On Monday at 8 A.M., Syrian rebels toppled the giant flagpole in Quneitra’s main square that had flown the Syrian flag. It was another symbol of the changes taking place across Israel’s northern border.
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Five days after the Quneitra border crossing fell to rebel forces, both Jewish and Druze residents of the Golan Heights realize that a decades-long status quo is shifting before their eyes.
“The border crossing is a kind of doorway to Syria,” said Salim Mili of Majdal Shams, explaining the importance — which is primarily symbolic — of the territory that the Syrian regime had just lost to rebels. “That’s how we transported our apple harvest to the Syrian market, and where students crossed in order to attend college in Damascus.”
Nabi Aweidat, editor of the news portal Julani, said the rebels’ capture of the crossing will negatively affect Golan Druze because of its expected impact on apple exports to Syria. “This year, we presumably won’t be able to send apples to Syria via the crossing, and farmers are already energetically seeking other markets,” he said. “They’re even looking into the possibility of exporting apples to eastern Europe.”
Apple-growing is the main industry of Druze in the Golan Heights. In 2005, they began exporting much of the crop to Syria, a practice that largely ended in 2012 due to the Syrian civil war. Israel and Syria do not have diplomatic ties, but both sides approved these exports – Jerusalem, in order to help the Druze and other farmers by reducing the surplus on the market, and Damascus as a symbolic expression of the sovereignty it still claims over the Golan Heights and the 20,000 members of the Druze community who live there. The exports were coordinated by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Moreover, many Golan Druze study at Syrian universities. Aweidat said that just two weeks ago, 32 Druze students used the Quneitra crossing on their way to Damascus University, 144 kilometers away. Another 17 had been planning to leave for Damascus later this month, but with the rebels in control of the crossing this will no longer be possible.
Mili recalled that back in the 1980s, students from the Golan Heights would fly to Damascus, via Cyprus. But he said he doubted that practice would be revived.
In a statement, the ICRC said it was closely following developments at Quneitra, but it was too early to say how they would affect its work there. It also that while it serves as a neutral intermediary between Jerusalem and Damascus, it doesn’t exercise this function on a daily basis, but only when something specific needs to be arranged, such as a shipment of apples or the passage of a group of students.
Golan Druze who are loyal to the Syrian regime said the Quneitra crossing is not important strategically, since it is opened only a few times a year, generally only to serve the needs of the local Druze.
“This isn’t a logistic supply line or one for bringing in manpower,” explained one.
Moreover, he noted, most Druze students have already returned to Damascus, while the apple shipments start only around late January or February, “so there’s no immediate pressure from the regime’s standpoint, other than the symbolic issue that this is nevertheless a crossing of special importance to every Syrian citizen.”
Gabi Kuniel, director of agriculture at Kibbutz Merom on the Golan Heights, doesn’t make light of the symbolism. Even though Israel and Syria have been formally at war since Israel was established, the very fact that the crossing opened occasionally seemed to symbolize a kind of coexistence, he said.
“We’re watching the fierce battles on the other side of the border and don’t know what will be,” he said. “A sovereign Syrian government, for better or for worse, is a government you can talk to. When countless factions and various parties are sitting on the other side of the border, it’s liable to create a complicated reality. For all the drawbacks, there was a quiet border here for 40 years.”
Moreover, Kuniel complained, the heavy smoke from fires ignited by the battles is damaging his apple orchards.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I hope [Syrian President Bashar] Assad resumes being the sovereign on the other side of the border.”