Occupied by Israel for fifty years, the area on the Syrian border is a favorite destination for Israeli tourists. But most of the Druze who have lived there for generations do not feel Israeli.
TEL AVIV — Hana and Shimon Davidovitch had been waiting for this for a long time. For their silver wedding anniversary, the couple's two children sent them on a weekend to the lush, green Golan Heights.
The couple, retired civil servants, arrived with a chartered bus full of other sexagenarians, all visibly happy to be there.
"Breathe this pure air, it's not like Tel Aviv, eh? We are in the most beautiful area of Israel," Hana Davidovitch exclaims.
According to international law, the Golan Heights, a 1154 km² plateau captured during the 1967 Six Day War and annexed in 1981 by the Likud government of Menachem Begin, is considered occupied territory like the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem. The 33 kibbutzim and villages that have existed there for 50 years are considered settlements. But the retirees do not care because they feel "at home."
Before the Six Day War, about 130,000 Syrians — civilians and soldiers — lived in the Golan. At the end of the fighting, only 6,000 or 7,000 remained and 340 villages and farms were destroyed. Since then, 33,000 Israelis have settled there in villages such as Merom Golan, an important tourism center, Kidmat Ziv, and others. The so-called capital of the Golan is Katzrin, a small town surrounded by a few industries, generously subsidized by the government in Jerusalem.
This plateau is an integral part of Israel and no one will take it back from us.
Unlike the Palestinians in the West Bank, the Druze of the Golan have never attracted international interest. But the plateau's settlement has been much more sustained than that of the other occupied territories and its fertile lands and abundance of water have caught the attention of the powerful Israeli agricultural lobby.
A favorite destination for Israelis
Driving along the pristine roads of the Golan, one crosses vineyards, plantations and organic farms. "When this was Syrian, nothing worked here. The Druze lived in the Middle Ages. But over 50 years we modernized everything and now the Golan is a favorite destination for Israelis: more than 1.5 million visit every year," says Eytan Wirtz, the guide accompanying the retirees.
Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, the Golan has become a lot less calm. There have been incidents of stray gunfire and mortar shells coming from the exchange of fire between Syrian army forces and rebels. Every day, dozens of Israeli tourists go to observe the fighting from a ridge at the foot of Mount Bental, at the summit of which lies a military intelligence base directly overlooking the Syrian city of Kuneitra.
"We were right to annex this territory, because the Syrians are barbarians. Whether they're rebels or Bashar al-Assad's army, they kill each other like savages!" said Aaron Benizer, a Tel Aviv resident who came to observe Kuneitra through binoculars. "Give back the Golan? To whom, now that Syria no longer exists? Don't fool yourself, this plateau is an integral part of Israel and no one will take it back from us."
The majority of Druze feel Syrian
Since the annexation of the plateau, 80% to 90% of the remaining Druze have refused to take Israeli citizenship offered to them. They are content with a permanent residence permit granting them social, not political, rights — a laissez-passer of sorts.
Until recently, many of them supported the Assad regime. Not because they are attached to the dictatorship, but because they regard Syria as their true country. Before the Syrian civil war, an agreement between Damascus and Jerusalem negotiated through the UN and its Golan-based peacekeeping force, allowed Druze farmers in the zone annexed by Israel to export their apples to Syria. Also, 400 Druze students were allowed to go to Damascus to study for free at local universities.
I'm a stranger in my own land.
"All this is in the past but it doesn't mean that I want to become Israeli," sighs Fidaa, an 18-year-old Haifa University student whose father is a Druze from Majd el-Shams, the main Druze village in the Golan, and mother is a Syrian from Damascus.
The young woman, who considers herself "Syrian at heart," has never set foot on the other side of the border. But she often thinks of it. "My friends, my relatives and I all have a very strong connection with Syria. I also dream of going to Damascus to see my grandparents, my uncles and my cousins," she said. "It is true that in Israel the Druze have many social and economic benefits unthinkable in Syria and, for me, I find that the level of education is high in Haifa. But how can I say it? I don't feel at home in Israel. I don't share the language, culture, or religion of the majority in this country: I'm a stranger in my own land."
Fidaa works as a waitress to pay for her studies. It does not take much to get her to express her rancor. "For 50 years, the Israelis have had no contact with us," she says. "In their eyes, we are just a picturesque part of the landscape. The only time they talk to us is when they sit in our restaurants and order local specialties. They give us orders and they like it."