January 22, 2000
"So one cold, winter day an American, a Syrian, and an Israeli are crossing a bridge together..."
Sounds like the first line of a joke right? Guess again! Actually, it was the front page photo of newspapers all over the world in December of 1999! The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al Sharaa (with the help of US President Bill Clinton) attempted to enter into peace talks to end a state of war between Israel and Syria that's lasted over half a century. Although the two neighbors have not fought directly since 1973, Syria has thousands of troops in Lebanon and much influence in that country. It looks as though the Syrian and Israeli governments are finally realizing that, in the new century, war no longer looked like an appealing option. So if peace is in their best interest, then why can't these two countries just sign a paper and have peace? Well, maybe the simplest answer to that question is: The Golan.
After the armistice agreement ending the 1948 War Syria shared a small part of its southwestern border with the new Sate of Israel's Galilee Region near the Sea of Galilee in the North. The Syrian military overlooked Israel from the Golan, a small plateau of land of about 400 sq. mi., and were known to violentlyharass agricultural workers and Israel's fishing industry in the sea and along the border. During the Six-Day War (1967) Defense Minister Moshe Dayan ordered the conquest of the Golan which he considered useful as a bargaining chip for future negotiations with Syria. Although the figures are disputed, tens of thousands of Syrian civilians became refugees as a result of this attack. The Syrians tried to take back the Golan during the Yom Kippur War (1973) but they were unsuccessful in overtaking Israeli military positions. Since then activity between the two countries has been minimal including diplomatic relations of any kind.
Because of the announcement, in early December 1999, that Syria and Israel would resume Peace Talks (last left in 1996) we Trekkers heard a lot of fuss about the Golan while traveling around Israel. As Prime Minister Barak addressed this issue to the Knesset, thousands of protesters gathered nearby to voice their opposition to the peace talks and, more specifically, to any return of the Golan to Syria. Soon after, there was a counter-demonstration held in Tel Aviv in which large numbers turned out in support of a possible peace agreement, even if it were to require returning the Golan. This is a small survey of the Israeli voices heard at both demonstrations:
Moshe, 18, was at the anti-government rally in Jerusalem, where he lives and goes to school.
"Look, I like peace; but there's a limit to peace. For us right now there is a state of peace. I mean, I don't feel at all threatened. Right now we're very safe. If Syria were to attack, we wouldn't be in danger. They're on the bottom, we're up on the top.
"I voted for Barak because of unemployment. We wanted change and Barak said he would develop the economy and create jobs. I think he's a decent Prime Minister. I don't think he's stupid, but he's making a mistake. Fortunately, with the referendum, he won't be the one deciding. We love the Golan! It's beautiful. My sister and her husband are there. Go to the Golan and you'll be shocked-it's paradise!"
Mazi and Keren, both 17, were at the pro-peace rally along with two friends, both of whom were named Dana.
"We're here with the Labor Youth Group because we want peace with our neighbors. The Golan is ours and we don't want to give it up, but Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin started making peace with Syria and even he would've paid this heavy a price for peace. It's possible that the Syrians are not serious about peace, and we'll have to see how well they stick to an agreement. But for now, an agreement with Syria will help us get our soldiers out of Lebanon."
Shai, 20, was with some other young friends at the anti-government rally in Jerusalem.
"I'm here because Prime Minister Barak, that criminal, wants to give away the Golan. If he gives away the Golan it'll be the end of the country- I give this place one, two, maybe three years until the next war. If we give the Arabs the Golan today, then tomorrow they'll want Jerusalem, and then Tel Aviv.
"I really, really want peace. We are the winners in the wars and we do not need to give land for peace. The Golan is strategically important for the army. I served in the Golan so I know what's going on there. For me it was very cold there but we have to guard the country. We can't leave this place."
Roman, 17, was at the pro-peace rally supporting Barak's government and the talks with Syria.
"I'm demonstrating here because I'm a leftist and I think that nationalism is despicable. I didn't come here with any particular political party, only my own conscience.
"Most Israelis don't realize just how much the Arabs, particularly the Palestinians who were living here, have already had to compromise because of Zionism, an historical movement that I happen to object to. Giving up the Golan is to implement justice where there has been injustice. We're entering an age of "Post-Zionism" and I do believe that peace with Syria is possible because the peace with Egypt and Jordan are good precedents for this. I believe that the Syrian negotiations will have a positive effect on the Palestinian track because a comprehensive peace is truly a worthwhile goal.
"The Golan settlers are going to have to give up the land because the nature of occupation is that of a temporary status. Settlement in occupied territory is illegal according to international law. I understand where the settlers are now coming from, and I think encouraging settlement was the fault of the government in the '70s. But in the end we must give back the Golan."
Although the pro-peace and anti-government rallies were organized by groups like The Youth Labor Group, Peace Now and The Golan Residents Committee respectively, the majority of the participants were teenagers from all around the country. It must be difficult for the youth so enthusiastically involved in the demonstrations to imagine a time when the Syrian military threatened Israel's Galilee, or, likewise, a time when the Golan simply did not belong to Israel.
The issue of the Golan is perhaps most personal for those who live there now. There are approximately 18,000 Jews and an equal number of Druze-all of whom live in villages, kibbutzim, moshavim and the city of Katzrin (the "capital" town of the Golan-population 7,000). I talked to some of the folks in Katzrin and got some solid responses to my questions:
A woman named Astrid, who works for the Golan Residents Committee in Katzrin, said residents feel betrayed by Barak's talks of peace-especially since 57 percent of Golan residents voted him into office. "Any peace deal he makes with Syria involving the Golan would destroy lives," she said. Within one month of its conquest the Golan was settled by the people of Kibbutz Merom Golan. Since then, the region has been very well developed, and many popular Israeli products such as fruits, wines and beef come from the Golan.
"The Golan is also an important source of water for Israel. It supplies one-third of the water flowing to Israeli homes. When the Golan was under Syrian control , they tried to cut off Israel's water supply by diverting the three main streams that flow into the Jordan River" (which empties into the Sea of Galilee). The Golan is also a flourishing area of tourism which includes part of Mt. Hermon, Israel's only ski resort. "Only seven percent of the Hermon is under Israeli control now, but its altitude is strategically vital to the Israeli Army to monitor the mobilization of Syrian forces."
Avraham, 68, has taught college history courses in California, but for the past fifteen years has been living with his family in Katzrin.
"I came to the Golan because it had a lot of open space. I liked that. Today I feel as though I don't have the energy to fight the inevitable. It looks like the government will end up giving back the Golan, but nobody knows just how. In a way it resembles the Vietnam War: the writing was on the wall-the U.S. had to pull out-but no president knew exactly when or how it was to be done.
"There's a real question as to whether Assad or his successors can be trusted. He's a dictator who's been spouting anti-Israeli rhetoric for years. Can we actually reach a better peace with Syria than the 'cold-peace' we now have with Egypt? The Golan residents are not fanatic right-wing people or religious extremists. For example, we never had any institutionalized connection with the West Bank settlers, but some people may now be wondering if that was perhaps a mistake.
"If I must leave the Golan, then I'll most likely go to the Galilee, near Safed where my kids are studying now. I would imagine that others will do the same, or maybe go toward the Negev. Golan residents like having the space they now enjoy, and I don't think they'll find what they're looking for in the bigger cities."
At the time, Barak promised the public that if an agreement with Syria were to be reached and passed by the Knesset, he would give Israelis a chance to accept or reject it by way of a national referendum-the first in Israeli history. Nobody I talked to assumes to know exactly which way the Israeli people would vote, since the country appears divided and the question remains: "Peace with Syria-with or without the return of the Golan Heights?"
p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...firstname.lastname@example.org
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