Beirut, Lebanon: Thousands of Syrian residents of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights are expected to boycott the first municipal elections imposed by Israel on the area, rejecting what they call the 'Israelization' of the territory.
Following a decision handed down by Israel's supreme court last year to hold, for the first time ever, municipal elections in October 2018 for the occupied Golan's 26,000 Syrian residents, local religious leaders and village elders are calling for a full rejection of the elections, calling it a "red line."
"With regards to the Golan Heights families, we are Syrian Arabs living under Israeli occupation and there is no possible way for us to accept these elections imposed on us," Abu Wadih, an elder from Majdal Shams, told Al Jazeera.
He participated in a meeting held recently between Israeli officials and religious leaders and elders from the occupied Golan to discuss the elections and said in no uncertain terms that the elections would be boycotted and rejected.
"We told them that these elections, for Golan residents, are a red line. We will not accept them, and those who called for them do not represent us or the Golan community," he said, adding that community leaders are working to ensure the elections do not even take place.
Bassam Safadi, a local journalist, told Al Jazeera that once the community leaders have made that decision on the elections, the entire community will follow.
When it comes out from these leaders, it will be rejected by the entire population, as it was in the 1980s when the Israeli occupation tried to impose the nationality on us
Bassam Safadi, local journalist
"These elections are undemocratic, unrepresentative and it is part of Israel's plan to create tensions within our community," he added.
'Israelization of occupied Golan Heights'
"The Israelis are using the Arab Spring and what is happening in Syria to re-launch some projects that were put aside for a long time," Wael Tarabieh, a civil society activist and artist from Majdal Shams, told Al Jazeera.
"We call what they are doing the 'Israelization of the Golan Heights', and today it is a process that is moving forward," he said. "These elections are a part of that process."
According to Tarabieh, "Israelization" of the area involves encouraging the younger generation to reject their Syrian identity, focus on their economic future and accept Israeli citizenship, removing certain Golan-specific taxes, playing up their sectarian identity to encourage assimilation into Israeli society as Israeli Druze.
"This policy is working on some of the younger generation," admitted Tarabieh.
"While the numbers are very low, there are a few who are taking on the Israeli nationality in order to be able to travel abroad, study abroad, secure a better economic future."
Statistics provided by local NGO Al Marsad, the Arab Human Rights Centre in the Golan Heights, show that since the beginning of the occupation in 1967 until March 2018, only 6.5 percent of those in the occupied Golan have applied for Israeli citizenship. Furthermore, 69 percent of those who receive citizenship do so as a result of birth, marriage or because of a change of residence.
"The Israelis are trying to make us feel like we have opportunities here," 21-year-old Aram Abu Saleh, a Golan resident and university student in Jerusalem, told Al Jazeera.
"They are trying to make it easier to establish this Druze-Israeli identity in the Golan," she said, adding that Israeli authorities are also capitalising on the internal rift within the Golan community over the war in Syria. "They use this political crisis to make us see how Israel is better, while also playing on the Druze identity."
Other aspects of the "Israelization" policy in the occupied Golan include the continuation of property confiscation, land grabs, squeezing out local businesses while promoting Israeli settlement businesses, expanding the tourism industry in the area, expanding settlement activity and investing millions of dollars in local infrastructure.
A comprehensive 144-page report published in March 2018 by Al Marsad provides sobering details of Israel's decades-long entrenchment of its control over the territory using education, land appropriation, expanding settlement industries, family separation and agriculture as weapons.
In the agriculture sector today, Syrian residents only have access to 20 percent of the occupied Golan's arable land, while Israeli settlers possess - there are 26,000 of them today in 32 illegal settlements - and are able to cultivate 80 percent.
The Israeli government has invested in the settler agricultural sector, pumping in $108m in 2014, giving them an unfair advantage over Syrian farmers who are now competing with settler farmers who are subsidised by the state. This limits Syrian farmers' access to the markets, to much-needed water sources and, at times, even access to their own lands due to land grabs.
|Druze gather to contact their relatives on the Syrian side, in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights [File: Reuters]|
Israel began its occupation of the 1,200sq km mountainous Heights after capturing it from Syria in the 1967 War. It subsequently expelled over 130,000 Syrians and destroyed the majority of the 340 towns and villages in the area, leaving only the villages of Majdal Shams, Ain Qinya, Masadi and Baqatha standing. Today there are approximately 26,000 Syrians living in the area, while around 600,000 of the Golan's natives are outside, waiting to return.
Israel had a long-term plan for the Golan Heights. The first illegal settlement was constructed within weeks of the occupation in 1967, and by the 1970s the Israeli government changed the education curriculum, forcing local schools to introduce Druze heritage classes, teaching an Israeli version of the history and religious background of the Druze sect.
"Through this curriculum, we were taught that we are not Arabs, we are not Syrians, we are not Muslims," explained Tarabieh. "They were trying to separate us from our roots."
Israeli authorities swiftly followed this by imposing the Golan Heights Law in 1981, officially annexing the Syrian territory, a move roundly rejected by the international community. When the Israeli military attempted to force Golan residents to accept the Israeli nationality - in many instances even physically - locals responded by collectively signing a 'National Declaration' that said anyone who took the Israeli ID would be shunned.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Israel continued constructing illegal settlements in the occupied Golan while simultaneously conducting negotiations with the Syrian government over returning the territory to Syria. But, when unrest began in neighbouring Syria in 2011, Israel sought to revive and aggressively pursue its Golan sovereignty project.
This year's Golan Heights municipal elections come as Israel renews its push for international recognition of its annexation and self-declared sovereignty over the Syrian territory, focusing primarily on recognition from the Trump administration.
"These elections are like a test, to see if anything has changed in the attitudes of local residents in the Golan Heights over the last seven years," explained Golan Heights resident and activist Wesam Sharaf.
"The Israelis also want to use this opportunity to show [the international community] that there were elections and that people participated," to demonstrate that Golan residents have given up on the idea of returning to Syria.
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu tried to convince the previous US administration that the war in neighbouring Syria should encourage 'different thinking' over the future of the Golan Heights, declaring: "the time has come for the international community to finally recognise that the Golan Heights will remain under Israel's sovereignty permanently."
Now, with a US administration that has proven to be more compliant than its predecessor, Israel is pushing its sovereignty project once again. In May, Israel's intelligence minister, Israel Katz, said the Golan issue is now "topping the agenda" between the two countries, and it seems to be working.
Following the official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and the subsequent embassy move, some US officials are now actively working to get Washington to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan.
US Senator Ted Cruz is leading efforts which would include establishing joint US-Israel projects in the occupied Golan, sending official delegations to the area and officially recognising self-proclaimed Israeli sovereignty over. At the same time, Ron DeSantis, US congressman and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced a resolution to Congress pushing for the US to officially recognise Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan.
|An Israeli soldier stands next to signs showing distances to different cities, on Mount Bental, an observation post in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights overlooking the Syrian side of the Quneitra crossing [File: Reuters]|
Earlier this month, Michael Oren, Israeli deputy minister and former Israeli ambassador to the US, presented a plan to significantly expand Israeli settlements in the Golan, increasing the number of Jewish settlers from around 26,000 today to 100,000 over the next decade.
Israeli Knesset member and contender for the premiership, Yair Lapid, called on the international community to officially recognise Israeli sovereignty of the Golan, writing in an op-ed two weeks ago that Syrian historical claims to the Golan Heights are 'absurd' and that Israel's claim to the territory is 'biblical'.
All these claims are dismissed by the residents of the Golan. "I am Syrian," said Sharaf. "I feel that within all aspects of my life; my culture and my language are completely Syrian. And I hope one day we will go back to being [part of] Syria."
"We belong to Syria and we don't recognise Israel's annexation and occupation."
"The Golan is Syrian Arab and will remain so," said Safadi. "Any plan against the Golan residents, whether it's national ID or elections, anything to create tensions among the local population, is roundly rejected and never works."