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Once, Twice, Three Times Burned, Golan Israelis Doubt Peace with Syria

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The latest hit in movie theaters across Israel is called “The Syrian Bride.” The award-winning Israeli feature tells the story of a young Druse woman in the Golan Heights who is engaged to marry a Druse man on the Syrian side of the border. Once she crosses the border, she knows, she will no longer be able to return to Israel.

Lately, Syrian President Bashar Assad has resembled the Syrian bride. Like her, Assad wants to return to Israel — at least figuratively — for peace talks.

But for the time being, the border is closed, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insisting that Assad expel terrorist groups from Damascus before engaging in a peace tango with his desired “bride.”

On a clear day at Kibbutz Merom Golan, you can see the beautiful mountainous landscape, a combination of dark volcanic rocks, wide green fields running between them, and the snow-capped Mt. Hermon on the border between Israel and Syria.

Though Israel and Syria officially are in a state of war, over the last three decades this border has remained Israel’s quietest.

This week, Shifra Michaelowitz of Ramat Gan will take up residence in her new home in Merom Golan, along with her husband, Eli Shabo, and their two children.

The 16,00-square foot, four-bedroom house is one of 100 villas being built in a new neighborhood adjacent to the veteran kibbutz, in the midst of a grove of majestic oak trees.

Michaelowitz and Shabo, who have invested $150,000 in their new home, are not alone in their desire to plant roots in the area. Over the last three years, some 650 Israeli families moved into 19 Golan settlements, an increase of 400 percent, according to the Regional Council of the Golan.

Michaelowitz is unimpressed by the latest peace overtures from Damascus — which, if they lead to a peace agreement, would probably mean she would have to give up her dream home.”Of course we want peace,” Michaelowitz said. “But how many governments have changed, how many times have they almost signed peace, and nothing came out of it? You cannot just sit and wait until someone makes a decision.”

Israel conquered the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and returned some of it, including the ruins of the town of Kuneitra, as part of the disengagement plan after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Previous Israeli prime ministers reportedly agreed to return the entire Golan to Syria, but such talks broke down over Syria’s insistence on retaining Israeli land it took by force after Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

Jews are not alone in the Golan settlement drive — some Syrians are doing it, too. One plan on the Syrian agenda is a resettlement of Kuneitra, which once had some 40,000 residents.

Presently Kuneitra is a ghost town, lying in ruins as a persistent Syrian protest against Israel’s presence on the Golan. From the roof of a former Syrian officers’ hotel located on the Israeli side of the border, one can easily see the ruins, among them a deserted mosque and government buildings.

Maj. Stefan May, military public information officer of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, said that so far he had seen no signs of construction work in Kuneitra.

However, he said, the highway from Damascus to Kuneitra has been expanded from two to four lanes, and there is considerable construction going on in the towns and villages east of Kuneitra.

“We are under the impression that the Syrians have rediscovered the Golan,” he said.

In recent months, former residents of the town were asked to submit official applications to rebuild their homes.

Brothers Salah and Fuad Shams of the Israeli Druse village of Bukata submitted their reconstruction applications to Damascus via the Red Cross.

The two make a good living from their apple icehouse in the village of Mas’adeh. Golan apple growers supply up to 40 percent of Israel’s apples and are trying to overcome Israeli bureaucracy and political hurdles to export their apples to Syria.

Despite their economic well-being, the Shams brothers, like most of the 18,000 Golan Druse, identify with Syria and have very little faith in Israel’s readiness to make peace.

“We live on the hope for peace,” said Salah Shams, “because sooner or later we shall return to Syria.”

Very few signs along the border indicate that it separates two belligerent countries. Military presence is limited by the 1974 disengagement agreement.

A few signs warn passers-by to “Beware of mines,” referring to explosives buried here long ago. The white cars of the U.N. force are the only automobiles to pass the border crossing.

In sharp contrast to the signals emanating from Damascus, Israel Defense Forces’ reserve troops took part in a drill last week simulating a Syrian invasion, similar to the one that caught Israel by surprise in 1973.

“Throughout the years we have been training for the eventuality of a deterioration,” said Col. Nizar Fares, commander of the IDF Golani brigade. “We are doing everything possible so that it will not happen again.”

Thaer Abu-Saleh, an international relations expert living in the Druse village of Majdal Shams, said he was confident that as far as Syria is concerned, there will be no deterioration.

“Rebuilding Kuneitra means that Syria does not want war. Syria wants to build rather than destroy,” Abu-Saleh said.

Standing at the entrance to the deserted Syrian officers’ hotel, Abu-Saleh explained that Syria decided on peace for lack of other alternatives. It is surrounded by enemies, he said: Turkey to the north, American forces in Iraq to the east, the unfriendly Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to the south and Israel to the west.

“Syria is trying to break the blockade by improving relations with Turkey, Jordan and the U.S.,” he said.

However, Abu-Saleh ruled out the possibility that Assad would give in to Israeli demands and expel Palestinian terrorist groups from Damascus. He suggested another way out: After the visit this week to Damascus by PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian organizations could be incorporated into one Palestinian office in the Syrian capital.

So far, there is no sense of urgency among the 16,000 Israelis living in the Golan. In fact, some 1,300 families are now on the regional council’s waiting list to build homes in the Golan.

“Many among us are ready to give up territories in exchange for peace,” Shabo said. “But look, Rabin, Netanyahu and Barak were each ready to return territories in exchange for peace, and nothing happened. I can count on the Syrians that nothing will happen this time as well.”

The only view from Michaelowitz and Shabo’s new house in Merom Golan is one of Mt. Hermon. One cannot see Damascus from the kibbutz, and the Golan residents don’t want to.

Let the Syrian bride build her home in Kuneitra, they say, and let her stay there.

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