The Golan Heights: The Status Quo is Good for Everybody (or Almost)

Photo credit: Aamer Ibraheem

Syria and Israel clash over the region but the status quo seems to work for both. Meanwhile, a new generation of activists are struggling to reaffirm their rights.

By Elena Roda

Qunaytra checkpoint. About 500 meters divide Israel and Syria. Or better, about 500 meters divide Golan Heights, a Syrian territory occupied by Israel in 1967, and Syria. A narrow demilitarized strip crossed by trucks carries apples. Apples that grow in Golan Heights and that are sold in Syria. In 2011, 12.000 metric tons of apples reached Syria from the Golan. Unlike Syrian and Israeli citizens, apples are allowed to cross this border, under the control of the International Red Cross.

Aamer is a young man who has worked on picking apples to sell to Syria. He is from Golan Heights but he is studying in Haifa, Israel. “I moved to Israel only because I wanted to study law. We live under the Israeli law and we cannot go to work in Syria, I did not have other possibilities rather than studying in Israel. But, if I had studied medicine or something else, I would surely have chosen to move to Damascus, because I belong to Syria, I am Syrian”.

When Aamer talks about the Golan, his voice changes its tone. He talks feelingly, proving his involvement in the Golan situation. Aamer is an activist for Golan Heights and he keeps saying that he wants to reach as many people as possible talking about the Golan issue. “It is important to spread the word, to let people all over the world be aware of our condition, as occupied territory”.

Arab people from the Golan are allowed to cross the border and go to Syria only for studies, religious pilgrimages, marriages, and health issues. On the contrary apples are carried across the border several times between February and May, every year, since 2005. “For Syrian authorities the apple operation is more than just an ordinary marketing intervention. Syria supports farmers in the occupied part of the Golan Heights as a patriotic and humanitarian duty, without thinking at all about profit or commercial gains”, claims Saleh Dabbakeh, the communication delegate of the International Red Cross in Damascus, the only organization in charge of apple trade and mediation between Israel and Syria concerning apples border crossing.

 Negotiations are not working

Syria is buying the Golan’s apples to sustain Arab settlers in the region as Israel is supporting Israeli settlers living in the Golan, buying their products. The issue is small in comparison to the larger unresolved problems between Israel and Syria. Israel is taking care of its settlers (Israeli people are little under 50% of the population in the Golan Heights), while Syria is mindful about its Arab people living there (the other half of the population).

The two countries, Syria and Israel, have different cultures, origins, and traditions. And the Golan (with a population estimated around 40.000) is located in between, influenced by both. Arab people in the Golan Heights feel they belong to Syria but they live in an Israeli territory, under Israeli law, and they cannot travel to Syria except on a rare occasion.

Aamer lives his life sharing feelings of these three different populations. He is the living proof of the messy situation among Israel, the Golan, and Syria. He lives and studies in Israel, his parents live in Golan Heights, and he is looking at Syria as his home. Every time he can he goes back to the Golan.

“I am OK in Haifa,” he says, “I have a lot of friends from Israel, I share with them my life, my studies, and my work. But I live in Haifa and I think about Syria, my country where I cannot go”. Studying and living in Israel is a good opportunity for Aamer to analyze both sides of the same phenomenon: “Being in Haifa I can feel the Israeli-Syrian clash also from the Israeli point of view and I am making comparisons. But I am not changing my perspective about my land”.

Since 1967, when, after the Six-Days War, Israel captured the Golan area from Syria, countries and organizations have been trying to deal with this controversial situation internationally. “We have to say that Israel is occupying the territory”, claims Marcelo Kohen, professor of international law at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. “The UN Security Council declared it illegal, that is the central point to think about”, adds Mr. Kohen.

Thus, Israeli action in the Golan is condemned internationally. After the first occupation in 1967, Israel continued its maneuvers in the Golan. It definitely annexed the territory in 1981, and extended Israeli law in the area. The whole Israeli action is not internationally recognized.

During these years the Golan issue was discussed among leaders and countries without achieving any result. “The Golan issue was discussed in informal negotiations”, adds professor Kohen, “During the Ehud Barak administration Israel put many efforts in resolving the conflict with Syria before resolving the Palestinian issue, but then no outcomes were achieved”.

Regarding the slowness and inefficiency of negotiations, professor Kohen says: “In that area the first priority is resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, afterwards it will be time to resolve the controversy between Israel and Syria about Golan Heights. Anyway, in these days, because of the domestic situation in Syria, any kind of negotiations would be impossible as we face an international concern about Assad government”. “Probably – concludes professor Kohen – the international community has to wait till conditions improve”.

Keeping the status quo

In the Israeli-Syrian clash regarding Golan Heights we have to consider a lot of different factors. It is not just a matter of one country occupying a territory of another one. On the contrary, many different elements are playing an important role in this situation that it is more complex than it seems at first sight.

Dore Gold, who served as foreign policy advisor to Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, wrote about the Golan Heights raising interesting points. In his article for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in May 2008, he points out problems hardly solvable in the Israeli-Syrian clash. These are obstacles correlated to boundaries, security matters and the Syrian-Iranian alliance. Mr. Gold claims that the Golan is a strategic territory for Israel’s defense. That means that Israel has no advantages in resolving this controversy.

Israeli indifference over the Golan issue is easily understandable and, we can say, not new. The unexpected factor is the role of Syria and its position in this complicated situation. “I believe both sides are interested in keeping Golan under occupation”, claims Shefaa Abu Jabal, activist from the Golan Heights, graduate in law, journalist, and blogger. “For Israel it is a strategic place and provides the country 25% of water annual supply. For Syria it is important to keep Israel as a declared enemy to keep telling the Arab world that Syria is the last castle standing in the face of Israel and distract public opinion from what is going on inside Syria”.

This new perspective on Syrian role on the Golan issue shows us the complexity of the question. Both countries, for different reasons, are trying to keep the situation as it is nowadays, to keep the status quo. On the other hand, the international community has no voice in the matter, as no outcomes in negotiations showed us.

Aamer thinks about Syrian deficiencies. He would live in Golan Heights as a Syrian territory but he is aware that living under the Syrian regime would not be a good solution for Arab people in the Golan. He keeps saying that he dreams of the end of Israeli occupation. However, he would be afraid of living in Syria under Assad regime. He would rather prefer waiting for a democratic turning point in the country.

“Syria has no freedom of speech. Many people there say that they are free but this depends on which country you compare Syria with”. Freedom of expression is fundamental for Aamer. He is using his voice, his words to talk about the Golan Heights, he writes on social networks, he takes pictures, and he makes videos to explain to people his country’s condition.

Asking him about current happenings in Syria, without any doubt he says: “Syria must change. If I was there I would surely be with the population against the Assad regime. I would surely be part of the group of people who struggle for their rights. But without any kind of violence, this is my most important concern. I am against any extremist movement”.

 Dreaming of freedom

Aamer feels he has an important role in Golan issue, and this is not just his own feeling: “The most conservative people in the Golan are afraid of freedom, changes, and modernity. But not looking for a change would not allow people from the Golan to change their condition. That is why young people are fundamental for a positive change in my land. New generations want to make a difference. They want to spread their voice all over the world”.

He looks at his land. “This is wonderful. Look at the nature, the green places, feel the atmosphere. There, mountains are full of snow. Israeli people are coming here to ski. The only ski resort in Israeli territory is in the Golan Heights. It is weird, isn’t it?” The nature flourishes, apples grow before travelling to Syria. Aamer helps farmers to pick apples. Probably he would like to go to Syria with them. But not now, before he still has to work a little bit more. Freedom is his aim, free Syria his dream.

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