To the more sentimental, the small hillock jutting from the slopes of Mount Hermon in this picturesque village is known as the Hill of Sorrow. But most of the 13,000 Druze residents of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights call it the Shouting Hill.
There, at appointed hours almost every day, Golan Druzes used to climb to the crest and, using portable loudspeakers, shout messages across a half-mile-wide valley to relatives standing on a hilltop in Syrian territory. If the wind was right, families could carry on the equivalent of a dinner table conversation, with Arabic echoing through the no man's land that cuts through the 1974 disengagement line.
However, the Shouting Hill is silent now, blocked by a coil of barbed wire placed by Israeli Army troops last week and a sign warning that it is a "closed military area." The hill was closed after a visit to the Golan Heights by Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres triggered protest demonstrations in which tires were burned, stones thrown and 63 local youths arrested.
The Israeli authorities have been releasing the arrested youths in small groups almost every day, and when they return to Majdal Chams they are greeted in the village square like returning heroes.
It has been four years and three months since the Israeli parliament, in a surprise move, annexed the Golan Heights and asserted Israel's sovereignty over the territory it captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
With the passage of time, Syrian nationalism among the Druzes of the harsh, rocky plateau has risen and fallen, often in harmony with the level of bellicosity sounded in Damascus by the government of President Hafez Assad. It reached its peak during a four-month general strike in 1982, during which most Golan Druzes refused to accept Israeli identity cards or work for Israeli employers.
Syrian nationalism appears to be on the rise again, coinciding with fresh warnings of the potential for war from both Damascus and Jerusalem, although there is little hard evidence to suggest that an outbreak of hostilities over the Golan Heights is imminent.
Last week at a Damascus rally marking the 23rd anniversary of the Baath Party's rise to power, Assad warned that Syria would achieve a military balance and liberate Israeli-occupied territories. A week before, the Syrian president had promised that the Golan Heights would one day be "the heart of Syria" and not its frontier.
The rhetoric has been matched by Israeli officials, including the Army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Levy, who has said that Israel is strengthening its forces and bolstering its fortifications on the Golan, and that any Syrian attack would bring a decisive defeat for Assad.
In a series of briefings for Israeli and foreign journalists, senior Army command officers suggested that Syria's strategy may be to reoccupy a small slice of the Golan with a brief armored thrust and then immediately call for internationally supervised disengagement negotiations in which it would attempt to reopen the question of sovereignty over the territory.
While historical sovereignty was not the basis for the 1981 annexation, Israel has maintained that it was necessary to cement its control of the 500-square-mile territory, whose commanding topography had been used by the Syrians from 1948 to 1967 to shell Israeli kibbutzes in the Galilee Valley below.
One senior Israeli military source privy to general staff discussions said, however, that he did not think the Syrians would risk making such a move now in the face of a buildup of Israeli forces and strengthening of fortifications on the Golan Heights. The source, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, said that Assad realizes that even such a limited operation could lead to a full-scale war that the Syrian Army is not yet prepared to wage.
Israeli military command sources said that Syria now has a standing Army of 460,000 troops and since it withdrew most of its forces from Lebanon has deployed three divisions on the Golan frontier, with three more divisions spread from the Golan to Damascus. The Israeli command sources said that 2,000 of Syria's 4,100 tanks are deployed within quick striking distance of the Golan Heights.
In 1973, much lighter Syrian forces drove to the pre-1967 border in the Galilee before being pushed back by the Israeli Army. While Israeli officials refused to discuss numbers of Israeli forces on the heights, they said the total had been vastly increased from 1973, largely because of new Army training bases close to the border.
Asked why Syria had turned up its rhetoric in recent weeks, a senior Army source replied, "When you can't bite, you bark."
The Israeli officer said the Golan rhetoric was accompanied by overt Syrian backing of radical Shiite Moslem guerrillas in southern Lebanon who have stepped up attacks on Israeli patrols and the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army militia inside and just north of Israel's "security zone" that stretches from the Mediterranean to the foothills of Mount Hermon.
The guerrilla groups have killed six Israeli soldiers in recent months and captured two more in ambushes in southern Lebanon.
Backing Lebanese guerrilla activity against Israeli troops in southern Lebanon and stirring anti- Israeli sentiment in the Golan are two effective means used by Assad to apply pressure on Israel without provoking full-scale war, Israeli Army command sources said.
Syrian nationalist sentiment among the Golan Druzes often is rooted in family ties between those who stayed on the Israeli-occupied side in 1967 and the 130,000 Syrian Druzes and Alawite Moslems who fled the advancing Israelis.
Israel has sought to contain that sentiment in numerous ways: shutting down the Shouting Hill, putting an end in 1982 to family visits at a border crossing, making Hebrew compulsory in Golan Heights schools and offering Israeli citizenship to all Golan residents.
But the locals' ties to Syria remain strong. They tune their television sets to Damascus and listen to nationalistic broadcasts prepared especially for the Golan. Hand-made Syrian flags hang in many homes here, and the children sing Syrian patriotic songs.
Most Golan Druzes have accepted Israeli identity cards, because, they say, they cannot work or travel without them. But many insisted in interviews conducted here and in the other principal village on the heights, Masada, that they have not accepted Israeli identity.
"We want to be respected as Syrians living under Israeli occupation, and not as Israeli Druzes. Our government is in Damascus, and our future will be decided in Damascus," said Salman Fakhardin, a Majdal Chams contractor.
When asked whether anti-Israel sentiment in the Golan Heights was inspired by Syria, Fakhardin replied, "We are separated from Syria, so they can't decide what we should and shouldn't do. We decide ourselves." He rejected Israeli assertions that Damascus exerts pressure on Golan residents through relatives in Syria to resist Israeli occupation, saying, "We don't need pressure to be patriotic."
Paradoxically, many Druze residents said that their day-to-day life in the Golan since annexation is harder than it was from 1967 to December 1981, when they were considered Syrians living under occupation. Some charged that Israel was waging "economic warfare" on them by expropriating land for Jewish settlements and denying them valuable water rights.
Druze shepherds complained that the Israelis had imposed heavy property taxes on them and then, citing environmental reasons, had forced them to reduce their herds.
Sheik Mahmoud Gherera, an 86-year-old village elder who said he fought in the 1925 Syrian rebellion against France, said defiantly, "In my day, I kept a weapon and fought the French. Now there is no chance for that, but if Peres sends five soldiers with sticks, it will be a fair fight."
The only Druze family in the Golan Heights to have accepted Israeli citizenship is that of Moshin Abu Saleh, a mukhtar in Syrian times and now an Israeli-paid head of the local council.
When a foreign visitor appeared in the village and asked about Abu Saleh's whereabouts, two Druze elders, Ali Hamad Sabra and Sheik Toufiq Abu Jabal, solemnly replied in unison, "I'm sorry. Moshin Abu Saleh is dead."
In fact, Abu Saleh, whom the village's religious leaders had condemned in 1982 to be shunned as an Israeli collaborator, was in Tel Aviv. His daughters said he was a delegate to a national convention of the Herut Party, the core faction of the Likud bloc founded by former prime minister Menachem Begin, whose government annexed the Golan Heights.