Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2006, pages 16-17
In the Ghost Towns of the Occupied Golan, Five Villages Defiantly Wave the Syrian Flag
By Isabelle Humphries
IT IS HARD TO imagine how people living under Israeli occupation retain hope when even so-called “independent” humanitarian workers are residing in illegal Jewish-only settlements. Al Marsad, a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Syria’s occupied Golan Heights, reported in June that members of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation have been staying in the Israeli Golan settlement of Neve Ativ. The settlement is founded on the ruins of the Syrian village of Jabatha Al Zeit, whose 3,000 residents were expelled across the border into Syria following Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War.
Before the Israeli attack and occupation of June 1967, the Syrian province of Quneitra, now known internationally as the Golan Heights, was made up of around 137 villages and 61 farms. Today only five villages remain.
In the town square of Majdal Shams, the capital of the occupied district, stands a statue of four Syrian resistance fighters against 1920s French colonialism. The symbolism of this image, named “Continuity,” did not escape the Israeli authorities, who attempted to prevent its creation two decades ago. Even after failed attempts to blow it to pieces, however, the statue still stands with Syrian flag fluttering in the breeze, a representation in bronze of the tenacity of the people living around it.
On a hot Saturday in June, Golani activists took two busloads of Jewish visitors on a tour of the occupied province. Zochrot, an organization founded to bring the Palestinian Nakba into Israeli consciousness, coordinates trips for Jews to Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948. Led by local refugees, participants affix signs in English, Hebrew and Arabic commemorating the original village name. This year, to mark the 39th anniversary of Israeli annihilation of the rural livelihood of 124,000 people, the group headed northeast of the Palestinian Galilee, into the hills of the Syrian Golan.
While Israel did not immediately “transfer” the residents of the simultaneously occupied West Bank and Gaza, it did force 95 percent of the Golani population (along with several thousand Palestinian refugees from 1948) across the border into mainland Syria. Some villages were almost totally obliterated by the Israeli military machine, and just a few crumbled walls remain. Others, like Al Ramathania, stand on the plains like ghost towns. Led across the fields by local activists, the visitors found themselves in homes where even the roof and fireplace are still standing. Tangled weeds and thorns crossed paths now frequented only by the odd family of wild boar or other small animals. The average tourist to Israel, looking for Golan sites from the main road, would not even see this once wealthy agricultural village where 3,000 people lived. Guidebooks vaguely refer to Golan ruins as having been Syrian army installations, rather than homes to more than 124,000 civilians.
Today 33 settlements in the Golan house approximately 18,000 Israelis, with 80 square kilometers (31 square miles) of agricultural land at their disposal. That leaves only 25 square kilometers (less than 10 square miles) for the 20,000 indigenous Syrians who remain in the Golan, an area which continues to be narrowed down through land confiscation. Israelis insist that their interest in the Golan is security: protecting the Galilee from Arab enemies. Given the discrepancy between the Syrian arsenal and the Israeli military machine backed by its U.S. ally, such claims are laughable.
A more accurate interest undoubtedly is the extensive water resources available to whichever state controls the Golan. As it has done throughout occupied Palestinian lands, Israel, after establishing control in the Golan, forbade local farmers from accessing water for agricultural purposes. (As in the settlements around Nablus or Ramallah, however, water is freely available to Israeli settlement farms.) This strategy not only helped destroy local self-sufficiency, but also targeted the social roots of a predominantly agricultural society—with the added benefit of creating another cheap labor force for Israeli industry.
As did the French and British who occupied the Levant before them, Israel has used a variety of strategies in its attempt to weaken the collective identity of the people it occupies. It strictly controls the educational curriculum, for example, and teachers must be vetted by security services. Emphasizing religious differences, their Israeli occupiers label the remaining Golanis “Druze” in an attempt to categorize them as a religious minority and deny their identity as Syrian Arabs. While the Golan originally was peopled with Christian, Muslim, Druze and Alawite Syrians, those who remain are Druze (with a small number of Alawites).
Israel’s intent was to divide Syrian Druze from their Arab national identity—as it has been largely successful in doing with Palestinian Druze, who serve in the Israeli army and live mostly apart from Palestinian Muslims and Christians. In the Golan, however, Israel’s attempts to separate Syrian Druze from a wider Arab and Syrian national identity have failed. “We see this for what it is,” said Dr. Tayseer Maray of Golan for Development, “an attempt to create a false category, as if we are defined by our various religious affiliations instead of the reality that we are united by our national identity; we are all Syrian Arabs.”
In 1981, 14 years after its original occupation, Israel declared “annexation” of the Golan, and tried to force occupied Syrians to take Israeli citizenship. Syrians responded with nonviolent resistance, burning identity cards and demanding recognition as occupied people, refusing to simply become second-class Israelis. Despite the difficulties of remaining stateless, the majority of Golanis continue to reject Israeli citizenship, celebrating Syrian national days and working to maintain their independent identity from the state that occupies them.
Standing at the “shouting fence,” the border where Golan residents use megaphones to speak to relatives and friends on the Syrian side, Tayseer Maray looked back at his village, Majdal Shams. Pointing to the Israeli military base within the village boundaries, he said, “Dotted around that base are landmines—inside our village. While Israel is playing the internationally concerned state for victims of landmines abroad, it refuses to clear its own landmines placed inside civilian areas.”
Tens of civilians have been injured or killed by landmines protecting Israelis who have never been under armed attack from the Syrians of the Golan.
“You could say in a way that in the Golan we are being used as a human shield,” added Maray, looking from the Israeli base to the Syrian base in clear view across the line. Rumors of the exact capability of Israel’s armaments in the Golan abound. When talks were taking place between Syria and Israel back in 2000, the Sunday Times of London alleged that Israel was considering planting small nuclear landmines in the Golan—the reasoning being that, if the Golan were at any point returned to Syria, Israel would be able to detonate nuclear weapons by remote control at any moment they chose to target Syrians in their own land. Naturally, it would not be only military who suffered.
Considering their relatively small numbers, the coordinated resistance from the Golanis is remarkable. During the six-month Israeli siege as Golanis protested against annexation, people worked together to share precious food resources. In the past two decades NGOs have been established to provide health and social services for people whose needs are woefully neglected by the occupying authorities. “We are proud to say that 90 percent of our financial resources are raised locally,” explained Maray. “Only 10 percent comes from foreign aid.”
Political prisoners held in Israeli jails are remembered through regular demonstrations and vigils. And, despite Israel’s attempts to thwart such opportunities, students continue to seek visas to study in Damascus, or struggle against bureaucracy in order to marry Syrians living across the border.
As the Zochrot buses wound down the steep hill out of Majdal Shams, surrounded by Syrian borders on three sides, the vehicles pulled to a sudden halt at a cherry orchard. Famous for their apples and cherries, Golanis hold tightly to the rural lifestyle despite Israeli attempts to strangle it. Prior to the Israeli occupation, because of Syrian policy encouraging collective farming, people saw little need to register their land. It was known locally to whom land belonged, and the state did not dispute the matter. Under Israeli rule, however, the entire situation changed: occupation authorities use the excuse that land is not registered with a specific owner to justify uprooting trees and orchards. And Golanis’ response? “We simply all go and replant the orchard”—definitely not as simple a task as it is made to sound.
Despite U.N. Resolution 242’s unambiguous statement that Israel must withdraw from the lands it has occupied since 1967, the international community does nothing to assist the remaining indigenous residents of the Golan Heights. Nor is the day near at hand when Syria will have sufficient international leverage to negotiate reunification with its occupied province. In the face of such isolation, the extent of the resistance of five villages to the might of the entire Israeli state truly is something phenomenal.
Isabelle Humphries is conducting doctoral research on the situation of 1948 Palestinian refugees in the Galilee. She can be contacted at <[email protected]>.