Golan Residents Work Hard to Influence Public Opinion

Afraid that the government will relinquish the Golan Heights to Syria as part of a future peace treaty with Damascus, many of the residents of the hotly contested region have gone on the offensive.

More than a year ago, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin announced his intention to place the Golan on the negotiating table. Ever since, people here have worked day and night to convince Israelis and Diaspora Jews alike that keeping the Golan is vital to Israel’s security.

While settlers in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have held demonstrations and raised funds locally and abroad for several years, such activities are relatively new to the Golan.

Until Rabin dropped the “Golan bombshell” – as some residents have dubbed the prime minister’s decision to negotiate the territory – people here considered themselves far from the territorial fray.

After capturing the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel officially annexed the area in 1981. Given this government stamp of approval, along with financial incentives provided by the government, Jews ultimately established 32 settlements, or, as Golan residents say, “communities.”

Today, some 3,500 Jewish families, comprising some 13,500 individuals, make their home in the small but flourishing town of Katzrin, or in the Kibbutzim and moshavim that dot the Golan.

Despite the current political uncertainty, many homes are still being built and families are continuing to move to the area.

Unlike the West Bank and Gaza, where a disproportionate percentage of residents are Orthodox and right-wing, the majority of Golan residents are secular. Most supported the Labor Party in the last national election.

The irony that the party they voted for may give away the land they live on does not escape the people of the Golan.

“We feel betrayed,” said Avi Zeira, a member of the activist Golan Heights Residents’ Committee, sipping coffee in downtown Katzrin.

“Just before the national elections in ’92, (then-candidate) Yitzhak Rabin came up to the Golan and assured us that he would never relinquish the Heights to Syria.

“Now,” Zeira said, “Rabin has totally reversed his position. It’s unbelievable.”

Determined to gain support for their cause both in Israel and abroad, the residents’ committee undertook a grass-roots public-relations campaign that highlighted Rabin’s complete about-face on the Golan issue.

Thanks to money raised mostly from abroad, the committee printed up hundreds of thousands of banners and bumper-stickers with the words “The people are with the Golan.”

The committee also paid for a short commercial, shown at movie theaters around Israel, depicting the prime minister’s speech in Katzrin prior to the 1992 elections.

“It is inconceivable that we (should) withdraw from the Golan Heights even in peace,” Rabin declares in the commercial, shown on 15-foot-high screens. “He who considers withdrawing from the Golan Heights forsakes the security of Israel.”

But by fat the most successful part of the campaign was a hunger strike in September 1994 by several Golan residents. During the 19-day strike, which attracted international media attention, a whopping 250,000 Israelis visited the Golan in a show of solidarity.

Zeira believes that the committee’s efforts are having an important effect.

“Since the ’92 elections, the government has been leading a campaign to convince the public that we can live without the Golan,” he said.

“At first, our public support went down. But now, according to opinion polls, at least 60 percent of Israelis are against any withdrawal from the Golan. Another 20 percent are willing to stay in the Golan, provided there is some compromise on territory.”

If it were up to Zeira, “we would keep the status quo. Of course, we want real peace, but what does that mean? Personally, I trust (Syrian President Hafez) Assad, but tomorrow there could be a revolution and Islamic fundamentalists could replace him. The only ones we can trust are ourselves.”

Drora Shenk, 44, a 25-year resident of Kibbutz Morom Golan, does not trust the Syrians, with or without Assad at their helm.

Working in the administration building of the Kibbutz, which is located about a mile from the Syrian border, Shenk recalls her early years in the Golan.

“Until 1974, there were attacks every day. The children were living in the shelters, sleeping in the shelters. Our lives revolved around these attacks,” she said.

Reminded of a recent statement by Syrian Prime Minister Farouk al-Sharaa claiming that Syria never shelled civilian targets, Shenk replied angrily, “It’s one big lie. I feel about his comment the same way I feel about peace with Syria – there’s nothing behind it.

Yoaz Tsur, a resident of Katzrin, has the opposite opinion.

“I believe we must make peace with our neighbors,” he said. “We must take a chance and sit down with Syria at the negotiating table.”

Though he does not relish the idea, “if the bottom line is leaving the Golan, that’s what we’ll have to do,” he said.

Despite Rabin’s new stance on the Golan, Tsur said he trusts the government. “Rabin knows security better than anyone on the Golan committee,” he said.

In early 1994, Tsur tried to form a group called Golan Residents for Peace. It never got off the ground, he said, “because people here don’t want to say publicly that they are willing to leave in exchange for real peace.”

Although he has no statistics to back up his opinion, Tsur believes that “about 40 percent of the residents would be prepared to leave” in the event that Syria offers a real peace with Israel.

“Personally, leaving the Golan would be the worst thing that could happen to me. But I see myself first as a citizen of Israel. I must do what is in the best interest of my country, not just what is in my own best interest,” he said.

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