MAJDAL SHAMS, Israel, Sept. 20 (JTA) — Under a darkening sky in the northernmost corner of the Golan Heights, a small crowd gathers at the town square in this Druse village late in the afternoon and unfurls a few Syrian flags. Standing against the backdrop of the soaring peaks of Mount Hermon, the demonstrators clutch photographs of grim-looking men, some of them family members on the Syrian side of this contested border, others comrades sitting in Israeli jails. It’s the final day of a weeklong protest against the Israeli government, and this modest show of loyalty to their erstwhile government in Damascus gets halfhearted gestures of support from Druse commuters arriving home from jobs in northern Israel. Despite renewed international pressure on Israel and Syria to restart peace talks, people here are not very excited by the prospects. Some don’t think peace will come in their lifetimes, and others simply don’t want to pay what’s considered the most likely price of peace: the return of the Golan Heights to Syrian control. “The best thing would be that there is peace but the Golan Heights stays as it is,” said one man getting a haircut in a barbershop in Mas’ade, a Druse village just down the road from Majdal Shams. The man, who refused to give his name, added in Arabic-accented Hebrew, “With God’s help, we won’t go back” to Syria. For the Druse of the Golan Heights, renewed talk of progress on the Israeli-Syrian negotiating track brings hope and anxiety. “Life is easy here. People have everything: They have money, they live nicely and pleasantly,” said Hafez Kadmani, who runs a lottery and beverage shop in Majdal Shams. “There are those who say that life in Syria is difficult. There is no work, no money and barely any Internet.” Yet he said he’d rather live in Syria. “Syria is our tree of life. It is our mother,” Kadmani said. Money isn’t everything, said Hussein Abu Saleh, a butcher in town. Life in Syria might be more difficult, but it would be worth exchanging Israeli rule for Syrian rule in order to live among one’s own people. “Everything carries a price,” he said. Most Druse here say they would like the Golan to be returned to Syria, which lost the strategic plateau to Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel annexed the area in 1981— something it did not do with the West Bank or Gaza Strip, which are heavily populated by Palestinian Arabs — and offered the local Druse Israeli citizenship. But the leadership of the four main surviving Druse villages in the Golan refused the citizenship offer, partly out of a loyalty to their native country that is dictated by their faith, an offshoot of Islam, and partly out of fear that they would be punished harshly by Damascus if the Golan reverted to Syrian control. While Druse in the Galilee embraced Israeli citizenship and even sent some of their sons to the Israeli army, the Golan Druse by and large remained loyal to Syria. Nearly 40 years later, however, many of the 18,000 or so Druse in the Golan say they can’t imagine trading life in democratic, prosperous Israel for life under the Syrian dictatorship. “Syria is not a democracy like Israel. It’s very bad politics,” said a Mas’ade resident named Saleh. “If I live here, I know it’s a democracy.” The Golan Druse work with and among Israelis and speak Hebrew, a few have Jewish friends and some have married Israeli Druse and relocated to the Galilee. Here in the Golan’s windswept hills, among the apple orchards and hidden streams and waterfalls, the Druse are caught between a rock and a hard place. They are the biggest losers in a conflict between Israel and Syria that has shown few signs of change in two generations. If war were to break out, the fighting likely would take place in their backyards and claim many lives, as in past wars between Syria and Israel. But under the status quo the Druse here face an uncertain future. They say they’re subject to Israeli suspicion and resentment for their loyalty to Syria, and that they suffer discrimination by Israeli Jews who mistake them for Arabs. Yet they remain cut off from their families in Syria. Many older Druse, particularly those old enough to remember life before 1967, want the Golan returned to Syria so they can be reunited with their families. “We dream to return to Syria,” said Abu Saleh Munir Mzged, who was a teenager when the Golan fell to Israel. “I have a brother in Syria. I can’t see him. I can’t go there. They can’t come here. My uncle was killed a week ago in a traffic accident. I couldn’t go to pay my respects. Why can’t I go to Syria? This is a racist policy. The Israeli leaders don’t allow us to come and go.” In Israel, it’s against the law for citizens to visit an enemy state, and a few days ago Israeli police announced that they were considering criminal proceedings against three Arab members of Knesset who visited Damascus this month. Though few Druse in the Golan are Israeli citizens, the government nevertheless maintains tight restrictions on their travel to Syria. Except for a few hundred students granted permission by Israel to spend the academic year in Syria, nobody is allowed to come and go. Shufi Alam Din, a money changer in Majdal Shams, said peace would enable an open border between the two countries, allowing the Druse to live with their Syrian relatives yet still work in Israel. “I dream of eating humus in Damascus for lunch and ribs in Tel Aviv for dinner,” Alam Din said. But others say such hopes are unrealistic. If Israel cedes the Golan, the Druse will end up under the thumb — or fist — of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Many Druse therefore harbor the same wish for the Golan Heights as do most Israelis: that Israel somehow manages to make peace with Syria without giving up the Golan. “I like Israeli cities. I don’t like Arab cities. I don’t like Arab politics,” said a Druse named Ajwa. “I want to live in Israel all my life. I want to go to Syria only to visit and enjoy. We want our cake and to eat it, too. We want to be in Israel forever, but we aren’t against peace. We want peace without a border.” A group of men interviewed by JTA in the Mas’ade barbershop estimated that about 70 percent of the Druse here say publicly that they want the Golan to revert to Syrian control, but many of them privately prefer to stay under Israeli rule. Explaining why he didn’t want his name published for being in the pro-Israeli camp, the barber in Mas’ade explained, “I’m afraid they’ll say I’m a traitor when I say I don’t want to live under Assad’s regime.” Many young Druse say they feel at home neither in Syria, where they’ve never been, nor in Israel, where they feel they don’t quite belong. “We’re neither Syrian nor Israeli,” lamented a saleswoman at a clothing store in Mas’ade. “We’re by ourselves. I just want to stay in the Golan. This is the most beautiful place.”
Uriel Heilman is JTA's former managing editor. He is now director of business development at 70 Faces Media. Follow him on Twitter at @urielheilman.