The first thing that strikes visitors to the Golan is its natural beauty. The second is how empty it is. From different vantage points on the Heights you can see the densely packed villages of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel. But the fertile Golan – an area the size of Berkshire – has barely 40,000 residents.
Until the 1967 Six-Day War, the Golan was home to 145,000 Syrians. It took Israel barely 30 hours of fighting to push the Syrian military out, swiftly punishing the Ba’ath regime for their shelling of Israeli villages from the plateau. The official Israeli line is that the all the Syrian civilians fled with their army.
Fawzi, a Golan resident who was 13 when Syria lost the territory, scoffs. ‘How could 145,000 people flee in 30 hours?’
Recent research by Shay Fogelman, a Haaretz journalist, supports his scepticism. Through declassified documents and witness accounts, Fogelman suggests that while many did flee, more than half remained only to be systematically driven off by the Israeli military. Three months later, most of the Golan’s villages had been bulldozed, and only 6,011 Syrians remained.
Today, Israel’s Tourism Ministry advertises the region as ‘one of the most beautiful and most visited parts of the country’. Israeli tourists enjoying the empty landscape contrast sharply with the 400,000 descendents of the Golan refugees living in cramped Damascene appartments. Many are now ‘twice refugees’ living in Jordanian camps after fleeing the Syrian civil war.
While Damascus used Israel’s occupation of the Golan as justification for decades of oppression at home, little was done to reclaim it, with the Syrian front being Israel’s quietest border. Israel has in the past considered returning the territory in exchange for peace with Syria, but the negotiations in 1999-2000 and 2007-8 broke down in recrimination. The eruption of civil war in Syria in 2011 by rebels challenging the 40-year-old Assad dictatorship has all but ended any prospect of diplomacy.
The Syrians who remained in 1967 and their descendents now number 20,000, living in five villages in the far north of the Golan. Almost all are Druze, a schismatic sect of Shia Islam based mostly in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, whose multicoloured flag is seen affixed to many Golan homes. Their religion partly explains their survival on their land in 1967. Some residents suggests that the Druze’s bitter history of leading a revolt against French rule in Syria in 1925 made them more aware than other Golan residents of the perils of flight, and hence community leaders in 1967 ordered villagers to stay put. But others suggest a more cynical explanation which is supported by Fogelman’s research.
According to Fogelman, the Israeli army – knowing that the Druze in Mandate Palestine had proved willing to accept Jewish rule after the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 – left the Syrian Druze in place in 1967, hoping that they would do the same. This proved a miscalculation.
In 1981 Israeli law was formally extended over the Heights, an illegal annexation in all but name that has never been internationally recognized, and the Golan Druze were invited to take citizenship. Less than 10 per cent accepted the offer, and they were ostracized as the region erupted in a two-year campaign of strikes and protests. Many, Fawzi included, spent time in Israeli prisons, ‘for being nationalists’.
In Majdal Shams, the largest of the villages, the anniversary of the 1981 annexation is commemorated annually by thousands of marchers waving the flags of Syria’s Ba’athist government.
‘We know that we are a de facto part of Israel, and that we won’t go back to Syria any time soon,’ says Dr Taisseer Maray, director of the Golan for Development centre which provides health, education and agricultural support. ‘But we have to defend our culture which Israel is attacking. They want to make us “Druze Israelis”, but we’re not. We’re Syrian.’
According to its director, the centre provides a ‘parallel structure’ to enable Syrians to cope with ‘long-term occupation’ so that they don’t depend on Israeli services.
Outside the centre, views are not so black and white. Nearly 50 years of occupation has brought a degree of pragmatic co-existence between Syrian and Israeli. Residents of the Golan enjoy full citizenship rights, though their nationality is officially ‘undefined’, and many work and study ‘down there’, as the locals call it.
Wael, a 30-year-old postgraduate, lived in Haifa for ten years. ‘I have many Israeli friends,’ he says, ‘but, of course, we don’t talk politics.’ For some younger villagers like Wael and the many others smoking shisha and drinking in Majdal Shams’s many cafes, the rhetoric of Syrian nationalism is a bit stale.
‘I don’t even know what Syria is,’ says Wael, ‘The occupation began long before I was born.’ For Najat, manager of the village’s largest hotel that caters for Israeli skiers, ‘Our primary worry is not politics, it’s that there was no snow this year.’
Yet even among the village’s pragmatists, variations of Arab, Syrian and Druze identities run strong. There is strong solidarity with the Palestinians and condemnation of Israel’s policies in the West Bank. Similarly, both Najat and Wael complain of ‘anti-Arab racism’ in Israel. Moreover, there are now 20,000 Jewish settlers on the Golan. While the settler movement here is far smaller than their more ardent West Bank equivalent, the new arrivals, proudly living under the blue Star of David flag, now represent half of the Golan’s population. ‘They’re trying to box us in,’ remarks Fawzi, complaining that the tiny Jewish settlement of Nimrod was placed amid Druze villages to prevent the latter’s expansion.
It is the situation in Syria, not Israel, which attracts most concern. Machinegun fire and shelling from the civil war can be heard daily in Majdal Shams. While in Syria itself most Druze have sided with Assad, fearful of the sectarianism espoused by Sunni radicals among the rebels, in the Golan opinions seem evenly split.
During the civil war’s early years, there were fights between supporters of President Bashar Al-Assad and the opposition in the village’s main square. As throughout Syria, families and communities are torn by competing loyalties. ‘I like Bashar,’ smiles Najat, ‘but my husband’s with the opposition. So we try not to talk about it.’
Some insist that informants for Assad operate within the village, prompting displays of loyalty out of fear of what might happen to their families in Syria. Others are genuinely supportive of Assad, believing the alternative would mean sectarian fanaticism in Damascus. ‘I worry what would happen to us if Bashar fell and then the Golan returned to Syria,’ ponders Wael, ‘Sunni radicals don’t like the Druze. That said, Bashar is trying to be a king in a republic, and that’s just wrong.’
Fawzi, Dr Maray and those working at the centre tend to support the opposition. ‘The Assad regime is the worst in history,’ declares Fawzi, who displays the threestarred flag of the Syrian opposition on his desk. ‘Sadly, the majority in Majdal Shams supports Bashar. They are scared of anti- Druze fanatics.’
The war is getting closer, with Israel reporting that both the rebels and Assad’s Lebanese allies Hezbollah have crossed into the Golan during 2014. In March, three Israeli soldiers were injured in a blast, prompting a retaliatory air strike.
Yet, as ever, the last Syrians on the Golan have no choice but to wait and see what fate the powers around them will deliver. That said, after 50 years there remains a determination to keep their culture, independence and spirit alive – whichever flag they live under.
The Golan Heights: ripples of civil war in Israel's little piece of Syria
The Golan Heights is home to thousands of Druze who cling on tenaciously while looking over their shoulder at the chaos in their homeland