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Focus on Issues: Golan Residents Eye Syria Talks As Threat to Attractive Lifestyle

January 10, 1996
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As Israeli and Syrian diplomats continue negotiations that focus on the status of this disputed region, the residents of the Golan Heights wait and worry.

Although the Israeli government has not actually informed the residents here that they will be forced to evacuate the Golan in the event of a peace treaty with Damascus, people have few illusions.

Prime Minister Shimon Peres has already announced that Israel might be prepared to withdraw to a point that would leave the Jewish state in possession of the mountain range overlooking the Sea of Galilee from the east, but without the territory now inhabited by Jews and Druse.

As a result, Golan residents are hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.

Unlike residents of the West Bank, who sometimes establish makeshift settlements in an attempt to lay claim to contested territory, people in the Golan are living on land already annexed by Israel.

They are waging their fight to stay through other channels.

In addition to rallies, which tend to attract those already sympathetic to their cause, the Golan Residents Committee churns out news releases and fact sheets, runs educational seminars for anyone willing to listen and distributes hundreds of thousands of bumper stickers with the well-know slogan “The People Are With the Golan.”

Although the committee raises funds in the United States, most of its activities are based in Israel.

Still, Golan activists never miss an opportunity to invite visiting U.S. representatives and senators to the Golan to underscore the area’s strategic importance and to discourage them from sending American troops to serve as peacekeepers in the region in the event of a treaty with Syria.

Just this week, during a visit to Israel, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry reaffirmed the Clinton administration’s willingness to send U.S. troops to the Golan, if requested by Israel and Syria.

Acknowledging that Israeli public opinion will ultimately decide their fate, either in a national referendum on a peace deal or at the election booth, Golan activists are working around the clock to get out their message.

According to the latest opinion polls, about 55 percent of Israelis favor continued sovereignty over the Golan – a figure that was slightly higher prior to the Nov. 4 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

“Everyone wants to be complacent to the government’s wishes, as a memorial to Rabin’s memory,” said Residents Committee spokeswoman Marla Van Meter, who attributed the decline to sympathy for the Labor government in the wake of the killing.

“Let’s face it, when your government tells you that there is no other way – either you have the Golan or you have peace – it sounds good, but is it really reality?”

Sitting in her small apartment on Kibbutz Afik, her son Golan lounging on the sofa, Van Meter counted off the committee’s objections to territorial compromise.

“What happens to Syria when Assad dies or gets knocked off?,” she said. “Do we even trust him, or is he only serving his own interests? We talk about peace, but we’ve had a cessation of violence for 20 years.”

Although she conceded that the United States is a valued ally, Van Meter was adamant that “we shouldn’t put our future in other people’s hands.

She said, “America’s interests may not always be our interests. What about security? What about water? A third of the nation’s water comes from the Golan.”

If it were up to the Residents Committee, whose members are elected by the local population, one possible compromise would allow people here to stay in their homes.

“What about a land lease?” Van Meter said. “Why can’t we demilitarize and let people stay? We can even repatriate displaced Syrians, if that is what it takes.”

That people in the Golan should be fighting for their right to remain is hardly surprising, giving the reasons that they moved here in the first place.

Scattered among 32 kibbutzim, moshavim, villages and the town of Katzrin, most of the 15,000 Jews on the Golan were attracted by its quiet, rural way of life.

Rainfall is high and crime is low, ensuring that the Golan is not only lush and green, but also extremely safe.

Each year, nearly 2 million Israelis come to the region to photograph local wildflowers and to hike in the majestic mountains. Others come up to ski on Mt. Hermon or to visit the award-winning Golan Heights Winery.

The 16,000 Druse Arabs on the Golan reside in four large villages and tend to earn their living through agriculture or small industry.

The Druse, who profess no nationalistic aspirations, are Syrian citizens who stayed on the Golan after Israel captured the area in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Unlike the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel never officially annexed, the Golan is Israeli territory, according to the 1981 Golan Law.

This fact, coupled with financial incentives to settle in the Golan from both the labor and Likud governments, instilled in Israelis the beliefs that the Golan would always remain under Israeli sovereignty.

Today, nearly four years after Rabin announced in a campaign speech that Israel would never give up the Golan, most Jewish residents feel betrayed.

Van Meter said, “In the last election, 71 percent of Golan residents voted for Labor. Another 7 percent voted for Meretz [Labor’s left-wing coalition partner]. Holding on to the Golan is part of Labor’s platform. The section still stands.”

As for the referendum on the Golan’s future promised by Rabin, she said, “We don’t believe a referendum will take place.” But she noted that Israeli public opinion would be important because Peres said a decision on the Golan “will only be decided during the elections,” which are scheduled for late October.

Although the Residents Committee refused to discuss financial compensation from the government, saying that doing so acknowledges defeat, the issue was certainly on the minds of many.

“I’ve always felt the day would come when we would have to leave,’ said Shlomit Shoshani, a dairy farmer on Moshav Givat Yoav.

“I’m not saying we must leave the Golan,” she said. “I don’t want to, but we cannot be hostages and put a gun to the whole country and say we can’t make peace because we won’t leave.”

Shoshani, an Israeli native whose father was killed two months before her birth in the War of Independence, said, “We’ve already spilled too much blood for our country.”

Sitting in her large, remodeled home, she added with a sigh, “I will never be able to live the way I do here. I will never to raise my kids the way I do here. There are no drugs, there is no crime, no violence. Of course, I feel a conflict.”

Still, she said that if the government wants to move here they will have to give her a house life the one she has now.

“They cannot force me to live in a place where I will have to spend more money to live,” she said. “Who will hire me? The government will have to provide me with a good pension.”

Shoshani was apparently not alone in considering the possibility of leaving the Golan.

“The Way to Peace,’ a new organization composed of Golan residents who are prepared to evacuate the Golan once Israel and Syria attain true peace, recently signed up 300 members.

Eitan Leese, one of the group’s leaders, said, “There are many hundreds more who have not officially joined, but who share our views.”

Members of the Way for Peace did not relish the thought that they might have to abandon their homes and businesses, but the group supports the government, Leese said.

“It knows what needs to be done about the issues of water, security and so forth,” he said.

Way for Peace is not thinking about the issue of compensation at this stage, but “if the time comes, the government will know what needs to be done,” Leese said.

“The bottom line is that our personal interests are less important than the national interest. If we don’t attain a peace agreement with Syria, at least I want us to be able to tell our children we tried, and why we are facing yet another war.”

David Alin, a beekeeper at Moshav Givat Yoav who has lived on the Golan since 1974, has a similar view.

“I try to explain to Israelis to Israelis and foreigners that this isn’t just a question of my future,” he said. “This is a national issue, a question of the nation’s future.”

In the meantime, Alin said, “one must maintain a normal existence without thinking about what may happen. This is the only way to stay sane.”

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