Syria, a paradise lost for the Golan’s Druze
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Syria, a paradise lost for the Golan’s Druze

As the civil war rumbles on across the border, apple farmers on the Israeli side find themselves cut off from buyers, relatives

An Israeli watchtower above the Druze village of Majdal Shams, near the Israeli-Syrian border (photo credit: Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)
An Israeli watchtower above the Druze village of Majdal Shams, near the Israeli-Syrian border (photo credit: Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)

AFP — Rare phone calls are all that remain of the links between Druze on the Israeli side of the Golan and their families in Syria after fighting across the ceasefire line closed the Quneitra crossing.

Since the 1980s, the Israeli army has allowed Druze residents to go to Syria to visit relatives, marry or even study in Damascus.

But since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, permission to cross has been granted only rarely.

Majdal Shams is a town of some 10,000 people in the southern foothills of Mount Hermon, next to the barbed-wire fence separating the Israeli sector of the strategic plateau from Syria.

The largest town on the Golan, it has something of the allure of a ski resort — snow-covered in winter, while in summer the hillsides are filled with trees laden with fruit.

Members of al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Syria gather (L) as a group of UN Fijian peacekeepers serving in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force cross from the Syrian side into the Israeli side of the strategic plateau, on September 11, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/JALAA MAREY)
Members of al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Syria gather (L) as a group of UN Fijian peacekeepers serving in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force cross from the Syrian side into the Israeli side of the strategic plateau, on September 11, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/JALAA MAREY)

Apples are a key source of income for Syrian farmers in the Golan, which Israel occupied after Syria attacked Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. Jerusalem annexed the Golan in 1981 in a move never recognized by the international community.

The apple harvest has also ensured their ties to Syria remain strong, since around a quarter of their annual crop of 80,000 ton of fruit is shipped across the ceasefire line in a rare trade facilitated by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Upsetting the apple cart

But two weeks ago, Quneitra, the only crossing along the ceasefire line, was closed after it fell into the hands of the rebels fighting forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The move quite literally upset the applecart, blocking the export of fruit to Syria.

For 56-year-old apple farmer Salman Ibrahim, the loss of earnings is a tough blow, but he is more bothered by the fact that the border is now hermetically sealed.

“I hope the situation in Syria improves and that we can go back there one day, that it won’t be just our apples that can go… but us too,” he said.

More than 18,000 Druze, an offshoot of Islam, are left from the Golan’s original population of up to 130,000 Syrians who fled in 1967 or were forced to leave the plateau. The vast majority have refused to take Israeli citizenship.

The sound of death

Just at the edge of Ibrahim’s orchard lies the so-called “Purple Line” — the armistice line laid down after Israel seized 1,200 square kilometers (460 square miles) of the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967.

The line was breached by Syrian forces during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, but later reestablished in 1974, with the United Nations setting up a “disengagement observer force” (UNDOF) to monitor observance of the treaty.

In the cool mountain air, Salman Fakher al-Din, a local involved in the struggle against the Israeli control of the Heights, walks alongside the barbed-wire fence as the dull thud of explosions echoes off hillsides, a testimony to the bitter fighting taking place just a few kilometers (miles) away.

“Here you only hear the sounds of war. You can hear these explosions but for us it’s not just a noise, it is the sound of our people dying,” he said.

“These terrorist organizations who are fighting the government there are destroying any vision of a better future. Our fear is that after three years of conflict, Syria is disintegrating.”

The Golan Druze are predominantly pro-Assad, but in Majdal Shams there is also a handful of “reformists” who have organized anti-government protests.

‘They live in fear’

Some Golan residents insist that the emergence of Islamists as the dominant non-regime force in Syria’s civil war has sidelined any of their differences, particularly with al-Qaeda-linked fighters now on their doorstep.

Smoke rises following an explosion in Syria's Quneitra province as Syrian rebels clash with President Bashar Assad’s forces, seen from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, on August 28, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Ariel Schalit, File)
Smoke rises following an explosion in Syria’s Quneitra province as Syrian rebels clash with President Bashar Assad’s forces, seen from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, on August 28, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Ariel Schalit, File)

“There were differences of opinion, but we are united by the same hope that this war will end and the terrorists will leave,” said Nagha Abdel Wali, whose late husband had served in the Syrian army.

Nagha is also concerned for her sister, who lives on the Syrian side of the Golan where radical Islamists consider the Druze heretics.

The two sisters speak by telephone each day at 5:30 pm, in a brief conversation which Nagha said is nonetheless reassuring.

“They live in fear, they don’t know what will happen from one day to the next.”

Nagha has been allowed to visit Syria only a few times a year since the conflict erupted in 2011.

“I assure you it’s paradise there,” she said, refusing to comment on what is happening in Syria now.

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