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Golan's Druse Wary of Israel and Syria

This keen political sense has helped explain the Golan Druse's "dual culture." The Druse, historically a persecuted sect, tend to identify with the majority in each country where they dwell, while maintaining their own distinct identity, Reiter said. The Druse religion is a secretive offshoot of Islam.

Druse living in Israel proper are well integrated into society, having served as ministers, lawmakers and generals. Most serve in the army _ even facing Druse brethren from Lebanon and Syria in battle.

In late February, a Druse lawmaker named Majalli Wahabi became Israel's first Arab president, even if only for a week. He took over the ceremonial post when the acting president, Dalia Itzik, traveled to the U.S.

The residents of the Golan, on the other hand, have tried to maintain their ties with Syria.

Since 1988, Israel has allowed Druse clerics to make annual religious pilgrimages to Syria.

Hundreds of students cross into Syria each year to study at Damascus University, where they are charged no tuition. Marriages are also arranged between brides and grooms living on opposite sides of the frontier. The most recent ceremony took place earlier this year.

However, Syrian brides are rarely _ if ever _ allowed to visit their families back home, a source of anxiety and anger for dozens of women.

Separated relatives traditionally congregate in the "Shouting Valley" outside Majdal Shams to communicate across the barbed wire using megaphones.

Druse farmers also are allowed to export some 11,000 tons of apples to Syria each year. The apple sale, which began two years ago as a humanitarian gesture to the Arab farmers, is the first kind of trade ever made between Syria and Israel.

These ties, however, have been largely symbolic, and many young Druse have been quietly relieved at the failure of previous Syrian-Israeli peace talks to go forward.

"My Syrian friends tell me I'm lucky I live under occupation," said Firas, a 25-year-old doctor who graduated from a Syrian university and vowed never to return. "I hated life there, the political regime, (the lack of) freedom, lies, hypocrisy."

The doctor, now unemployed, also asked that his last name not be used for fear of retribution. As he talked, he stood near Majdal Shams' main square, dominated by a statue of Sultan Pasha Atrache, a legendary Druse warrior who led Syria's battle for independence from France.

Older Druse who resisted Israel's annexation of Golan lament the fraying loyalty of the young, in part blaming Syria for not doing enough for the people of the heights. Some complained Syria failed to push for the release of 15 Druse prisoners held by Israel, including two who have spent 22 years behind bars for blowing up an Israeli military base.

Syria says it has lobbied for the prisoners' freedom, but has no means to pressure Israel. "We don't have Israeli prisoners here to use as bargaining chips," Midhat Saleh, the Syrian official responsible for Golan affairs, told The Associated Press in Syria.

Hayat Abu Saleh, a 35-year-old from Majdal Shams, said the loosening of ties to Syria also could be blamed on Israel's influence on the young as the occupation persists.

"Israel teaches a different history, it's their point of view, and generation after generation, loyalty to Syria is becoming less," she said.

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© 2007 The Associated Press