Golan's Druse Wary of Israel and Syria

The Associated Press
Sunday, June 3, 2007; 11:48 PM

MAJDAL SHAMS, Golan Heights -- The Druse of the Golan Heights once burned their Israeli identity cards to demonstrate loyalty to Syria and protest Israel's annexation of the mountain plateau captured in the 1967 Mideast War.

But after 40 years of Israeli rule, ties to Syria have faded. Now, many young people in the secretive Arab sect find themselves grappling with dual identities _ too liberalized by their time in Israel to feel comfortable in autocratic Syria, but too loyal to their home country to embrace Israel.

"I'm Syrian ... but I don't know Syria," said Suleiman, a 23-year-old shopkeeper in Majdal Shams, a village nestled beneath Mount Hermon and wedged next to a barbed wire fence separating the plateau from Syria.

Although Suleiman has never been to Syria, he said he was scared by stories from friends permitted to study there.

"Here, there's TV, the Internet, democracy and freedom of thought. Those things aren't available in Syria," he said, asking that his last name not be used for fear his comment would be reported to Syrian authorities in Damascus.

Today, life in Majdal Shams isn't much different from that in nearby Israeli towns. Teenage boys with spiked hair hang out on the streets, and young women wear short skirts. Youths pepper conversations with Hebrew, and unmarried couples sometimes drink alcohol together _ despite the Druse religion's ban on drinking and conservative Arab society's constraint against mixing of the sexes.

Even so, most here say they are Syrian, but feel alienated from the regime in Damascus. For many, their loyalty boils down to the Golan itself, and its villages.

"If the village was returned to Syria, I'd return," said Suleiman. "What happens to my village happens to me."

When Israel conquered the Golan, the Druse residents quickly adjusted to the new reality, learning Hebrew and developing personal and business relations with their Jewish neighbors.

In 1981, Israel officially annexed the Golan Heights, though the move was not recognized by the rest of the world. The government offered citizenship to the Druse, but most rejected it.

Israel and Syria have held two rounds of peace talks, and last week Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was reported to be considering renewed contacts. The past talks were stymied by Syria's demand that Israel commit to a Golan withdrawal as a first step, but the talks themselves signaled to the Druse that Israel was willing to give up the heights under the right conditions.

"They know that their political future is in Syria, but as long as they are under Israeli rule they want to be on good terms," Yitzhak Reiter, a professor of Middle East and Islamic history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said of the Druse. "They are very realistic."

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