The Syrian brides' path was lined with barbed wire, their escorts wore U.N. berets, and the whole event took place under the watchful eye of Israeli radar installations perched on a nearby hillside. No limousine arrived to carry them away, though a fighter jet broke the sound barrier with a boom. A white U.N. van toted their luggage from the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, across a military disengagement zone, to the Israeli-occupied part of the Golan where they were to join their husbands.
The women had become engaged to men who are among the approximately 20,000 Syrians living in the Israeli-occupied part of the area, and their wedding day reflected one of the basic human facts at work in this contested and strategically important region: After 30 years of occupation, life remains strange, and strained.
As the sun glinted off her sequined wedding dress and she prepared to walk off to meet her groom in Israeli-occupied land--one of the rare circumstances in which a border-crossing here is allowed--19-year-old Jamila Chahine said the newly inaugurated peace talks between Syria and Israel still seemed too distant to offer any immediate hope that her new family in the village of Boqata will be able to commune more easily with her old one in Damascus.
She is marrying her cousin, a match that had to be brokered over meetings in a third country, neighboring Jordan. The requisite paperwork was completed before today, but the couple considered this their true wedding day.
"I'm not thinking about all that," Chahine said of the peace talks, as she and another newlywed said their final good-byes to family on the Syrian side of the line, uncertain when they would see each other again.
"It is very sad to leave my family here . . . I hope they work toward real peace," Chahine said. "It is all we ask for."
With Syria and Israel engaged now in high-level talks, there is growing hope the discussions will lead to a treaty and the return of some 460 square miles of occupied Golan land that Israel captured in its 1967 war with Syria and other Arab states.
At a diplomatic and political level, such an agreement would represent a major step in Middle East relations, ending a 50-year struggle between two regional powers, and perhaps leading to a broader rapprochement between the Arab world and Israel.
But for hundreds of thousands of Syrians--those living in the occupied Golan and their relatives, as well as the families of those displaced during the 1967 war--an accord would mean a very welcome and tangible end to more than three decades of geographic limbo.
Since Israeli troops overran dozens of Syrian villages and laid claim to the fertile farmland and strategic mountain range known as the Golan Heights, the area has been a symbol of Israel's tense existence in the Arab world, and a rallying point for Syrian and Arab nationalists who have demanded its return. Israeli leaders have claimed over the years they need to keep the Golan because of the high ground it offers for observation and the early warning of any conflict, while Israeli settlers have flocked to the area by the tens of thousands, developing it into a lush farming region.
Yet it was all, historically, Syrian, a fact apparent from the abandoned mosques that still speckle the landscape amid the ruined remnants of Syrian villages. In the north, residents of a handful of towns refused to evacuate when the Israelis arrived, and form a small core of Druze Muslims most of whom say they await the day when they are reunited with their homeland.
A few have indicated they might migrate to other Israeli-controlled lands if a peace deal is struck: They have become accustomed to Israeli politics, laws and business, and say they would rather remain governed by them.
But it is also common to find portraits of Syrian President Hafez Assad, or see hand-painted signs opposing the Israeli occupation. In the summer, children attend a camp to learn about Syrian patriotism, and Syrian television broadcasts daily lessons in Arabic and other subjects to counter the Israeli school curriculum.
"Everybody wants real peace, peace with open borders, where people can go and live wherever they want," said Salim Safadi, mayor of the largest Druze village, Majdal Shams.
For some, like the newlywed Chahine, the benefit would be immediate, ending a situation where family meetings, when possible at all, have to be set in third countries, such as Jordan, where travel from both Syria and Israel is allowed. If, as is expected, the vast majority of the Golan returns to Syrian control, she would go from living behind a cordon of barbed wire and U.N. patrols, to being an easy hour's drive away from her family and friends.
For others, the benefits might take longer. Syria estimates that around 400,000 of its residents trace their roots to farms and villages from which their families were displaced during the war. Their property rights, ability to resettle in the Golan and the general development of the region would in itself be a major undertaking, even after negotiations with Israel are concluded. But that doesn't dim the enthusiasm of those with an attachment to the land. Hamed Halabi was 20 and attending school in Damascus when the war broke out, and it wasn't until 1981 that a special family visit was arranged.
"If this dream is realized, I don't know what I am going to do first," said Halabi, a geography teacher, of the talks begun this week in Washington. "Embrace my father, my brothers, my sisters, or the land."
Hockstader reported from Majdal Shams, on the Israeli side of the Golan.