At the center of any peace deal between Israel and Syria would be the Golan Heights. The World’s Matthew Bell visited the region to speak with people there about what’s at stake.
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LISA MULLINS: The stakes are high in the Golan Heights for Israel and Syria, but what are the stakes for the residents of the Golan? We sent The World’s Matthew Bell to the territory to find out.
MATTHEW BELL: Most Israelis live in places that are very hot, very dry, or both, for much of the year, and that makes the Golan Heights such an attractive get-away destination. It’s got beautiful hills, cool breezes and sandy beaches along the sea of Galilee. For wintertime trips, the one and only Israeli-run ski area is here. The Golan’s natural beauty is one reason many Israelis are not wild about giving this land back to Syria. It’s also what attracted people like David Alin to come and live here 35 years ago. He’s a beekeeper who lives on a moshav, or agricultural settlement, in the southern Golan.
DAVID ALIN: When I came here there was a friend of mine who was with me in the army, and he had some beehives, and he said, “Come and look at this.” It was love at first sight, you know? It really got me and I started, a sort of, you know, small-time thing, and now it’s a full-time job.
MATTHEW BELL: Alin’s two-man operation keeps 500 beehives. It produces and sells about 15 tons of honey a year. Alin pulls back the lid on one of the hives to show me some bees at work. This doesn’t bother them, you opening the lid?
DAVID ALIN: You have to be very careful, you know, slow movements. And if they’ve got something to do, they’re okay, they don’t bother you, [LAUGHS] but if they haven’t got anything to do, they go mad.
MATTHEW BELL: When I ask Alin what happens if Israel and Syria eventually sign a peace agreement, he says that’s a question he’s been dealing with for a long time.
DAVID ALIN: I mean, look, since we came here in 1974, people say, “What are you going to do when the Golan is given to Syria?” We say, ok, well, lets manage, [LAUGHS] we’ll manage. And in the meantime, 30 something years have gone past and nothing has happened. So I say, it reminds me of San Francisco, that they say, there may be an earthquake, okay. So you can’t go around worrying, what’s going to happen if.
MATTHEW BELL: It’s been reported at various times over the years, that the Israeli government has been willing to give up the Golan Heights. Alin chuckles at that thought.
DAVID ALIN: The Israeli politicians may have been ready to give us back to Syria, but the [LAUGHS] Syrians didn’t want it. They want it on their terms. Perhaps our luck is that we have the Assad family who are always looking after us, [LAUGHS] and saying, no, no, we want everything.
MATTHEW BELL: The Assads are Syria’s ruling political family. Hafez Assad was president for 30 years until 2000. That’s when he died and his son Bashar Assad took over the presidency. Most experts believe that the 18-thousand or so Jewish settlers in the Golan would be forced to leave if the territory is returned to Syria, and that would not be a tragedy, says Abu-ad Ali.
ABU-AD ALI: I don’t think that they are belong to these places.
MATTHEW BELL: Ali is a physician who lives in one of the Druse villages of the Golan, about 20 thousand Druze live here. They are the Arabs of the region who used to be Syrian citizens, now, most of them have undefined legal status. Ali would like that cleared up. He wants the Golan returned to Syria.
[SOUND CLIP OF ABU-AD ALI SPEAKING IN ARABIC]
MATTHEW BELL: Sitting beneath a Syrian flag, hanging on his living room wall, Ali says the one thing he believes from Israeli leaders, is that their country is being built for the Jews, not for Arabs, or Muslims, or the Druze of the Golan. Ali says the real tragedy is the story of the tens of thousands of Golani Druze who were driven from their homes by the Israelis in the 1967 war. There are visible remnants of that time of conflict here. Uncleared minefields and dilapidated trenches. There are also Israeli military bases in the Golan, but the area doesn’t have nearly the same feel of a militarized zone like in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. People are pretty much free to move around here, and the economy isn’t bad. That’s probably why Syrian nationalism doesn’t run strong among many of the younger generation. What’s your name?
MATTHEW BELL: Rami, and what is the name of your business?
RAMI: Pimp My Ride.
MATTHEW BELL: Pimp My Ride?
MATTHEW BELL: Rami sells auto accessories and details cars in a Druze village right on the border with Syria. Israeli tourists are a big part of his business, and that’s his number one priority.
RAMI: All the time, I like money, ’cause money is honey.
MATTHEW BELL: Money is honey?
RAMI: [LAUGHS] Money is honey.
MATTHEW BELL: Do you have a dream to go back to be part of Syria again?
RAMI: No. No.
MATTHEW BELL: Why not?
RAMI: I don’t like it.
MATTHEW BELL: Why not?
RAMI: [SPEAKS IN ARABIC]
MATTHEW BELL: Rami says he was born here, long after the Israelis took control. He doesn’t know much about Syria and doesn’t think about politics anyway. A lot of younger Golani Druze are the same way. And when they do think about politics, they’re uneasy about the possibility of some day living under Syria’s politically repressive system. But again, that’s a worry for the future. And after so many years of stalemate, a few people here, among the Druze or Jewish settlers, are betting that a peace deal between Israel and Syria is right around the corner. For The World, I’m Matthew Bell, Majdel Shams, in the Golan Heights.
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