Golan Arabs Contact Syrian Families from Hill of Shouts
HILL OF SHOUTS, Golan Heights (AP) _ On this gentle slope covered with blossoming apple trees, Arabs still living on the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights stand and shout - to relatives across the way in Syria.
With megaphones and binoculars, they come to a narrow dirt road on the Israeli side of the cease-fire line and call out greetings and share family news.
But the Hill of Shouts, as it has come to be known, also is a symbol of defiance by the 16,000 Druse Arabs in the territory Israel seized from Syria 19 years ago and annexed in 1981.
The Israeli army has a lookout post to monitor the contact between the Druse and their Syrian relatives.
″We know they watch us from here. But we don’t care. We are Syrian,″ said Jamel Safadi, a 43-year-old appliance salesman who lives in the Druse village of Majdel Shams at the foot of 9,200-foot Mount Hermon.
When Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, most of the thousands of Arabs fled. The only ones to remain were the Druse, a mystical religious community that broke away from Islam in the 11th century.
Israel hoped to reach an agreement with the Golan Druse as it had with the Druse of the Galilee. When Israel was created in 1948, 45,000 Druse pledged loyalty to the new state.
In turn, the Druse were allowed to set up their own religious council and courts, and are the only Arabs trusted enough to be drafted into the Israeli army.
But many of the Golan Druse have openly allied themselves with Syria. They are not allowed to display the Syrian flag outdoors, but some have pictures of it and Syrian leaders in their homes.
″Like your hand is to you, so is the Golan to Syria,″ Mahmoud Hassan Safadi, Jamal’s 65-year-old uncle and a leader of the Golan Druse, said in an interview. ″Israeli troops are here now. But this is not forever.″
The 8,000 Israelis who live in fenced-in settlements oppose any peace negotiations in which the Golan will revert to Syria.
″Here we can’t retreat one single step, and the politicians who think we can haven’t been here to see the strategic importance of this area,″ said Shlomo Baum, a retired army colonel who banged his fist for emphasis.
″These heights overlook the entire (Israeli) state, and hanging on to them is crucial to our sovereignty,″ he said in an interview in the Israeli settlement of Merom Golan.
Before Israel took the heights in 1967, the Syrian army unleashed artillery and other attacks on Israelis below.
Israel’s government has shown no signs of relinquishing any part of the Golan, but Prime Minister Shimon Peres of Israel has said he is prepared to talk with Syria and any settlement would likely require territorial concessions.
Israel’s annexation in 1981 prompted a six-month general strike by the Druse. Israel insisted they take Israeli citizenship, but since then, according to both Israeli and Druse estimates, only about 25 have done so.
″When our brothers take Israeli citizenship, we think of them as collaborators,″ said the elder Safadi.
Ahmed Amasha, an elementary school teacher in the nearby Druse town of Masada, refused Israeli citizenship but takes a more conciliatory stand.
″It’s better not to have problems with Israel,″ he said, speaking in a classroom decorated with the blue-and-white Israeli flag. ″I want to have my car and my color television, and I want to live with my wife and two baby sons in peace.″
Heightened tensions with Syria followed a visit by Peres to the Golan Heights in late February, the first such tour by an Israeli prime minister since annexation. The visit ignited nationalist feelings and hundreds of Druse protested, clashing with security officials; police made about 50 arrests.
Responding to Peres’ visit, President Hafez Assad of Syria vowed in March to reclaim the strategic heights.
″There is no cause to worry over Golan, for 12 million Syrian citizens can restore it,″ Assad said in a speech to the Syrian National Council.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel responded, however, that the Golan Heights now are part of Israel and will remain so.