“Why do you need peace?” says Yuval Matzliach, 32, a dairy farmer who until two summers ago lived in the Gush Katif settlement bloc in Gaza. “Giving land doesn’t give you peace. Living on the land of Israel, this is the point of living.”
For Matzliach peace would likely mean once again uprooting himself and his family — he nows runs a falafel shop in the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in 1967, and whose return to its Syrian owners remains a basic requirement for peace with that country and normalization of ties with the wider Arab world (as Arab League envoys visiting Jerusalem last week reiterated).
But on the Golan itself, which rises like a table of volcanic rock at the top of the Jordan Valley and the Sea of Galilee, there’s little sense that anyone is even contemplating the possibility of packing up and leaving as a result of a land-peace swap with Syria. Nowhere is that more clear than in the town of Avneitan, home to some 23 families forcibly evacuated by the Israeli government from settlements in the Gaza strip in 2005. These Orthodox families believe that Jews have a divine mandate to live not just within the current borders of the Jewish state but on all the territory surrounding it that they consider part of the Biblical Land of Israel. The government dumped them in a hotel here after the Gaza pullout, where they lived for a year before moving into pre-fab houses on land donated by sympathetic locals. And they say they’re not going to leave their new homes without a struggle.
Life on this grassy plateau of cattle ranches and apple orchards moves at a different pace than in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, just a few hours drive away. Israel once viewed the Golan’s strategic cliffs as a safeguard against a Syrian armored invasion, but they appear to have as effectively deterred a different kind of invasion — one of Israel’s sprawling suburbs, fast food chains and traffic jams.
And unlike their previous situation in Gaza, Israelis like Matzliach feel little pressure to leave from the Golan’s Arab inhabitants — unlike the huge Palestinian majorities in the West Bank and Gaza, there are now just four Arab towns in the Golan. Their Syrian inhabitants are mostly Druze Muslims, who speak Arabic and Hebrew, run apparently prosperous businesses and farms, and mingle easily on the streets with Israeli soldiers. “I’ve got many Israeli friends,” says Yahyah Abu Shaheen, a 51-year-old contractor in the town of Buq’ata. “We’ve grown up together and we’re human beings.”
But while many Golanese Druze carry Israeli ID cards, most refuse to become Israeli citizens, either out of loyalty to Damascus, or out of concern that they might be seen as traitors if the territory is returned to Syria. Abu Shaheen and his neighbors also chafe under the restrictions of a closed border that cuts them off from family, friends and country. One of Abu Shaheen’s daughters married a Syrian cousin and moved to the suburbs of Damascus earlier this year, and he doesn’t know when he’ll see her again.
While a change in the Golan’s political status doesn’t appear to be on the current political horizon, there’s always a chance that it could once again become a battlefield. Though Syria has repeatedly called for peace negotiations with Israel since the end of last year, it has also stepped up the rhetoric of resistance in the absence of peace. With outdated Soviet-era equipment, Syria’s conventional army is no match Israel’s top-of-the-line U.S. military technology. But the Syrians say they are changing their tactics and learning from the kind of asymmetrical guerrilla war that Hizballah waged so effectively against Israel in last summer’s Lebanon confrontation.
Israel has responded by alerting its own forces in the Golan, and staging large-scale military exercises. But a cheerful sense of confidence — or complacency — still pervades the Israeli occupied areas. At the end of a day reporting, I encounter an Israeli armored unit wrapping up exercises by loading their battle tanks on tractor-trailers, while leaving their personnel carriers parked by the side of the road, ready to be stolen or sabotaged by anyone who dared. “Mind if we take one for spin?” I called out the departing troops. “We’re leaving our guard dog,” answered one, barefoot at the time, as he pointed to a harmless-looking stray. “And he’s a real beast.”