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This strategic, beautiful plateau, site of two Israeli-Syrian wars and now home for Jewish settlers, is key to Mideast peace. But many settlers have fresh doubts.

STANDING atop the strategic hilltop of Hermonite, it is clear why this is one of the most contested pieces of real estate in the world.

``This is the most famous place in the Golan,'' says Lt. Josh Mayer, an Israeli soldier serving in a unit that patrols the 1974 cease-fire line.

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``It is the first line of Israel,'' he says, gesturing to the Valley of Wailing where about 780 Israelis lost their lives when a combined Arab force launched a surprise attack on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar - Yom Kippur - in 1973.

Occupied by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict - to end constant Syrian bombardment of northern Israeli settlements - the Golan has now become the key to securing a comprehensive Middle East peace.

Since Israel and Syria reached a broad understanding in October 1992 over the return of the Golan to Syria in exchange for peace, hopes for a final settlement have waxed and waned.

Secret talks have continued over the past two years, but have foundered over Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's insistence on an unconditional withdrawal by Israel.

Diplomats and officials express growing doubts that a peace accord between the two countries - and a return of the Golan - is feasible before the Israeli election scheduled for November next year.

But the visit to the Middle East this week of United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher has raised hopes that direct talks between Israeli and Syrian officials - suspended since the military chiefs of the two countries met last December - will resume soon.

The deterioration in Israeli security, caused by the implementation of the Israeli-Palestinian agreement and the failure of President Assad to give Israelis any cause for encouragement, appear to have swung the Israeli mood against exchanging the Golan for what they see as an elusive peace.

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Today, Syria's well-patrolled border with Israel is a frontier of relative peace. The United Nations monitors a narrow demilitarized zone on the Syrian side of the border, while Syrian and Israeli troops respectively patrol the borders of the UN zone for five-mile strips on either side of the 1974 cease-fire line.

But the Golan's strategic significance is as relevant as ever, nestling as it does at the meeting point of Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. The view from this vantage point is breathtaking. Snow-capped Mount Hermon, rising to about 9,000 feet to the north above wheat fields and fruit orchards, underscores the astonishing range of climatic conditions found in so small a geographical area.

On a clear day, visitors can see outskirts of Damascus about 30 miles to the northeast and the Mediterranean Sea some 40 miles to the west. Sweeping down to the Sea of Galilee on the southwest, the stepped mountain plateau of the Golan offers in a 600 square-mile area a full range of agriculture and scenic beauty unmatched in Israel.

To the southeast, the devastated town of Kuneitra bears testimony to the human suffering caused by the constant conflict here.

After the Arab-Israeli war, some 70,000 Syrians who lived on the Golan were forced to retreat to Syria, according to Israeli statistics.

Only the inhabitants of four Druze villages, anchored by their loyalty to their land and religion as the guiding concepts of nationhood, have remained behind.

The Druze are a distinct Arab ethnic group, spread over mountainous regions of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel, whose ancestors broke away from orthodox Islam nearly a thousand years ago. They still keep the tenets of their faith a closely guarded secret.

They number about 15,000 people today and prosper despite a somewhat ambivalent existence. They reject Israeli identity for fear of the consequences should they be incorporated into Syria.

But many speak Hebrew and have cooperated with the 15,000 or so Jewish settlers who have inhabited the Golan since the 1967 war.

In the Druze village of Majdal Shams now on the Israeli side of the border, the people gather each Friday with binoculars and loudspeakers to shout messages and exchange news with their relatives in villages such as Mazraat Beit Jann on the Syrian side.

As the 1993 Israel-PLO accord has run into increasing difficulties, Egypt has sided with Syria in backing Assad's demands for a complete withdrawal and rejected land lease-back compromises such as those that underpinned Israel's peace deal with Jordan last October.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, mindful of the emotions aroused by the Golan, says Israel will hold a referendum in which a land-for-peace deal will be put to a vote.

Settlers in the Golan - unlike those who have settled in the occupied West Bank and Gaza - enjoy wider support in Israel as was evidenced by last year's hunger strike by the Golan settlers at Gamla. More than 100,000 sympathizers from Israel attended.

Unlike many of their counterparts in the West Bank, the majority of the Golan settlers would stop short of violent resistance if a land-for-peace deal was struck between the two countries. But they readily concede that no financial compensation could buy the quality of life they now enjoy.

``A year ago I thought we could get peace with guarantees in return for the Golan, but I don't think so any more,'' says Inbal Hammi, an Israeli-born resident of the Kfar Haruv Kibbutz, which has built a ``peace vista'' for tourists from the stones of a 1,700-year-old Talmudic Jewish settlement.

``We are dealing with crazy men ... Assad must first show that he will stop the Hizbullah [Islamic militants attacking Israel from Lebanon],'' she says. ``The Syrians could sign a deal and then change their minds. We trust King Hussein of Jordan. But I have no reason to trust Assad.''

Gazing out at the stunning view of Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee from which the Syrians once bombarded Jewish settlements, Hammi adds: ``I can't imagine Israel without the Golan.''

Ehud Margalit, spokesman for the Golan Residents Committee in the largest Jewish settlement of Qazrin, is a veteran of the 1973 war.

``I feel that I have been deceived,'' says Mr. Margalit, a volunteer in the military reserve.

``We believed that Qazrin would be a part of the Golan forever. Rabin won his majority for the Labor Party on the basis that the Golan would always remain part of Israel.... I can't vote for him now.''

Pointing out the spot where he lost his leg in battle, Margalit recalled the bravery of the small band of soldiers that held the Syrian tanks at bay while reserves were called up. Today the settlers have established a thriving community.

``I moved here from Tel Aviv to get away from the stress of the city and find a better quality of life,'' says autobody-shop owner Jackie Ninio, holding his granddaughter in the Qazrin play park.

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