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Golan Heights Land, Lifestyle Lure Settlers
Lebanon War Revives Dispute Over Territory

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
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."

Rising from the Sea of Galilee to snowcapped Mount Hermon, Golan is a rocky slope of vineyards, cattle ranches, fruit orchards and remnants of conflict. Vast minefields stretch out behind barbed-wire fences, and the overgrown remains of Syrian houses, military barracks and mosques line mostly empty roads. Trenches and earthworks still score the land where the Israeli army has twice fought Syrian forces.

For decades, Israeli military leaders considered Golan an essential high-ground buffer against Syrian invasion and peppered the region with bases. In recent years, though, some Israeli generals have argued that air power has reduced the strategic importance of the heights. It still remains a training ground for the infantry and armored corps.

Perhaps more important, the region provides a third of Israel's drinking water.

"Until the war with Lebanon, there was no talk of giving back the Golan Heights. Most of the focus was on Israel's real problem, which is with the Palestinians," said Eli Malka, 48, the leader of a group of Golan settlements that is using government money to fund the ad blitz. "We're building, we're growing. And I don't see the prospect of any talks with Assad."

Jewish history here is visible in the remains of a 4th-century synagogue, among others found in Golan, that has been turned into a tourist site on the edge of this settlement of 7,500 people. But most of the roughly 100 families moving each year to Katzrin -- the largest of 33 Jewish communities in Golan -- are secular Israelis like Topaz Barkai, a 32-year-old former banker who arrived last month.

Barkai's father was killed in Golan during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war while her mother was pregnant with her. She was born here, then spent much of her adult life studying and working in Tel Aviv, the cosmopolitan coastal city she still visits for professional soccer games and nightclubs. Her new job is to persuade friends to move to Golan, with its skiing, water sports, cattle ranching and boutique wineries.

"We're trying to make this place younger," Barkai said.

A year and a half ago, the Golan lifestyle drew Einbar Pelter and her husband, Tal, an army officer and aspiring vintner. The couple moved with their two young children from a town near the seaside city of Netanya to Merom Golan, a farming collective founded a month after the 1967 war.

Pelter, a landscaper whose front yard is now a mix of grape vines, lavender and herbs, said the promise of free land, a communal setting and wilderness made them set aside qualms about relocating to an occupied region. Pelter Wines now appear on Tel Aviv wine lists.

"Even if it is going to be temporary, we thought it would be worthwhile," said Pelter, 32, who has seen her new neighborhood fill up over the past year. "A community that isn't growing has an expiration date on it."

The population of roughly 7,000 Arabs who remained after the 1967 war has grown to about 20,000. Most of them refused citizenship. Those who accepted are ostracized to this day in the four insular mountain towns where the Druze population is concentrated.

"After almost 60 years, the basic question of whether the Israelis have a right to create a Jewish state is being asked again after this war," said Taiseer Maray, director of Golan for Development, an Arab-rights organization in Majdal Shams. "This shows the stupidity of power. If I were a clever Zionist, the first thing I'd do is seek peace."

In Maray's Israeli travel document, the space beside "Nationality" reads "undefined." It is an apt description of a population that gathers Fridays at an overlook on the edge of the town to shout to relatives across the border with Syria.

The Arabs here are allowed to sell their apples in Syria and study at Damascus University. Hundreds of graduates have returned, many of them working in summer camps, professional clubs and civic groups, the main venues for political organizing.

"The feeling among the people here is that the Syrians could come back any day," said Maray, who has not seen his three brothers in Damascus since the 1967 war. "The settlers now talk about breaking down the boundaries between us with jobs and investment."

Arab grievances here center on the preferential treatment Israeli settlements receive in allocation of water, which is scarce and expensive for many Arab farmers. Meanwhile, civic campaigns for the removal of the Israeli military base on a hill in the center of Majdal Shams have been ignored.

In recent weeks, a group calling itself the Syrian National Alliance has been posting communiques around town calling for a new campaign against the Israeli occupation, including armed operations. "But we really don't know who they are," said Ayman Abu Jabal, 40, a former prisoner who works for Golan for Development. "So far they have not been very convincing."

Abu Jabal, a distant relative of Hail's, has followed that route before. As a member of the now-defunct Syrian Resistance Movement, he spent 12 years in Israeli jails for blowing up an Israeli military warehouse in 1985. No one was injured.

"What we want is for our rights to be the same as theirs," Abu Jabal said. "I'm not against the Jew as a person. But we want the occupation to end and for us to live in peace."

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