Until recently, residents of Druze villages in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights had maintained close economic, familial and emotional ties to Syria.

But the civil war raging in Syria has broken or altered these relationships.

"Syria is an idea for us, not life. If you ask anyone in the Golan which football team they support in Syria, you'll find no one able to answer," said Randa Madah, a 32-year-old artist from Majdal Shams, in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.


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Majdal Shams is home to about 10,000 people. It is the largest of four villages remaining after the expulsion of 130,000 Arab Druze inhabitants, which took place when Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it, a move that has not been recognised by the UN and the international community.

The rest of the Golan is occupied by 33 Jewish-only settlements, considered illegal under international law.

A stencilled portrait of Madah's cousin hangs on her apartment wall. He died in a Syrian jail for his role in the initially peaceful uprising in Damascus.

Madah spent six years studying in the Syrian capital. For many years, the Syrian government had waived university fees and provided a small monthly stipend for Golan youth to study in Syria.

 

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), between 400 and 500 students went through the Quneitra crossing into Syrian-controlled territory each year, aided by the Red Cross.

Since Syria's civil war started, that number has dwindled to only a few.

But Madah's connection to Syria still runs deep. Half of her family still lives in Damascus, and her recent artwork, exhibited in Paris, is about Syria.

In 2012, the Fateh Mudarris Centre - a volunteer-based cultural centre that she helped establish on her return from Damascus, which survived for nearly 10 years as an independent organisation - ran into financial difficulties. Two months ago, the centre had to close.

"The society here didn't understand our point of view and started boycotting us," Madah said, explaining that the centre encountered difficulties because of its support for the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. In Syria, the Druze minority has largely stayed loyal to Assad. 

When the uprising began, the Fateh Mudarris Centre took a stance, but now most of its founders have left Majdal Shams and are working in Austria, Germany, Jerusalem, or Ramallah.


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The Druze minority in Syria has faced the advance of opposition groups like the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other Sunni groups operating inside Syria consider the Druze to be heretics.

In June, Nusra Front massacred 23 residents, including children, in a Syrian Druze village in Idlib province.

The killings prompted Druze residents of Israel to take to the streets to demand that the Israeli government provide humanitarian and military aid to their brethren in Syria.

Last month, the Syrian conflict spilled into the streets of Majdal Shams when 200 people from the town attacked an Israeli ambulance carrying injured Syrian fighters, beating one of them to death.

For the past two years, the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) has been documenting interactions between opposition fighters and the Israeli military. Israel claims these interactions are limited to treating the wounded. 

More than 1,500 opposition fighters have so far been treated in Israeli hospitals, drawing criticism and claims that Israel is aiding the Nusra Front.

More than 1,500 opposition fighters have so far been treated in Israeli hospitals [EPA]

Rainbow Druze flags fly over some rooftops in Majdal Shams, as well as at entrances to warehouses storing coveted Golan apples. Before the war, this fruit had been the only good traded between the Golan Heights and Syria.

We cannot compete with farmers from the [Israeli] settlements. They have the ability to receive more water, and more resources to market it.

Mohadad Oueidat, apple and cherry farmer

"Farmers used to sell up to 20 percent of the product to Damascus," said Tayseer Maray, the director of Golan for Development, an NGO. 

Since 2005, the ICRC had assisted Druze farmers in the Israeli-occupied Golan in selling their products to the Syrian government, which paid more than the average market price in Israel.

"But since Nusra Front Front first attacked the Quneitra crossing two years ago, trade stopped. We are still searching for alternatives," said Maray.

Now, Druze farmers are finding it difficult to make adequate livings. 

"We cannot compete with farmers from the [Israeli] settlements. They have the ability to receive more water, and more resources to market it," said Mohadad Oueidat, a 44-year-old apple and cherry farmer, referring to the discriminatory water policies still in effect in the Golan.

"Often what we sell doesn't even cover the costs," added Oueidat, whose one-hectare farm did not generate enough profit to cover the cost of living for his family of four last year due to the low prices in the competitive Israeli market.

Oueidat's sister lives in Khader, the last remaining Syrian government stronghold along the Golan ceasefire line, which was besieged by rebel forces last month. The sound of shelling reverberates across the valleys, and can be heard on an almost daily basis from Majdal Shams.

In 2013, as the Syrian government weakened, the Israeli government announced a $59.8m investment plan for the Druze villages in the Golan Heights between 2014 and 2017, which some residents denounced as an opportunistic move, while others welcomed the potential financial gain.


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Kais Awidat, 19, works in his parents' supermarket in Majdal Shams to pay for his studies at a business school in Israel.

"I would love to go to Syria to study, but right now it's not possible," he said. "I don't think I would take up Israeli citizenship. I don't think that voting makes a difference anyway," said Awidat.

For some years, the Israeli media has reported an increase in the number of people requesting Israeli citizenship in the Golan Heights, particularly among youth, but accurate numbers have not been published. 

In 1981, more than 90 percent of people living in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights refused Israeli citizenship. As a result, most residents have a laissez-passer, a document that designates their nationality as "undefined": citizens of neither Israel nor Syria.

"We are separated, forgotten," said Randa Madah, the artist. "But I now discovered that even from here in the Golan, through my work, [my audience] can connect with us as Syrians living under occupation."

Source: Al Jazeera