2007 marks the 40th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights. Andrew Tabler reports on the options Syria is considering to get it back.
Medhat Saleh believes in taking matters into his own hands. Born in the Golan village of Majdal Shams three months before Israel captured the strategic plateau in June 1967, Saleh decided Israel’s annexation of his homeland 14 years later would not go unchallenged. After repeated general strikes by the Golan’s 22,000 residents led to nothing, he formed a secret organisation with some friends in 1984. “We dug up Israeli anti-personnel mines and planted them around the Israeli bases,” says Saleh, 41, a burly man with dark hair and eyes and distinct white skin – a hallmark of many in his Druze community. “We hid them under our belts as we walked. We wanted to be martyrs.”
Before Saleh could achieve self-immolation, he was arrested. Reflecting on his 12-year sojourn in various Israeli prisons, he explains how up to 30 inmates were kept in a single 16 metre-square cell. “Conditions were bad,” says Saleh. “They used tear gas on us five or six times, and health care was really poor.”
Saleh’s travails did not end when he was released in 1997. As he headed to Damascus he had to dodge minefields and scale electric fences with wooden ladders. Eventually he crossed the demilitarised zone in April 1998, where the Syrian government hailed him a champion of the local resistance against Israeli occupation – an accolade that helped propel him to parliament later that same year. But at the same time the regime continued to reiterate that peace was a “strategic choice” and the frontier remained silent.
Following last summer’s war in Lebanon, where Hezbollah paramilitary operations fended off a 33-day bombardment by Israeli forces, many Syrians saw “resistance” as the best way to pressure Israel into returning the occupied plateau. A stream of stories appeared in the international press speculating that the Golan could once again be a frontline issue in a war between two old foes.
Six months later, the picture is confused. In January the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported how a number of prominent private Israelis and Syrian had been drafting a secret document to pave the way for the Golan Heights to be returned to Syria. Both the Israeli and Syrian governments dismissed the document, denying any involvement in the talks, which supposedly took place between September 2004 and July 2006 in Europe.
And as Israel continues to refuse to engage in peace talks, Syrians are organising popular resistance committees and preparing for a new kind of fight. While many signs peddle the war option, a closer look at these local group’s agendas, as well as Syria’s overall strategic concerns, shows that the Hezbollah-model remains on the back burner – at least for now.
Why resistance, why now?
For many Syrians, resistance is an accepted part of the negotiations with Israel. “Unfortunately with the Israelis, if you fight them they call you terrorists. And if you don’t fight them, they say ‘why should we negotiate with you?’” says Samir al-Taqi, director of the Orient Centre for Studies in Damascus.
The political stakes are as high as the plateau’s snow-capped mountains. The Golan is the Levant’s tactical pivot, the high ground from which a country’s domination over the region can be seen and heard. When Israel captured the Golan it erected communication towers and listening posts pointing in all directions. Syria then reclaimed about a third of the territory lost in 1967 in the subsequent 1973 War, including the capital Quneitra. But almost all of the strategic high ground remains in Israeli hands. In a manoeuvre that added further insult to injury, in December 1981 the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) voted to annex the Golan – a decision that was declared “null and void” by UN Security Council Resolution 497.
Israel and Syria last held formal peace talks in 2000. But just as they appeared close to a deal to return most or all of the Golan Heights to Syria the negotiations broke down. Many Golanese see resistance as a natural outcome of their forty years of displacement. “Syria tried the peace process and got nowhere,” says Majid Abo Saleh, a spokesman for the Popular Commission for the Liberation of the Golan. “Israel destroyed over 1,165 of our villages to ensure our people would not go back. What do they expect?”
Israel’s “scorched earth” withdrawal from Quneitra following the Disengagement Agreement of 1974 has left a permanent scar on the remaining Syrians living in the Golan. They are reticent about what any future negotiations with Israel will bring. With dynamite and bulldozers, the Israeli army flattened the city from its final command posts. Minarets were blown apart and churches burned, leaving empty sanctuaries of broken tile and stone. The army even used the city’s 400-bed hospital for combat training and target practice.
The estimated 500,000 Golanese who remain displaced (the Naziheen in Arabic) eke out meagre lives in resettlement communities around Damascus and the southern Syrian city of Daraa. Some 22,000 Golanese in five villages remain under Israeli occupation, cut off from their friends and loved ones. Contact is only possible via special crossings organised by the Red Cross/Red Crescent a few times a year. The rest of the time, communication is limited to conversations over the demilitarised zone using bullhorns. As the 40th anniversary of the Golan’s capture by Israeli forces approaches, patience among the Golanese is understandably wearing thin.
“We just want permission from the government to go to the front, buy guns, and liberate our land,” says Nidal, a 33-year-old displaced Golan resident. “Look to Hezbollah: just a few hundred people destroyed tanks and helicopters. Why can’t we do it like them?”
Forms of Resistance
Last June, a mere two weeks before the outbreak of war in Lebanon, Abo Saleh’s Popular Commission for Resistance issued its first communiqué, explaining that “the enemy only understands the language of resistance.” A general conference was held the next month, followed by the selection of a politburo as hostilities in Lebanon drew to a close. While the timing of the commission’s formation raised eyebrows, Abo Saleh says his organisation’s “resistance” will take on more peaceful forms. “We don’t have any weapons,” he explains. “We want to raise awareness of the plight of the displaced. So we are going to launch a media campaign in Arabic and English and see how it goes.”
In the Israeli-controlled area of the Golan, more aggressive forms of resistance seem to have been quietly underway for years. On February 14 – on the 25th anniversary of massive general strikes against Israeli identification cards – the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot published a statement from a previously unknown Syrian group operating within the Golan who claimed to have held an Israeli soldier prisoner since 1997.
The group, called the Resistance Committees for the Liberation of the Golan Heights, issued a defiant message: “Zionists, do not think your millions of dollars will bring you back the soldier missing in the Golan. You know very well how he will return. We place all responsibility for the lives of our prisoners on the occupation, and ask all the international and humanitarian bodies to intervene and bring their release from the prison camps of oppression.”
Similarly, two days after war broke out in Lebanon last July, another previously unknown organisation called the Syrian National Resistance in the Occupied Golan claimed responsibility for the burning of an Israeli camp in Majdal Shams. Later that month, the same group reportedly attacked an Israeli patrol with a roadside bomb near Quneitra. The group also threatened to kidnap Israeli soldiers to swap with Syrian prisoners of war in Israeli jails. The incidents, as well as the soldier’s capture, remain unconfirmed.
“From the first day of the occupation, there was resistance,” says Nawaf Sheikh Faris, Governor of Quneitra Province - the Golan’s administrative district. “It took on many forms: cultural, media, as well as military resistance.”
With a tough and calm manner, Faris seems the very personification of the Syrian position. “Syria’s strategic choice remains peace,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean we will sit and do nothing.”
The history of the Golan occupation is detailed along the walls leading up to the lone checkpoint, which links the Israeli and Syrian controlled areas of the plateau. Old slogans by the late President Hafez al-Assad pledging peace are now flanked by other mottos. The most prominent is President Bashar’s call that “God Protects Syria” – a reference that seems to follow Hezbollah’s Islamic resistance model. The fact that it fills the white band in the Syrian flag, alongside the two stars representing the onetime union between Syria and Egypt, makes the message even more powerful.
“Hezbollah showed that it is now possible to inflict damage on a regular army using three things: a RPG-29 Russian handheld anti-tank grenade launcher; an anti-aircraft missile; and a heavy machine gun,” says Al-Taqi. “Human resources replace high-tech weapons. Now it will depend on who is able to introduce new tools with the help of the Russians and Iranians.”
With one of the highest birth rates outside of the Palestinian Territories, Syria has plenty of recruits. “We have thousands of people who are ready to be Fedayeen (fighters),” says Saleh, who is in regular contact with communities in the occupied Golan. “We are switching to more sophisticated means.” While a guerrilla-style Hezbollah war in the Golan Heights seems more plausible for many Syrians, Al-Taqi is quick to point out that the geography of the area makes this option a risky move for Syria. “We can hurt them…but a war of attrition is difficult. After all, Damascus is within range of the Israeli army’s field guns,” he says.
Reporting by Obaida Hamad. (From Syria Today Magazine www.syria-today.com)