Syrians in the Golan Heights Stuck Between Sectarian War and Unjust Occupation

2014 925 golan stGolan Heights orchards in the Israeli-occupied area near the border of Syria. (Photo: Kasia Trapszo)Truthout only exists thanks to the support of our readers. Help us continue to publish truly independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today!

Syrians in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights hear the constant shelling of the civil war that divides their community while living through the decades-old Israeli occupation that dominates daily life.

As Nazem Khatar, a 64-year-old apple farmer walked through his orchard in Majdal Shams, in the occupied Golan Heights, gathering apples, he recounted his youth in Syria before the Israeli occupation began in 1967.

“When I was in high school in the early 1960s, all of us would attend the same classes – Druze, Muslims, Christians and Kurds. It was normal,” he told Truthout.

Now, his home country is being torn apart by sectarian violence and foreign jihadists.

Syrians living in the Golan Heights hear battles between the forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups on a daily basis. Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra recently captured the Quneitra border crossing, the only entry point between Syria and Israel, after fierce clashes.

“The sound of daily bombing hurts me; I often feel vibrations from the explosions,” Khatar said, referring to the shelling heard in the distance nearly every minute.

Although Jabhat al-Nusra controls the crossing, the villages in the area are under the control of various rebel factions, and a village in the nearby mountains is used as an artillery base by Assad’s forces.

Salman Fakheraldeen, a researcher for the Golan-based Al-Marsad Human Rights Center, commented on the fighting during an interview with Truthout. “The fighting is nothing new; we have experienced it for the past three years,” he said, overlooking his homeland from the top of a hill that housed an Israeli military installation. “But in the past three weeks, it has been constant.”

Future Exports in Question

When Israel captured 70 percent of the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six Day War, there were approximately 130,000 Syrian residents. By the time Israel effectively annexed the region in 1981, almost all of them had been forcibly transferred out of the area. Today, there are approximately 21,000 Israeli settlers living there.

The roughly 20,000 Syrians who remain largely belong to the Druze religious minority, a branch of Shiite Islam with a large population in the northern Galilee region of present-day Israel. After the annexation of the Golan Heights, which is not recognized internationally, many Syrians chose not to accept Israeli citizenship, leaving them in a stateless limbo.

The majority of these people are farmers of various fruits, including apples, for which the Golan Heights are famous.

For years, the produce was sold only in Israel and the territories it occupies, including Gaza and the West Bank. This changed in 2004, when an agreement made between Jerusalem and Damascus allowed for exports to cross the Quneitra crossing into Syria.

“This made us very happy, to know that our people were tasting our apples,” Khatar said. Now that Quneitra is in the hands of an Islamist group, the future of these exports is unclear.

“Jabhat al-Nusra is fundamentally hostile to Israel,” said Bruce Maddy-Weitzman (1), a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Tel Aviv University. “Obviously, the preference is for other, non-radical Islamist groups among Assad’s opponents to have the upper hand, but this doesn’t seem likely at the moment.”

Muhammad al-Jolani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, takes his name from the Golan Heights, which is believed to be where he was born.

Joshua Landis, a scholar on Syria and professor at Oklahoma University, told Truthout that al-Jolani “has a personal interest in liberating the Golan and eventually taking the parts captured by Israel in 1967.”

“Al-Qaeda insists that setting up an Islamic state in Balad al-Sham [Arabic for “Greater Syria”] is a stepping stone to liberating Jerusalem,” he said.

Many rebel groups have mocked the Assad regime’s quiet relations with the Israelis, with some even saying that there was a secret alliance between the governments, according to Landis.

Under Syria’s previous president, Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar, Syria waged two wars against Israel – in 1967 and again in 1973.

“Since 1974, the Israeli-Syrian cease-fire line had been the quietest of all Israeli borders with its neighbors. The Assads . . . ensured that the Golan sector would be quiet, in accordance with international commitments and the UNDOF [United Nations Disengagement Observer Force] presence,” Maddy-Weitzman said.

After the kidnapping of Fijian and Filipino peacekeeping troops by Syrian rebels and other violence, the UN announced that it was evacuating the UNDOF to Israeli-controlled territory. This leaves the area open for rebel groups to solidify their hold.

On September 23, Israel’s US-made Patriot missile defense system downed a Syrian warplane it claimed crossed into Israeli airspace over the illegally annexed territory. The remains of the plane crashed on the portion of the Golan Heights that Syria still controls. This happened as a coalition comprised of the United States, European and Arab states began a campaign of airstrikes against al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) positions in northern Syria.

Given the personal and religious significance of the region for al-Jolani and Jabhat al-Nusra, it is likely that the Quneitra crossing will remain in their hands for some time.

Houses Divided

The Syrian civil war has another profound effect on the residents of the Golan. Many friends and family are divided between support for Assad or the rebels.

“A part of me wishes I could be there, to fight for my president and my country,” Khatar said, referring to Assad. “Islamic State terrorists are trying to destroy everything.”

Some who were undecided about the role of Assad or not vocal in their support view the situation in Syria as proof that the regime is the only force competent enough to stem the rise of sectarian violence and division.

Ahmad Khatar, Nazeem’s brother, supports the rebels. “The Assad regime has always been a great help to Israel,” he said, referring to the notion that the two governments collaborate. “What is happening in Syria today only benefits Western powers that wish to see the area divided.”

While walking through Majdal Shams, Fakheraldeen motioned to a married couple carrying groceries to their home. “He supports the regime; she supports the rebels,” he said.

Some have seen support of the Assad regime as a way of cleaning their slate. “There’s a part of the people here who are connected to the Israeli occupation, so now is a good time to change their stance to supporting Assad to erase their history,” Shehadeh Nasrallah, a 48-year-old agricultural engineer and activist, said in an interview.

Democracy has never appeared within the reach of the people of the Golan. Syria had long been host to a parade of authoritarian regimes, resulting in a 1963 coup d’état that paved the way for Hafez al-Assad to assume power.

Since Israel began its occupation four years after, there has been no opportunity for the people of the Golan to vote. Without Israeli citizenship, which they reject on the grounds that they are Syrians living in occupied Syria, they are not allowed to participate in elections. Even the mayor of Majdal Shams is appointed by Israeli authorities.

One thing that still unites the residents is worry for their families across the fence constructed by Israel that separates the Golan Heights from the rest of Syria.

“Every house here has family in Syria. I have two sisters in Damascus. I call them at least once a day, sometimes more if things seems particularly bad,” Nasrallah said, sipping a coffee.

Echoes of a Revolution

Nasrallah was an activist who would organize demonstrations in support of the nonviolent protests that started in Syria in early 2011. The activist said that by July, he knew the revolution was over.

“It was a very complicated situation, and the Assad regime made it worse,” he said, reflecting on the beginning of the revolution. “Once they took up arms, it ended. We had hope and we lost hope.” Now, Nasrallah says that terror dominates Syrian society due to the advances of IS. “Every section – Christian, Druze, Alawite [the religious minority to which the Assad family belongs] – they all fear IS. Everyone in Syria is afraid now.”

In a strange irony, the residents of the Golan are now somewhat appreciative of the Israeli occupation and the security against Islamists that it affords them. “Many might be afraid to say it,” Nasrallah began, somewhat reluctantly, “but I think we all feel lucky to be far from the fighting and danger.”

After admitting this, Nasrallah was quick to continue: “This doesn’t mean that we’re suddenly okay with a lack of freedom, a lack of democracy. We want the occupation to end; we want to see our families without having to cross a border from our country into our country, and we want to vote for our leaders. We want these freedoms, and we want to share them with all Syrians.”

1. The Maddy-Weitzman interview was attained as a result of other research.