Monday, March 12, 2007

Keeping Options Open - Far Too Long

Syria Today Magazine

The waiting game in the Golan may be over.

June marks the 40th anniversary of Israel’s seizure of the Golan Heights. In a show of further opposition to Israel, Syria marked the occasion on February 14. Was this a publicity stunt by Damascus to deflect attention from the second anniversary of the assassination of the former Lebanese PM Rafik al-Hariri for which Syria stands accused? Not quite. On that day in 1982, around 20,000 Syrians living under occupation in the Golan demonstrated against Israel’s annexation of the plateau the previous December. In particular, the Golanese refused to accept Israeli plans for identification cards.

After the last Syria-Israel negotiation on the Golan Heights ended in 2000, life has been relatively calm on the streets, with the odd report filtering through to the international media on the annual shipments of apples from Syrian farmers living under Israeli occupation to Syria and the bi-annual crossings by Golanese students to University in their home country. Old times might be right around the corner, however. Reports continue to appear in the Syrian and regional press of various organisations preparing for “resistance” activities in the Golan. One such group even claimed that it captured an Israeli soldier in 1997.

In the visitor center of the “Liberated Quneitra Museum” – which consists simply of the buildings destroyed by Israel when it was forced out of the city following the 1973 War – a careful look at a scaled model of the Golan gives you a sense of how Golanese resistance may differ from that in south Lebanon last summer.

Despite retrieving in 1973 almost a third of the territory Israel took in 1967, Syrian forces remain on the strategic low-ground and under the watchful eye of listening towers and other high-tech instruments on the occupied summit. Inside occupied territory, only five mainly-Druze villages remain in tact on some of the Golan’s highest ground following Israel’s scorched earth policy in the Golan. The other 1,165 villages that Syria claims Israel destroyed on the slopes facing Lake Tiberius (Sea of Galilee in English) were replaced with modern Israeli settlements, horse ranches, wineries and ski resorts.

The contrasts with south Lebanon are striking. Almost 1.5 million Lebanese inhabit the areas adjacent to the border between Lebanon and former Palestine - known as the blue line - which until international forces showed up last summer was under the control of the Shiite resistance group Hezbollah. Arms shipments could arrive easily and paramilitary operations were conducted with such stealth that Israeli intelligence had no idea about the massive bunkers in the area. South Lebanon is also full of rolling, rocky hills about the same elevation as those immediately south of the blue line. The area’s residents also had a lot of practice resisting occupation as well, most notably during the days of Israel’s “security zone” in south Lebanon from 1978 to 2000.

The sectarian divide in south Lebanon, which is primarily Shiite Muslim with pockets of Maronite Christians, also meant that Iranian support for Hezbollah activities were easy to manage.

How will Syria catch up on the resistance option? Those organising popular resistance committees say that they are focusing on raising awareness of the plight of the Golanese. After the February 14 celebrations, resistance organisers plan to publish materials on the plateau and its people and how 40 years of no peace, no war has affected their daily lives. They say they don’t have any weapons – at least yet.

The Golan has been the quietest of Israel’s battlefronts since the Disengagement Agreement of 1974. Israel feels so comfortable with the situation that they have established farm settlements adjacent the barb wired border with Syrian forces in the demilitarised zone. But in an age of extremes, where leaders from the far corners of the world hurl ideological insults at each other instead of talking, all it takes is one incident to change the political playing field. The last two major military confrontations between Israeli and paramilitary forces in Gaza and south Lebanon started with the capture of Israeli soldiers. Israel has been unable to get these soldiers back, as the effectiveness of its armed forces has declined thanks to its foes getting their hands on Israel’s rocket equipment.

How’s this all going to end? It’s anyone’s guess. Non-state actors eager to get into a fight are multiplying almost as fast as new blogs on the Internet. Containing such groups will take an international police effort, but it will also involve solving the problems of the growing numbers of displaced people in a region already beset with poverty, ignorance, and religious extremism.

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