Posted by Joshua on Monday, December 1st, 2008
Giving Back the Golan Will Not Be Easy
By Shai, Nov. 30, 2008;
*Shai is an Israeli Advocate of Peace who frequently writes on Syria Comment
This weekend my wife and I, and some friends, decided to head up north for a short holiday. This is a beautiful time of year, when everything is green outside, but not too much rain. After spending a day in Tzfat (Safed), a spiritual center for Jewish Kabblah, and a serene town with a thriving artist colony, we decided to go visit the Golan. We drove up through the northern part of the Heights, passing by Kal’at Namrud (Nimrod Fortress), Majdal Shams, Mas’ade, very nice Druze villages, at the foothills of the awe-inspiring Hermon mountain. For Israelis, this is the tallest mountain in the country, and the only place we can go skiing. We then headed south along the Heights, and ascended Mt. Bental, which overlooks Quneitra.
There is a cafe up there, on Mt. Bental, which is run by Kibbutz Merom Golan, just underneath. The cafe is called, oddly enough, “Coffee Anan”. Probably as some tribute to the previous UN secretary general, but more specifically because of its Hebrew meaning, “Cafe in the Cloud”. The view is tremendous. All of Syria, it seems, lies beneath the mountain and stretches endlessly to the east and to the north. One can see the UN station in the neutral-zone, separating the Israeli-controlled Golan from the Syrian plateau. Also in view are old and new Quneitra. One cannot, of course, visit the old one, but its ruins are clearly visible to all – a historic reminder to the terrible battles that ensued here in 1967 and 1973. When we were there it was quite misty, and as the cafe name suggested, we befittingly often found ourselves above the clouds. It was almost an enchanted feeling, and very beautiful and relaxing.
It was also quite surreal. Here we were, sipping nice warm coffee, while contemplating what has, is, and will be happening on these very hills. The cafe, funny enough, has on its walls framed pictures of different tourist sites in Syria, with articles and information written below it in Hebrew, English, and Arabic. It wasn’t clear to me whether the owners were hopeful about peace with Syria with, or without, returning the Golan. There are people up there, after all, who believe in “peace-for-peace”.
I took the opportunity to ask some of the young men and women who were running the place what they thought will happen with the Golan, whether they believed it will be returned to Syria. One or two shied away from a direct answer, but one girl, probably 22 or 23 years old, said quite confidently “It’ll never happen”. Hoping to better understand her, I reminded her of the ongoing indirect talks over the past 5 years, as well as very clear suggestions made by previous Prime Ministers in Israel as to that effect. But she remained resolute, and repeated “It’ll never happen”. At the risk of pushing the limit, I tried another approach – my pseduo-psychologist one… “But surely,” I said, “even if you are absolutely certain that the Golan will remain Israeli forever, isn’t there any part of you, on the conscious or subconscious level, that questions it?” “No,” the nice girl responded, “I believe that what I think is what will happen, so I don’t allow myself to think anything else…” That summarized it for me quite well. And in a way, it made sense.
This young girl was born and raised on the Golan. This is the only home she knows. Israel annexed the Heights in 1981, so she was born in a place her country considered its own (unlike the West Bank or Gaza, which were never annexed). This girl knows the Golan better than she does Tel-Aviv or Jerusalem. To her, the “courageous” pro-peace and anti-peace activists matter less than the land she and her parents have been working over the past forty years. Talks of peace, when accompanied by land giveaways, her-land giveaways, are a bigger threat than the enemy himself. To this girl, giving back the Golan is as foreign a notion as, say, giving Florida back to the Indians would be for the average Floridian. History is irrelevant, when facts-on-the-ground are not only well established, but indeed well personal. Could I blame her for feeling this way? Would I feel any different, were I in her shoes? Probably not.
We do know that there are also Golan residents that have voiced different opinions. Some are ready to move “back” into Israel, should peace ever become a real-possibility. They are ready to pay the personal price, in return for a safer future for their children, and for those of all of Israel. While still a minority, it seems they are a growing one. What will make it easier for Israel to give back the Golan one day are two facts about its Jewish residents: First, there are only some 16,500 of them, unlike the 260,000 living in the West Bank. Second, most have not moved to the Golan for the same religiously-motivated reasons as have the settlers in the Palestinian territories. Ending the physical occupation of the Golan will not entail, quite likely, overwhelming religious interference by leaders and Rabbis across the country. In fact, the religious party Shas has herself suggested in the past a readiness to give back land territories, in return for peace. It never exhibited this “flexibility” when it came to matters of Jerusalem. But the Golan has been, and will be, different.
Personally, I must admit giving back the Golan will not be easy for me either. Though I do not feel nearly the same kind of attachment to this land as its residents do, I too have managed to fall in love with it, as anyone who has ever been up there would. On this visit, I told my wife and our friends that although I will be saddened the day we return the Heights back its owners, I will be happy to return here again and again, even if I first have to obtain a Syrian visa… On the emotional level, and we must come to understand this (whether we agree with it, or not), giving back the Golan will be, to most if not all of its residents, like the severing of an important limb in their body. The fact that some politician may one day suggest that this limb was actually “transplanted” into their body, and was never theirs in the first place, will not help their personal trauma nor their pain.
But before this is possible, before Syria can peacefully attain control of the Golan, most Israelis will have to believe it is worth it. History lessons, and UN resolutions, will not convince the people who are still fearful of Syrian tanks rolling off the Heights, on their way to Tel-Aviv. That it was always Syrian territory, also before 1967, will not encourage Israelis to vote for a peace agreement, if they remain suspicious of Syria’s alliances with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. It is this emotional realm, that Syrians and Israelis will have to traverse, and it is here that the “battle for peace” will have to take place. The sooner we understand this, the sooner the nice young girl we met up at “Coffee Anan” will begin to question her innate and understandable reluctance to leave her home, for the sake of peace.