Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 June 2008
Issue No. 901
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Shouting in the hills

When Israel annexed the Golan, it claimed to be doing so for historical reasons. But its real motives had more to do with water resources, agricultural potential and tourist attraction, Basel Oudat writes from Damascus

Two scenes are hard to forget for most Syrians. One is the scene of relatives having to communicate through loudspeakers across the no- man land in Ain Al-Tina, where 400 metres of barbed wired and landmines have left many families divided in the Golan. International troops and Israeli soldiers watch as parents, mothers, and grandchildren shout family news from hilltops. Some of those doing the shouting haven't met in decades, others never.

Another scene is that of a bride in flowing wedding gown, surrounded with family members on the Syrian side, waiting to make the crossing. On the other side is her bridegroom, watching and waiting. The bride is escorted by Red Cross officials, flanked by international troops. The family waves to the departing daughter, leaving for a land no longer accessible. The two newly-wedded may not have met before, their marriage having being arranged by mail or other means. Or maybe they had a brief encounter during a family reunion in Jordan, a land both sides of the family are allowed to visit.

Syrian media expert Hamzah Munzir, who was born in the Golan, says that "for all the pain and the suffering, people haven't given up the habit of communicating by loudspeakers after over 40 years of occupation. They go to what they call the Shouting Hill. You'd see them there, two groups of people on two opposite hilltops, a valley in between."

Just under 20,000 Syrians live under occupation in the Golan. Most inhabit four villages in the foothills of Mount Hermon: Majdal Shams, Mesaedah, Beqaata and Eyn Qinya. They are all Druze peasants who have to endure the occupation and the harsh living conditions. The arable land in the mountain is limited, and due to Israeli harassment, many inhabitants are having trouble making ends meet."

Throughout history, the Golan was crisscrossed by rival armies; Egyptian, Persian, Assyrian and Macedonian. The Golan Heights were named after an ancient Babylonian town that used to be there. Since antiquity, its inhabitants have made their living selling timber, grain, cattle and building materials.

The Tel Al-Amarna tablets portray a long conflict between the Egyptians and the Hittites which left Egypt in control of southern Syria in the ninth century BC, using it as a buffer zone to protect its northern borders. The Golan was successively occupied by the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Byzantines and the Ghassanids. The latter were driven away by victorious Arab Muslim armies, following a battle that took place south of the Golan, in the valley of Yarmuk in 636 AD.

Radwan Ziyada, director of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Study, says that Israel expelled 130,000 Golan inhabitants immediately after it occupied the area in 1967. "Some 41 years later, the number of the refugees from the Golan has reached nearly a half million, who live mostly in Syria's southern governorates and dream of returning to their villages." But the villages are not the same. "Israel has destroyed most of their villages and cities completely. The Israelis destroyed 130 villages, 112 farms, and two cities: Quneitra and Fayq. Then Israel brought in nearly 20,000 Israeli settlers, now living in 32 locations and receiving government funding, special loans, and other perks," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

According to Israeli figures, the Golan now produces 20 per cent of Israel's wine, 20 per cent of its wheat, 25 per cent of its cattle, 6 per cent of its dairy products, 30 per cent of its apples, 40 per cent of its pears, 50 per cent of its cherries and 50 per cent of its bottled water. Three million tourists come to the Golan every year, along with the settlers, they consume up to 76 million cubic metres of water annually. Israel is manning 600 military posts in the area.

Ahmed Al-Abdu, former director of the Arab League's Arab Centre for Water Studies, says that the Golan "stores 1.2 billion cubic metres of water. The Golan Heights and Mount Hermon supply Israel with one-third of its water. The most important springs in the Golan are Beit Jin, Al-Wazzani, Al-Ghur, Al-Burjiyat, but there are dozens more. Several rivers originate there, including Al-Yarmuk, Banias, and Raqqad. These rivers end up running into Lake Tiberias or the River Jordan, supplying them with 700 million cubic metres of water," he told the Weekly.

In December 1981, the Israeli Knesset made a decision to annex the Golan to Israel, thus replacing occupation regulations with Israeli laws. The Knesset offered the Golan inhabitants Israeli nationality and identity cards. When Menachem Begin presented the motion to the Knesset, he said, "there is no man, in our country or outside it, with knowledge of the history of the land of Israel, who would deny that the Golan was for many generations an integral part of the land of Israel."

Israel's bid for the Golan didn't start with the Begin government. In 1920, Chaim Weizmann wrote a memorandum to the British prime minister asking for the Golan to be annexed to Israel. The Zionist movement didn't spare any effort to achieve this goal since.

The Syrians remaining in the Golan rejected the annexation, refusing to give up their Syrian nationality or obtain Israeli identity cards. Instead, they held demonstrations and staged sit-ins, and the Israelis retaliated with repression, violence and arrests. Since the occupation started, more than 700 Golan inhabitants were arrested, and some of them still languish in Israeli prisons. Israel has treated the Golan inhabitants harshly, imposing unfair duties and taxes on their products to impoverish them.

Under an agreement supervised by the Red Cross, Syria has been importing for several years 10,000 tonnes of Golan apples annually, and at favourable prices. For the past 30 years, Syria has also allowed Golan students to attend Syrian universities, giving them favourable terms and other forms of assistance.

Israeli officials make no secret of their intentions regarding the Golan. Yitzhaq Rabin said that keeping the Golan was vital for Israel's security. Shimon Peres noted that the Golan was economically valuable because of its water and plentiful arable land. Moshe Dayan admitted that, "we wanted to occupy the Golan for economic reasons." Ehud Barak said that the Golan waters were "utterly crucial for Israel". Netanyahu claimed that the Golan was "an integral part of Israel's security map and essential to its defence". Ariel Sharon called it "part of the biblical land of Israel".

Before the indirect Syrian-Israeli talks were made pubic, Ehud Olmert said that, "so long as I am in office, the Golan will remain in our hands, for it is an integral part of the state of Israel." But Olmert reversed his position in May, as Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem noted recently. Syria, for its part, says that it was willing to start talks once Israel agrees in principle to withdraw from the occupied territories.

The Syrians, both government and people, agree that no deal is possible without the return of all occupied territories. Marwan Habash, member of the national leadership and former minister of frontline villages in Syria, told the Weekly that, "for Syria to restore the Golan, it has to be strong on all fronts -- politically, militarily, and economically -- and must decide on a future strategy for its external alliances that would lead to that end."

In 1974, when Munira Abu Saled, 58, heard the voice of her son Suleiman on the other side of the Shouting Valley, she was so overwhelmed, she had a heart attack. Similar incidents have happened since, and may well happen in the future.

When Israel annexed the Golan, it claimed to be doing so for historical reasons. But its real motives had more to

do with water resources, agricultural potential and tourist attraction, Basel Oudat writes from Damascus


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