The Golan Debate Reaches New Heights

Rosh Hashanah may be a time of year when Jews around the world pray for peace, but for the 16,000 Jewish residents of the Golan Heights, those prayers were somewhat more difficult to recite this year.

They know that the price for peace with Syria is likely to be the return of all or most of the Golan, the strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. Although Prime Minister Ehud Barak has so far placed priority on peacemaking with the Palestinians, few people here are ignoring his pledges to swiftly strike a deal with Syria as well.

“We are praying for peace — a peace with the Golan,” says Sammy Bar-Lev, head of the regional council of Katzrin, the Golan’s largest town, with 6,500 residents. “It must be a peace we can live with, not a Yamit-style peace.” He was recalling the 1982 return of that Sinai settlement to Egypt, in which some Israeli settlers were forcefully evicted and the town was razed to the ground.

Later that year, Israel passed a bill that applied Israeli law and jurisdiction to the Golan. The international community never recognized the move, and the de facto annexation has provided the Golan’s Jewish residents with little reassurance about their future.

Bar-Lev, a 30-year resident of the Golan, talks of years of uncertainty as successive governments debated the territory’s fate. He is sure that the Israeli public will reject any agreement with Hafez Assad, Syria’s president, that involves the return of the Golan.

Nevertheless, Bar-Lev wants Barak to make his strategy clear. “Life is continuing here as usual,” he says. “Of course, people are a bit more worried, and even angry at the government for not making clear what are the red lines. But at least nothing is happening yet.”

For Katzrin residents, the temporary delay in reviving the peace talks is little consolation. Many are confused by the government’s policies and despondent about the prospect of losing their homes.

However, none of those interviewed talked of any plans to violently oppose an Israeli withdrawal.

In part, the moderation reflects the differences between Golan settlers and their counterparts in the West Bank, which include those who are vehemently opposed to any Israeli withdrawal from those areas.

For West Bank settlers, life has been a constant struggle against the indigenous Palestinian population, who accuse Israel of stealing their land. Yet the Golan’s land was virtually uninhabited when Israel entered, aside from a few Druze villages.

In addition, while most West Bank settlers are driven by a religious-nationalist ideology, many Golan settlers are left-leaning. They moved to the Golan either to bolster Israel’s security or to improve their quality of life in 32 small towns peppered throughout the eerie but breathtaking landscape of brown, scorched earth and volcanic rock formations.

“This is like a small city, but we still have the mountain air,” says Leah Ravid, 37. In this year’s elections, Ravid voted for Barak, as did more than 57 percent of Golan electorate. She also voted for the Third Way Party, which campaigned on a single issue — keeping the Golan — and failed to win enough votes to return to the Knesset.

Ravid’s husband, Avishai, is even more willing to leave for peace with Syria. He also challenges the traditional Israeli security doctrine that deems the Golan — overlooking the kibbutzim along the Sea of Galilee to the west and the Syrian lowlands to the east — to be essential for Israel’s security.

“Israel is no longer a country of heroes, and Syria does not need to send soldiers to make war — they can send missiles — so a mile here or there does not matter,” he says. “The secret for security is peace.”

He is also convinced that many Golan residents quietly agree with this position. “Under the table, all everyone is waiting for is compensation,” he says.