In Golan, the hefty price of peace Debate over its future colors everyday life


KFAR HARUV, Israel -- Below the volcanic cliffs of this kibbutz in northern Israel lies the Sea of Galilee, a font of fresh water for an arid country. Three decades ago, the cliffs belonged to Syria.

From their stone perches, Syrian troops would fire on Israeli homes below. The gunfire ended after Israel's victory in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, and Israel extended its borders into these hills.

"You don't have to be a general in the army [to know that] anybody who sits up here controls everything you're looking at," says Joel Sheinfeld, as he stands atop an old Syrian bunker on the ridge at Kfar Haruv, his home for 23 years.

The issue of control is again relevant to his daily life.

Regaining the Golan Heights -- a range of mountains, rolling farmland and plateaus that runs from the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee to the snowy slopes of Mount Hermon -- is Syrian President Hafez el Assad's price for peace. For four years, Israel's peacemakers contemplated the offer amid protests from the Golan's Jewish residents. Now, Israel has a new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes trading territory for peace.

Netanyahu's attitude may secure the Golan for future generations of Israelis. But Sheinfeld and other residents recognize that Bibi Netanyahu is first a politician. And they have felt the political winds shift before.

"You know what is Russian roulette?" asks Itzik Tzuela, manager of the ski resort atop Mount Hermon with its sweeping view of Syria and Lebanon. "With [former Prime Minister Shimon] Peres, we play with four bullets. With Bibi, it's one. I can't say it's fine. But it is a lower risk."

The debate over the Golan Heights is unlike the controversy over land in the south where Jewish settlers stake a biblical claim to the West Bank and Gaza. In the Golan, the key issues are security and water. One of the principal sources of the Jordan River springs from the foot of Mount Hermon. The water feeds into the Sea of Galilee, which provides a third of Israel's water.

Netanyahu has made it clear that Israel's policy toward Syria has changed. He says he is willing to resume talks with Syria but first wants to see an end to Syrian support for Hezbollah, the Islamic guerrilla group operating in southern Lebanon. And this week, he accused Syria of waging "an indirect war against us" through Hezbollah.

'The zero point'

But a top Syrian army official, quoted in Syria's government newspaper, al-Baath, attacked Netanyahu's "security for peace" policy. Lt. Gen. Hikmat Shihabi said Netanyahu's demands "would undermine the peace process and return things to the zero point and to the cycle of wars, violence and tension in the region."

Syrian-Israeli peace talks have limped along since they opened in 1991. In December, negotiators for both sides met at the Wye Plantation on Maryland's Eastern Shore amid hopes for a more substantive dialogue. But the meetings were suspended after a series of terrorist bus bombings hit Israel in March.

Yoav Tsur, a Golan resident for 18 years, would like to see the dialogue reopen.

"You have to give it a chance. It will take a few generations for the Syrians to live with us and we to live with them," says Tsur, an engineer who runs a wind farm in the Golan. "As I believe, half of the people in the Golan believe."

But in this traditional Labor Party stronghold, the voters supported Netanyahu 54 percent to 46 percent. Before Netanyahu went to Washington last month, he met with Golan residents and pledged to support their communities.

"I do not see myself as an obstacle to peace," says Ron Horwitz, a Baltimore native and Golan resident. "I have lived in Kfar Haruv since 1974. I would like to continue living here. It's difficult to be objective when you're talking about your home."

Throughout the Golan, the words appear on stones and in ink, on banners and mountainsides: The Golan Is Us. The Golan -- This is My Home. We're Not Moving From the Golan.

The campaign began in earnest four years ago, at the start of Yitzhak Rabin's Labor-led government. The Jews of the Golan feared Israel's leaders would relinquish the land for an end to Syrian-sponsored terrorism in the region. They set out to persuade their countrymen that the Golan is as much a part of Israel as is Tel Aviv.

Drorah Shenk came to the Golan 25 years ago with other members of her army unit, veterans of the 1967 war. They settled a piney hilltop. They helped build the country. Today, Merom Golan is the largest kibbutz on the Golan Heights, some 40 miles from Damascus. Its 400 residents operate a motor factory, basalt quarry, apple orchard, dairy farm and guest house.

Shenk married and raised four children here. She lived through the days and nights of the 1973 war in a bomb shelter when Syrian tanks nearly reached the gates of Merom Golan.

"We felt if we could give something to our country and ourselves as Jews, we could be the insurance [policy] of the Golan," says Shenk. "Most of us are here because it's important for the security of Israel."

Two years ago, she joined 10 others in a 19-day hunger strike to protest plans to trade the Golan for peace and relocate its 15,000 Jewish residents.

To Shenk and others interviewed, the notion of a true and lasting peace with Syria is fiction. "Peace is a headline. The word itself has no meaning. If Assad wants real peace, he has to be a real partner. If the Syrians want peace, they have the power to make peace in Lebanon and they don't," she said, referring to Damascus' control of its neighbor.

"To make Jews refugees in their own homeland, I don't think anyone can imagine such a thing," says Shenk. "We have lived here 25 years, a whole lifetime."

Sameer Said Ahmad hadn't yet been born when Shenk arrived on the Golan Heights. Now 23, he is one of the 17,000 Druse who live in four villages in the Golan's north. Ahmad's grandparents live in Syria as do other family members. In his heart, he is Syrian.

'It's Syrian land'

When he speaks of the Golan Heights, he refers to "the occupation."

"It's Syrian land. It's been occupied since 1967," says Ahmad, who works in a photo shop. "Most people want it to return to Syria because it is our home."

Despite Assad's reputation as an autocrat and often ruthless ruler, Ahmad says the villagers of Majdal Sham believe that life in Syria differs from the West's depiction of it. Many students from the town attend the University of Damascus -- "they know the situation there," he says.

Indeed, one 21-year-old woman studying in Damascus smiles when asked about life there. "When we were children, my mother and father taught us to love Syria," she says. "And when I went there as a student, I found I loved the life there just as my parents had told me."

The Israelis want the Golan because "it is beautiful and Assad knows that," she says. "Israel won't leave it."

Ahmad feels confident that the Golan will be returned to Syria -- but not because of the peace process, he says.

"Every occupation has failed throughout the world," he says. "This one will fail."

Avi Zeira and other Golan residents are making plans to ensure an even greater Israeli presence on the Golan. Develop tourism. Boost economic development. Increase the Jewish population to 25,000.

"By developing the region, by building the settlements," says Zeira, an electrical engineer who sits on a Golan citizens committee, "we shall create something you cannot destroy."

Pub Date: 8/03/96

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