Anxiety rises for Golan residents: Would peace mean evacuation

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GOLAN HEIGHTS, Israel — As Israeli and Syrian diplomats continue negotiations that focus on the status of this disputed region, the residents of the Golan Heights wait and worry.

Although the Israeli government has not actually told the residents here that they will be forced to evacuate the Golan in the event of a peace treaty with Damascus, people have few illusions.

Prime Minister Shimon Peres has already announced that Israel might be prepared to withdraw to a point that would leave the Jewish state in possession of the mountain range overlooking the Sea of Galilee from the east, but without the territory now inhabited by Jews and Druse.

As a result, Golan residents are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. Yet they are waging their fight to stay through various channels.

Besides rallies, the Golan Residents Committee churns out news releases and fact sheets, runs educational seminars and distributes hundreds of thousands of bumper stickers with the well-known slogan "The People Are With the Golan."

Although the committee raises funds in the United States, most of its activities are based in Israel.

Still, Golan activists never miss a chance to invite visiting U.S. legislators to the Golan to underscore the area's strategic importance and to discourage them from sending American troops to serve as peacekeepers in the region in the event of a treaty with Syria.

During a recent visit to Israel, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry reaffirmed the Clinton administration's willingness to send U.S. troops to the Golan, if requested by Israel and Syria.

Acknowledging that Israeli public opinion will ultimately decide their fate, either in a national referendum on a peace deal or at the election booth, Golan activists are getting out their message.

According to the latest opinion polls, about 55 percent of Israelis favor continued sovereignty over the Golan — a figure that was slightly higher prior to the Nov. 4 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

"Everyone wants to be complacent to the government's wishes, as a memorial to Rabin's memory," said Residents Committee spokeswoman Marla Van Meter, who attributed the decline to sympathy for the Labor government in the wake of the killing.

"Let's face it, when your government tells you that there is no other way — either you have the Golan or you have peace — it sounds good, but is it really reality?"

Sitting in her small apartment on Kibbutz Afik, Van Meter counted off the committee's objections to territorial compromise.

"What happens to Syria when Assad dies or gets knocked off?" she asked. "Do we even trust him, or is he only serving his own interests? We talk about peace, but we've had a cessation of violence for 20 years."

If it were up to the Residents Committee, whose members are elected by the local population, one possible compromise would allow people here to stay in their homes.

"What about a land lease?" Van Meter said. "Why can't we demilitarize and let people stay? We can even repatriate displaced Syrians, if that is what it takes."

That people in the Golan should be fighting for their right to remain is hardly surprising, given the reasons that they moved here in the first place.

Scattered among 32 kibbutzim, moshavim, villages and the town of Katzrin, most of the 15,000 Jews on the Golan were attracted by its quiet, rural way of life.

Rainfall is high and crime is low, ensuring that the Golan is not only lush and green, but extremely safe.

Each year, nearly 2 million Israelis come to the region to photograph local wildflowers and to hike in the majestic mountains. Others come up to ski on Mount Hermon or to visit the award-winning Golan Heights Winery.

Unlike the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel never officially annexed, the Golan is Israeli territory, according to the 1981 Golan Law. The area was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.

This fact, coupled with financial incentives to settle in the Golan from both the Labor and Likud governments, instilled in Israelis the belief that the Golan would always remain under Israeli sovereignty.

Today, nearly four years after Rabin announced in a campaign speech that Israel would never give up the Golan, most Jewish residents feel betrayed.

Van Meter said, "In the last election, 71 percent of Golan residents voted for Labor. Another 7 percent voted for Meretz [Labor's left-wing coalition partner]. Holding on to the Golan is part of Labor's platform. That section still stands."

The Residents Committee refused to discuss compensation from the government, saying doing so acknowledges defeat, but many were thinking about it.

"I've always felt the day would come when we would have to leave," said Shlomit Shoshani, a dairy farmer on Moshav Givat Yoav.

"I'm not saying we must leave the Golan," she added. "I don't want to, but we cannot be hostages and put a gun to the whole country and say we can't make peace because we won't leave."

Sitting in her large remodeled home, Shoshani added with a sigh, "I will never be able to raise my kids the way I do here. There are no drugs, there is no crime, no violence. Of course, I feel a conflict."

Shoshani was apparently not alone in considering the possibility of leaving the Golan.

The Way to Peace, a new organization of Golan resident prepared to evacuate the Golan once Israel and Syria make peace, recently signed 300 members.

"The bottom line is that our personal interests are less important than the national interest," said Eitan Leese, one of the group's leaders. "If we don't attain a peace agreement with Syria, at least I want us to be able to tell our children we tried, and why we are facing yet another war."

Meanwhile, said David Alin, a beekeeper at Moshav Givat Yoav who has lived on the Golan since 1974,"one must maintain a normal existence without thinking about what may happen. This is the only way to stay sane."