Fate of Golan Heights Vital to Israeli Peace Hopes

Article excerpt

SHAAL, Golan Heights -- Whistling to her shaggy sheepdog, proffering sweet cherries from the lush orchards of her communal farm, Jewish settler Sarah Gilad can't imagine living anywhere but the Golan Heights.

"I raised my family here. We built our home, we built our lives -- I can't go elsewhere," said the 45-year-old Israeli mother of three, who came here just after Israel annexed the war-won plateau 17 years ago.

But Dana Mozes, a sad-eyed 20-year-old who also lives in the farming community of Shaal, sees things differently. With Israel's incoming government already moving to reactivate peace talks with Syria, she says it's time for settlers to face some hard facts.

"We must give up the Golan to have peace," she said. "Yes, it's beautiful, and I love living here. But it's not worth the price we pay."

Sentiments like that mark a sea change in Israeli public opinion over the heights, which have been coveted and contested since biblical times.

During the last elections, in 1996, keeping the Golan was an emotional rallying cry, a national cause. All across Israel, banners and bumper stickers proclaimed, "The people are with the Golan."

This time, Ehud Barak's decisive win over Benjamin Netanyahu in May 17 elections is widely seen as a mandate to negotiate a Golan pullback as part of a wider peace with Israel's neighbors.

Barak is pledging to bring Israeli troops home from Lebanon -- where Syria is the main power broker -- within a year. Most Israelis believe an accord with Lebanon cannot hold without Syria's blessing.

And Syria says any agreement is impossible without the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in 1967, retained in bloody fighting in 1973, and annexed in 1981.

A volcanic plain ranging up to 4,000 feet above sea level, with dramatic vistas over northern Israel and Syria, the Golan is an idyllic place. But it is also a war-haunted one.

Fields of waving yellow grass are fenced off with red-and-yellow signs warning of land mines. Wide anti-tank ditches scar the border hills. Huge tracts of land are given over to army firing zones, and the chuff of machine-gun fire and the thud of mortar shells mixes with the chirping of birds and the mooing of dairy cows.

Amid a landscape of apple orchards and wildflowers, waterfalls and wildlife preserves, Israeli military memorials sprout everywhere, cobbled together from shell casings, scrapped tank cannons and rusted warplane parts. …