3 January 2000 — The approximately 17,000 Syrians who now live in the Golan Heights are all that remain of the population of approximately 147,000 Syrians who resided there prior to the June 1967 war. The rest fled or were expelled by the invading Israeli army from their villages and towns.
International media coverage of the Israeli-occupied Golan rarely makes reference to the Syrian Arabs who live there. Media coverage has also downplayed Israel’s consistent attempts to neutralize all dissent by Syrian Golanis, as well as its denial of their cultural and national identity and their efforts to achieve reunification with Syria. It has also largely ignored Israel’s attempts to incorporate the Golani population to justify permanent retention of the Golan. Instead, most media discussions of the Golan focus on the strategic significance of the territorial dispute between Syria and Israel, and on the fate of Israel’s 17,000 settlers living there.
The lack of coverage of the native population is especially troubling considering the harsh implications of 32 years of Israeli occupation. The current Israeli-Syrian negotiations hold the fate of the Syrian Golanis in the balance.
The Aftermath of the June 1967 War:
From the beginning of its occupation of the Golan, Israel attempted to manipulate Syrian Golanis’ communal identity. It did so through a series of abusive policies that defied international human rights treaties and the Fourth Geneva Convention governing the treatment of civilian populations living under occupation.
Among other measures, Israel eliminated all institutional structures that existed under Syrian rule, such as local councils and agricultural cooperatives, and altered school curricula. Furthermore, Israel expropriated all the lands of the expelled population and immediately initiated an ambitious settlement plan to Judaize the Golan, ultimately permitting the settlement of some 17,000 Jewish settlers.
To increase the vulnerability of the small remaining Syrian community, the military confiscated a belt of land surrounding the Syrian villages and planted it with land mines, thereby preventing expansion of agricultural production and choking village growth. In 1969, the military evacuated the residents of Sehita (one of only six remaining villages) to another village under the pretext of security, and dynamited all its houses.
Israel also made the provision of basic services contingent on the extent to which the Syrian Golani community conformed to Israel’s policies. In short, in the early years of occupation, Israel used its disproportionate power to achieve total domination over the Golan’s native population.
Throughout the 1970s, Golani activists made periodic, mostly covert, attempts to organize resistance and assist Syria by passing information to its government. Toward the end of the decade the Israeli government began to contemplate the unilateral annexation of the Golan.
The first step toward doing so came in 1978 when Israel offered the community the option of taking Israeli citizenship. In response, the community held public meetings and announced its uncondi-tional rejection of annexation and unwillingness to change its national identity.
Israel’s response was to arrest and imprison five of the community’s elderly leaders. In a demonstration of support, over two-thirds of the adult population appeared at their trial. Two years after Israel’s offer of citizenship, only a handful of Golanis had chosen to take it, despite the fact that refusal to do so resulted in new repressive policies. For example, between 1978 and 1982, Israel made issuance of permits for home construction contingent upon acceptance of Israeli citizenship, thus essentially freezing building during that period.
Response to Annexation:
When Israel annexed the Golan on 14 December 1981 in defiance of international law, the community responded with a series of general strikes followed by an open strike that began on 14 February 1982 and continued for six months. This massive demonstration of resistance and civil disobedience brought the Golan to the attention of the international community, albeit temporarily; even the Arab media failed to report regularly on the Golanis’ struggle because of their lack of access to the Golan.
Israel stationed some 15,000 soldiers in the villages to enforce the imposition of citizenship-thereby outnumbering the local population, then amounting to some 12,000 persons. During the strike, Israel cut the villages off from the rest of the world and prevented food supplies from entering the Golan for several months.
Realizing the magnitude of the resistance, Israel finally accepted a compromise: Syrians of the Golan would not have to take Israeli citizenship, but would remain “residents” (officially lacking any nationality). Since 1982, no Golani Syrians have applied for Israeli citizenship, and some of the few who previously did so have been engaged for over ten years in a lawsuit to revoke their citizenship. Such an option is almost impossible under Israeli law unless the person agrees to emigrate.
Denial of Basic Human Rights and Services:
Throughout the 1980s, Israel continued its campaign of intimidation and collective punishment in the Golan. Demonstrations and other forms of protest were physically suppressed. Community projects, including summer camps for children and independent kindergartens, were targeted for closure. In the 1990s, Israeli authorities shifted their policies toward a more selective form of suppression. Activists and their families became the primary targets and were denied building permits and the right to travel to Syria for study or other purposes. The Israeli security apparatus hoped to intimidate the activists and thus marginalize resistance.
Restrictions imposed by Israel encompass much of Golani life:
With the resumption of negotiations between Israel and Syria, Golani activists are cautiously optimistic regarding the chances of returning to Syria. Should the current talks result in the return of the Golan to Syria, they will resolve a territorial dispute, contribute to regional peace, and end the misery and disenfranchisement of the Syrian Golani community. The activists are also preparing, however, for a possible failure that would perpetuate Israeli rule and bring about renewed efforts by Israel to impose citizenship on their community.
Bashar Tarabieh, a former resident of the Golan, is a member of the Golan Academic Association and a founding member of the Arab Association for Development in the Golan Heights.