45 minutes from Damascus
Supporters of Syria in the Golan Heights are hoping there will be a response to last week's air force raid. 'When I saw the celebratory toast by the general staff - I was offended,' says one. The view from Majdal Shams
Assad on the wall. Hafez Assad at the entrance to the living room. Bashar Assad on the basement wall. The family photo collection also includes one of the exiled brother, Madhat, shaking hands with the president - the Syrian president, that is. The picture is displayed proudly. Madhat al-Salah is the president's adviser on affairs concerning the occupied Golan Heights.
A Syrian flag flies opposite the balcony of the house in Majdal Shams, beyond the mined valley, atop the Syrian army post. Wahib al-Salah sees his brother from this balcony, shouting into a megaphone across the hill. Now there is telephone communication, too, for a price of NIS 1.80 a minute. A few days ago, Wahib called his brother on his cell phone and Madhat told him: I'm standing across from you. Another brother, Yasser, a doctor, is also in exile in Syria.
The Israeli occupation is a lot more pleasant here, but the familiar trademarks are still there: arrests, searches, settlers. Once there were checkpoints as well. Although they sell some of their apples, the flagship product, to Syria, since the Israeli market prefers Jewish apples, the economic situation appears to be all right. Freedom of movement, Israeli travel documents, ID cards and license plates, excellent Hebrew spoken by all. Still, only a very small minority - 677 out of about 20,000 to be exact - have chosen to take Israeli citizenship, only to be shunned as collaborators. In a state where so many have to fight so hard for citizenship, it's a peculiar thing.
Five Druze villages remain on the occupied and annexed Golan Heights, a tiny remnant of the 153 villages and farms that were here until 1967. They were destroyed in a war that saw the expulsion of over 100,000 residents, refugees whose fate no one ever mentions.
Why did they leave you?
They made a mistake," Faris al-Sha'ar says with a smile. The pro-Syrian activist has spent eight years in Israeli prisons.
They took the air force operation in Syria, as reported by foreign sources, almost personally: "I saw the celebratory toast by the General Staff," says al-Sha'ar. "As a Syrian, I felt offended. No occupation ever defeated Syria, not even the Crusaders, and for the Syrian people, honor is all." His friend, al-Salah, says: "I'm sure the Syrian army will respond to this blow. I say: It has to hit back. The Syrian people and administration have to find a way to strike back. I don't know how, but they have to strike back. I hope they do, for the sake of my people."
Considering themselves to be Syrians, they long to live under Syrian rule, and have only good things to say about the Syrian regime. "There, education is free, there's no race after money and so life is healthier and longer, too," al-Salah tells me as we stand on the "hill of shouts" across from the enemy outpost, which the people here refer to as "the Syrian IDF."
Look what a good life we once had here," said his friend al-Sha'ar, shortly before that, as we toured the ruins of the once-beautiful village of Za'ura, overlooking a magnificent Galilee view. This is what you see from there, a 45-minute drive from Damascus. On Rosh Hashanah, Israelis thronged a nearby village whose residents came from Majdal Shams. The vendor selling pita bread with labaneh at the stand across from the Peace Restaurant in Majdal Shams invited his Israeli visitors to come back for cherry-picking (six varieties!) next summer. War is not on his agenda.
My wife is commander of the sector," he said in his military Hebrew. If there's any resistance here, then it's hidden from sight. Two days later we returned to the tranquil Heights to meet its pro-Syrian activists (or Syrian activists, as they would call themselves).
Al-Salah doesn't remember the Six-Day War. He was a baby then, but he does remember the war that followed. He had just finished picking apples in the family orchard with his father when a squad of fighter planes flew over their heads. His father recognized the Syrian flags emblazoned on them. "Just talking about it now I feel the victory," he says. "When you see your planes, there's a feeling of revenge." His father ordered him to drop everything and run home. War. "Those are our planes," the father explained to his son.
It wasn't till I grew up that I started to understand what was '67 and '73, what annexation is and what Israel is. I understood that we were living here under the Israeli occupation, that this wasn't our country, that our country is Syria. We were kids and this entered our memory. We heard about prisoners in jail, about what they put them in for and about their honor, and we wanted to be like them. It gets into a kid's mind. You're in the culture of Syria here, not the culture of Israel. You grow up and you see Israel and automatically you're against the occupation."
Madhat, his brother, spent 12 years in Israeli prison for security offenses, and afterward, in 1997, sneaked through the fence and the mine fields into Syria. At first the family thought he had been killed by a mine, but a few days later they learned that he had managed to cross the difficult border. Another brother, Yasser, went to Damascus to study medicine and never returned. Three years ago, the whole family met in Jordan.
In 1982, their "big intifada" took place - a general strike and demonstrations against acceptance of Israeli citizenship. It brought on IDF raids and wide-scale arrests, but was forgotten six months later when the war in Lebanon broke out. The people here were made aware of their weakness. The world wasn't interested, not even the Arab countries.
The Israeli media barely reported on it, and since then they haven't put up any forceful protest. Yet their national consciousness remains strong: "The government of Syria leads us. We are residents of Syria, we support its government." How many residents of the Golan Heights feel the same way? It's hard to know.
In 1985, Al-Salah was arrested and sentenced to three and a half years for collaborating with the Syrian security services. Since then, he has been arrested on several other occasions and taken in for questioning. Once he was forbidden to leave his village for several months; not long ago his laissez-passer travel document (a substitute for a passport) was taken away for three months.
About 600 students departed the Golan Heights this week to attend university in Damascus. At the Quneitra crossing they bid their families farewell, knowing they would not see them again for the whole year. That's how it is when you want to study for free in Syria.
Next week, the crossing will be almost completely closed down again. The next struggle on the agenda in Majdal Shams is to get the crossing opened. Almost all the families here are divided, with some members living on the other side of the border. Israel only allows passage to students, at the beginning and end of the academic year, to pilgrims and occasionally to a bride and groom. Al-Salah: "There is patience, but it's going to wear off. When? I don't know. I want to see my brothers. My parents want to see their children."
Apples have been sent to Syria only in the past three years, primarily to protect the market for Israeli apples, and they, too, must follow a convoluted path: Sealed in plain white crates with no identifying marks, from the packing house to the Quneitra crossing, where the trucks from the Golan Heights are unloaded and the fruit transferred to Red Cross trucks, which transport the apples a distance of just a few dozen meters. Then, it is unloaded once again and reloaded onto Syrian trucks. The return comes in dollars and in suitcases. About a quarter of the crop travels to Syria this way, back to back, like in the good old days in Gaza.
Al-Sha'ar also crossed the border once through the mountains. A 36-year-old welder who is unmarried, with a neat beard and a muscular physique, he trains in the Korean martial art of Tai Kwon Do and is also a skier. He can even count to 10 in Korean - another possible Syrian-Korean connection.
There's no way around it. We're a society that belongs to a society on the other side. Naturally, we want to visit, to see something apart from the Israeli side, the side of the occupation. Most of my family is in Syria. There's an entire village, Busan, just an hour and a half from here, and the people there are from my family."
But the occupation isn't very oppressive for you.
It's deliberate behavior aimed at convincing more and more people to feel okay, to feel like they have a good living, that things will get even better for them, and also to tie us to the Druze in the Galilee. Ever since its founding, Israel has been saying that it has a Druze sector. But we're Arabs, you can't relate to us only as a religious community. They know that the Golan Heights belongs to Syria; in another year or two it will be returned - in peace or war. Assad said so. It's a message to Israel. We saw what happened in Lebanon and we're stronger than the Lebanese. If Israel understands this message, there will be peace and the United States won't be able to do what it has been doing in the Middle East. The other way is war, a big war."
Maybe your pro-Syrian positions derive from fear?
Our house and our orchards are still listed in the Syrian property registry. You can't separate us from that. We belong to a nation of 17 million Syrians. We're not like the Palestinians, it's different with us. We're not scattered and we have a country and an army. The Syrian people and administration are responsible for our liberation, for bringing us back home."
Afterward we talked about what was published abroad about the Israel Air Force operation. This is how Al-Sha'ar sees it: "In Israel there's disappointment from the army and it's looking for a way to drop a bomb on some country. Which country? Syria is next in line. What your planes did, so I read in Haaretz, is that you started to frame Syria. But the Syrian nation isn't like other nations. It has honor and it won't back down.
You violated the 1974 cease-fire agreement. That does it. That does it as far as Syria is concerned. It's Syria's right now to find a way to strike back over this. I'm sure it will. I hope that it does strike back, for the sake of my people. We're a people whose territory was conquered and now we're searching for ways in negotiations.
If it was an Arab plane that flew over Tel Aviv, what would have happened? A world war. You would have tossed an atom bomb. This isn't neighborliness or the way of negotiation, at a time when the world is looking for ways to bring about an end to the conflict."
Al-Salah: "America wants to get out of Iraq and it wants the Israeli army to do the work for it. I've never seen a country that you could get out of only by plane. There's no such country, only Israel. The Israeli people ought to think about this. Your neighbors are a lot closer than America."
Then we went to see the ruins of Za'ura. A pocked Syrian road leads to a group of lovely basalt houses, still partially standing amid the rubble and the abandoned fruit orchards. A gurgling spring flows at the entrance to the village. This is where the Syrian road builders once lived. "They were innocent people," say our hosts.
Sabra cactus, fig, palm, almond and pomegranate trees, and what remains of imposing balconies overlooking the stunning view - Tel Azazyat and Tel al-Faher on the slope, for anyone who remembers, and the Galilee spread out below. The IDF trained here for combat in a built-up area, and hardly anything is left intact. By the entrance to one of the large houses, there is still a frame for cleaning the mud from one's shoes. The ornate floor tiles look as if they were just laid the other day, lying there between the bombed-out walls. It would make an amazing location for a war movie.