Friday, July 24, 2009

Glorious, Glorious Golan

A couple weekends ago I somehow ended up with the good fortune of being paired up with two beautiful ladies to go research one of the most beautiful areas in the world—the Golan Heights, north of Israel proper. Since my case study on the Jordan Valley petered out for various reasons, ICAHD assigned me to help out with this one.

The Golan is the unsung occupied territory, garnering much less international attention than the Palestinian territories. The occupied Golan Heights was once Syrian land—indeed, virtually all the Arabs in the Golan still regard it as Syria—that was annexed by Israel during the Six Day War in 1967. The only thing marring the unbelievable beauty of this land of cherry and apple orchards are the untold amount of landmines lying beneath vast swaths of the territory. You'll become very familiar with the murky yellow DANGER! MINES! sign after only a few minutes in the Golan.

Most of the Arabs in the Israeli-occupied Golan are of Druze heritage, which I'll leave you to research because I don't feel like making the effort to describe it all here. Let's just say that like Jewish identity, Druze identity is a mix of ethnicity, religion, and social tradition.

While I was there, we did a considerable amount of solid work, but we also had a lot of fun. Our crew-of-three saw a local hip-hop show with seizure-inducing lighting, muscled a rented car over rocky roads between the ruins of houses, skinny dipped in the Sea of Galilee on a moonless night, barbecued kebabs of "young sheep" while sitting in an apple orchard, enjoyed succulent just-picked cherries from a local farmer, had millions of interesting conversations over millions of cups of aromatic Turkish coffee, posed atop the carcass of both an Israeli and a Syrian tank, and of course sang along to sentimental American childhood favorites ranging from Alanis Morissette to the Backstreet Boys. I could say more, but I'm getting to that point where I know that writing about life is cool insofar that it does not consume so much of your time that it makes your life less fulfilling – and consequently, less worthy of being written about!

Since the theme of this post seems to be laziness, I thought it'd be fitting to share my political and journalistic findings in the Golan by copying a lengthy email that I just sent my superior at ICAHD. Why write the same thing twice?


...As far as getting testimonials from people pushed out of their homes by the Israelis in '67 (which is the Syrian narrative echoed by everybody we talked to), we didn't get any - because we learned that virtually all of these refugees are in Syria at the moment. A--- probably told you that she is planning on talking to these refugees once she gets settled in Syria. We did talk to a few older men who were there in Majdal Shams when the Israelis invaded, but none of them were actually displaced, and Majdal Shams didn't see much action because most of the fighting was happening in the plateaus to the south.

We were reminded over and over again that the population of the Golan, which was something like 130,000 before the war, had plummeted to only 5,000 after the Israeli army had emptied almost all of the towns except for the five Druze villages in the north, of which Majdal Shams is one. There were a few reasons that were offered for Israel's decision to let these Druze villages be, the main ones being that a) Seeing as the town had already been razed to the ground twice by the French and Ottomans, the population decided they would rather live under occupation than flee and risk their village being destroyed a third time. b) Israel's desire to cultivate a special relationship with the Druze for their own political ends.

I'm sure you're somewhat familiar with this, as well as the parallels of oppression in both Jewish and Druze history. Taiseer Merei from Golan for Development told us that originally Israel had wanted to create a Druze state which would encompass parts of the Golan and what is now the north of Israel proper. This would be done, according to Dr. Marai, to legitimize Israel's ethnocracy by creating a similiar state, which would imply that this is the norm in the new Middle East. Dr. Marai also mentioned that Zionist planners had long coveted the Golan - even before '67 - for its considerable water resources.

In my opinion, the most interesting things we learned on the trip were not about 1967, but 2009. That is, the Occupation here in the Golan is of a softer, more accommodating form than in Palestine (only as far as the Golanis do not resist, surely the Israeli boot is still on the neck, but with much lighter pressure). A think a good analogy between occupied Palestine and the Golan is that of the difference between the fictional dystopias of 1984 and Brave New World. In Palestine/1984, the people are controlled through brute force, while in the Golan/Brave New World, people are lulled into loving their masters and are rarely punished because their opposition never materializes. The Syrian Druze may not be as loyal to Israel as the Palestinian Druze living in Israel proper, but they still enjoy health benefits and access to higher education in Israel. Most of the street signs here are in Hebrew and Arabic. One young Syrian - who was going to college in Haifa - told us that there were more doctors per capita in Majdal Shams than anywhere else in the world (unverifiable fact, but interesting nonetheless). As we talked with more and more younger people there, we got the feeling that many of the new generation of Syrian Druze would rather be occupied by Israel than be back under Syrian rule. If the Golan were returned to Syria, they could face fewer economic opportunities and poorer healthcare, among other things.

Besides the religious and cultural parallels between the Jewish and Druze people, we were also told that the Israelis give the Druze greater opportunities because they can afford to. This is because the Syrian Arabpopulation of the Golan - which is predominantly Druze - is only 21,000 people (there are an estimated 18,000 Israeli settlers in the Golan as well). Finally, just as the Palestinians are worse off after the second Intifada, the Syrian Druze are better off because nothing of the sort ever occurred. The last major act of resistance by the people of the Golan was over a quarter-century ago - in 1982, there was a general strike for six months. But ever since then, things seem to have been pretty quiet. Still, in the rare instance that poltiical opposition appears in the Golan, it is swiftly and quietly crushed. Many of the older men we spoke to had put considerable time in Israeli jails.

Despite their "good behavior" and relatively small numbers, the Syrian Arabs in the occupied Golan are undoubtedly treated like second class citizens. The Israeli land authority, Minhal, has allowed virtually no space for the villages to grow outwards - the designated outer boundary of the village was drawn almost exactly along the lines of existing housing. So instead, the people of Majdal Shams have to build in between and on top of each other. Nazeh Brik, the architect we spoke with, said that this crowding was having a negative psychological effect on the population - it was making people more "tense" and "aggressive" - although I will say that the people we met were invariably awesome.

The Syrian Arabs also pay a higher premium for water than their Jewish neighbors, and at one point, the Makarot - the Israeli water authority in the Golan - wanted to tax rainwater collected by farmers, since they considered it property of the State of Israel. Ridiculous, isn't it? From what we were told, Syrian Arabs have to pay nearly four times as much for their water than the Jewish settlers there. If only I could get my hands on something more official to verify this...

The greatest flaw of all of our research was that our interview subjects were not really a good representation of the whole population. The atheist Druze community, which by any reasonable guess is no more than 10% of the population of Majdal Shams, made up probably 75% of our interviews. You know how it works - the first person we meet there is an atheist, who refers us to another like-minded person, who refers us to another like-minded person, etc. We didn't get to talk to any obviously religious Druze - you know, the ones wearing the white snow-caps and donning the curly mustaches - which is unfortunate.

We did, however, spend an evening in a Jewish settlement and spoke with a professor and published author who said quite interestingly that the whole dispute between Syria and Israel over the Golan really boils down to a strip of land alongside Tiberias Lake/Sea of Galilee. Because the lake has actually changed shape since 1967, Israel would somehow still control its entire shoreline if exact borders (based on global coordinates?) were reinforced, according to this professor whose name escapes me now - A--- definitely knows.

Overall, I would echo a common sentiment that the occupation of the Golan Heights is more economical than ideological. The place is incredibly, incredibly interesting and utterly gorgeous and I could easily write you an email about the Golan that makes this one look like a Post-It note, so I'll stop here.
And now for some epic pictures from our epic journey:

From this vantage point near the dormant ski resort, you can see the lands of Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.

Trudging amongst the ruins of one of the hundreds of Syrian villages razed in a two month period following Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights.

Our homeboy Omar poses on the hood of a Syrian tank featured in a memorial park for Israeli soldiers killed in the wars of '67 and '73; this place is called the "Valley of Tears." Not far away from the tank are speakers with button-activated recordings which regale the listener of Israeli heroics during the 1973 war, replete with majestic background music.

Meanwhile, no more than a hundred meters in the distance an abandoned Israeli tank looks sullen and confused as to why the Syrian tank gets to be placed at the Israeli memorial.

Majdal Shams: undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of the Golan's Druze villages and perhaps the coolest place in the Middle East. Have you ever eaten a crepe with labaneh inside? You haven't lived until you've tried it!

Just one of the many riveting landscapes you'll encounter along the Golan's roads, which may be the closest you can get to the white-knuckled fantasies embodied in car commercials. That is, you get curvy, mountainside roads with a lushly romantic environmental backdrop and little to no police presence.

A bullet-riddled, deserted mosque just outside the ruins of the aforementioned town.

The inside of the mosque was covered in graffiti of all political stripes, with plenty of bizarre apolitical stuff to boot.

Thanks to the two aforementioned beautiful women for these pictures, and for some interesting shots of our Syrian friend Nihad's mine-riddled backyard, visit his Flickr page.

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