israeli forces in the 1967 war, nearly 130,000 Syrians occupied some 130 villages there. In the two months following the Israeli occupation, those Syrians who had not fled the fighting were deported, and all but the five remaining Druze villages were leveled.

Today, on the approaches to the battlefields of the 1967 and 1973 wars, brown summer grass ripples across miles of flat, empty fields. Small gazelles lope across the plain, cattle shelter in the shade of lonely trees, and large birds fly lazy circles in the clear blue sky. Mountains rising in the distance reminds one of the American West, making it easy to believe that Israel does indeed occupy an empty, foreign land.

Looking closely, however, the visitor discovers abundant evidence of the life that flourished there before the war. Piles of stones are the remains of houses and of the stone walls that once criss-crossed the landscape. Here and there a wall, or even a cluster of uninhabitable buildings, mark former homes, shops and mosques. Tiny clumps of thirsty cattle cluster at springs that once served whole villages. In some cases, Jewish settlements have been built directly on the sites of former Druze villages. If most of the inhabitants had not been driven out, demographers estimate the Arab population of the Golan would now be around 260,000.

Instead, only 15,000 people remain in five Arab villages built around a fertile valley containing well-tended apple, cherry, plum, apricot and pear orchards. Immediately after the 1967 war, Israel cut them off from all contact with Arab countries, including their relatives in Syria. …