Golan Heights Land, Lifestyle Lure Settlers
Monday, October 30, 2006
KATZRIN On the edge of this growing Jewish settlement, which bills itself as "the city of water and wine," Moti Bar is building a stylish microbrewery and restaurant in a glass and stone shopping mall that opened a few months ago. His venture, all the way down to the imported copper brew tanks, is a bet that Israel will remain in the Golan Heights for years to come.
The high-end beer and view of the Sea of Galilee are designed to appeal to Israeli yuppies, who are being encouraged more aggressively than ever to move to this rugged plateau seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. Dozens of newly graded home sites stretch westward, and a large industrial park called Golantech is emerging a few miles from Bar's pub.
"We're living our life as if we'll be here forever," said Bar, 42, who commutes from the nearby community of Kanaf. "And I don't think there is any reason why we should leave."
Israel's summer war with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that acts as Syria's military proxy, has revived the decades-old contest over the Golan Heights. This latest phase is also being shaped by demographic changes epitomized by this expanding settlement.
Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981 and offered its Arab residents citizenship in the Jewish state, something it has not extended to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The annexation was not recognized internationally, however, and most of the Arabs here refused the offer as a protest against what they consider an illegal occupation. But they do have residency rights that allow them to travel throughout Israel and vote in local elections.
Most of the Arabs in Golan are Druze, members of a sect that split from Islam centuries ago and has large followings in Lebanon, Syria and Israel. Unlike most of the Druze in Israel, those here identify themselves as Arabs and do not serve in the Israeli military. The vast majority consider themselves citizens of Syria, although a small percentage support Israel's presence here.
For years, the Israeli military discouraged civilian settlement in Golan, particularly along the frontier with Syria, for fear the area would emerge again as a battlefield. Some small Israeli settlements were established there anyway, but in the past 15 years all new growth has occurred within existing settlement boundaries rather than in new areas.
The pace has picked up in recent years. Now, for the first time, the number of Jewish settlers in Golan may soon exceed the nearly 20,000 Arab residents whose families remained here after the war. The milestone may have already been passed, Arab leaders concede, with 400 Jewish families moving into Golan each year.
Since the Lebanon war ended on Aug. 14, settler leaders have launched a $250,000 advertising campaign to attract young Israelis with the lure of free land and a lifestyle ethic that blends Marlboro Country, Napa Valley and the X Games. Their goal is to double the Jewish population in Golan to 40,000 within a decade through an appeal that emphasizes cowboy hats over skullcaps.
At the same time, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has called for new negotiations on Golan, emboldened by Israel's inconclusive fight against Hezbollah. For years, the Syrian government has helped arm and fund Hezbollah to strengthen its own hand in talks on the region. The Syrian army, meanwhile, has maintained quiet along the heavily mined frontier.
In a recent interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Assad added an ominous note to his previous calls for talks, warning that "when the hope disappears, then maybe war really is the only solution." In response, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called Golan "an inseparable part of the state of Israel."
"No doubt the steadfastness of the resistance in Lebanon, ending the legend of the undefeatable Israeli army, has strengthened our belief that the end of the occupation is closer than ever," said Hail Abu Jabal, 62, a Druze political leader in the town of Majdal Shams who spent seven years in Israeli prisons for campaigning against Israel's hold on Golan. "But expanding these settlements is a mistake, making peace more distant and violent confrontation closer."