Water, security keys to impasse over Golan Heights


Because of an editing error, an article and accompanying photograph about the Golan Heights in The Sun yesterday indicated incorrectly that the Golan village of Majdal Shams overlooks the Israeli kibbutz of Ein Gev on the Sea of Galilee.

The Sun regrets the errors.

MAJDAL SHAMS, Israeli-occupied Golan Heights -- The debate about whether Israel ought to give up captured territory for peace inevitably conjures up the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

But the Golan Heights, which overlooks Israel, is the disputed territory that comes up in any discussion about the likelihood of peace between Israel and its chief enemy, Syria.

It is bound to arise again as an issue as the United States tries to attract the Syrians to the negotiating table with Israel.

Whatever reasons Israel advances for keeping the Golan tend to be the same reasons Syria wants them back. And they are strong reasons: security, water and a disgruntled population.

The view from the clifftop bunkers once manned by Syrian soldiers here is startlingly clear.

Far below are the low-slung buildings of Kibbutz Ein Gev on the TTC banks of the Sea of Galilee. But not that far. The stone bunkers once peered menacingly at Israel, offering Syria a close look at the kibbutz -- so close that Ein Gev and its population of about 600 became easy targets for Syrian shelling before Israel captured the heights during the 1967 war.

"It's hard to describe how people in Ein Gev rejoiced when the Golan was occupied by the Israeli army," said Yossi Vogel, 70, who has been at Ein Gev since 1939. "The tension along the border, especially in the kibbutzim, where we had to cultivate the land, was quite strong."

But there is more to the significance of the Golan Heights than what the Syrians used to do from their bunkers. The heights include the Banyas spring -- a source of the Jordan River and one of Israel's main sources of water, the most precious commodity in the region.

Intelligence reports that Syria was planning to divert the spring's waters from Israel were among the key reasons for Israel's

assault on the Golan Heights during the fifth day of the 1967 war.

Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, provoking the wrath of Syria, along with that of the United States and several of its other supporters, and stirring up protests among the 15,000 Druse inhabitants of the area who resisted the plan to give them Israeli identity cards.

Israeli officials don't come to see the Druse very often. When Labor Party leader Shimon Peres visited Majdal Shams two years ago, the local Druse waved Syrian flags, chanted pro-Syrian slogans and hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at his car.

"It's a matter of belonging rather than a matter of luxury or an easy life," said Bassil Abu Saleh, who owns a cosmetics store in Majdal Shams.

"Many people say to us, 'Don't you realize in Israel there's a democracy. You can say what you like,' " he said. "But that is not the issue. We just don't belong."

Another Druse man, a civil servant, said he felt his professional opportunities were limited in Israel.

"You don't feel you are treated as other Israelis, because you are not native Israeli. You don't speak the language; you're not Jewish," said the civil servant, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Most families here have relatives in Syria whom they need permission to visit. Every 15 days, 30 people are allowed to cross over into Syria, but males between the ages of 10 and 40 are not permitted to cross.

The Israeli occupation here is less troubled than the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Aside from the occasional outburst over something like the visit of a prominent Israeli, there is nothing like the continuing violent resistance of the Palestinians against Israel.

Because of the annexation, Israel maintains that the Golan Heights is not under military occupation at all. Israeli soldiers here keep a low profile, and Druse agricultural businesses appear to thrive on the Israeli market.

The Druse are permitted to cross the border with up to $2,000 in cash and whatever else they want. Mostly, they take sugar and rice for their poorer cousins in Syria, said Sheik Ibrahim et-Taher, who calls himself "the peasant sheik."

Sitting under a cherry tree as workers dropped the fruit into plastic buckets, Sheik et-Taher said it was the "national duty" of the Druse to live under the Syrian government.

"We are willing to give up everything, the agriculture and everything. We will not forget our national duty," he said.

"The difference between here and the West Bank and Gaza Strip is they demand an independent Palestinian state," he said. "We want to be under the authority of the Syrian government. The Syrian army has the authority to liberate this place and should do it.

"If we tried to fight them [the Israelis], we'd lose our freedom. We'd lose our businesses. We'd be crushed."

Though Israel is formally still at war with Syria, its border with Syria has been quieter since 1967 than it was before the Six-Day War -- with the exception of 1973, when the Syrians briefly retook the heights before being pushed by Israel.

"This is the safest place in Israel," said Ella Shtibel, an Israeli hostess at the modern Golan Heights Winery in Katzrin. "The Syrians don't bother us. To travel in Egypt or in Jerusalem is much more dangerous than here."

People here fear that, paradoxically, any peace agreement with Syria that would give back the Golan Heights probably would lead to a new cycle of cross-border attacks.

As in the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli settlers are trying to establish their presence without a peace agreement, posing the same potential obstacles to peace that the United States points to in the other occupied territories.

Mr. Vogel of Ein Gev said he did not think the territory had to become part of Israel indefinitely to assure security.

"For me, it's a problem of the nature of the neighbor," the kibbutz member said. "The Syrians have killed tens of thousands of their own people in the last few years, and they treat their own Jews horribly, so we cannot expect better from them when it comes to us."

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