Syrian residents of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights march to commemorate their 1982 uprising [GALLO/GETTY]
Siham Monder was 14 when Syrian residents of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights took to the streets for a strike and protests that spanned six months of 1982.
“Now I’m 43,” Monder says. “And I remember that every day in that period there was a conflict with the [Israeli army]. There were more soldiers here than residents.”
While the Israeli military occupation of the Golan began after the 1967 war, the strike and protests started on February 14, 1982, two months after the Israeli knesset passed the Golan Heights Law, legislation that effectively annexed the territory.
The Israeli move was condemned by both the US and the United Nations – the latter has issued multiple resolutions against the annexation – and it remains unrecognised by the international community.
Here, in the Golan, the annexation was embodied by the army’s effort to distribute blue Israeli identity cards. In 1982, some 15,000 soldiers came to deliver the IDs to Syrian residents, a group that numbered less than 10,000 at the time.
“The people refused them. They were against it. They threw them in the [soldiers’] faces,” Monder says, adding that the army often responded violently to the unarmed protesters.
An elderly man recalls standing on his balcony and flinging the identity card into the street below, which was full of Israeli soldiers. Another resident adds that the roads were “blue” with all the refused IDs.
Syrian residents were somewhat victorious – while the Israeli attempt to impose citizenship failed and residents were classified as permanent residents, their land remains occupied.
Every year, on February 14, the Syrian residents gather in the village of Majdal Shams to mark their intifada. They meet by the statue of Sultan Al Atrash, the Druze leader who led revolts against both the Ottoman and French occupations. Waving Syrian flags as they make their way through the town, they sing of their home country and chant of liberation and freedom.
Samir Ibrahim, a 48-year-old dentist, serves as an impromptu translator. “They’re saying, ‘Zionists go away from here.'”
This year, the Syrian residents of the Israeli-occupied Golan offer up messages of support to the Egyptians, Tunisians, and all of the Arab people who are struggling against oppression.
“Today is not a sad day. It’s the day that we refused [Israeli citizenship]. It’s a Tahrir Square day for us,” Ibrahim explains, referring to the square that served as the nerve centre of the Egyptian revolution.
From doorways and balconies, elderly women shower the passing crowd with rice.
The march ends at Shouting Hill. Syria is on the other side of the steep valley. Standing under banners of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, local leaders address the twin crowd that has gathered in Syria. Their words echo across the border. And messages of solidarity and support bounce back from their counterparts.
Because the Israeli occupation has torn many of the area’s households into two – some 120,000 Arabs were driven from their homes in the Golan during and after the 1967 war – families sometimes gather here on the weekends to talk with relatives on the other side. In the earliest days of the occupation, they shouted, hence the name Shouting Hill. Later on, they took to using bullhorns.
Today some of the protesters hold binoculars. They scan the crowd in Syria, looking for their loved ones.
Ibrahim’s 18-year-old daughter is studying in Damascus. Because of Israeli movement restrictions, Ibrahim will not be able to see her until this summer. But she told her father that she would attend the rally today. Ibrahim cranes his neck, hoping to catch a glimpse of his child.
“I talked to her this morning,” he says. “She said she’d be wearing green.”
He cannot see her. And this day of celebration is tinged with sadness.
Monder, who is a lawyer, remarks: “Family reunification is our right according to international law. The Geneva Convention says it’s forbidden to injure the humanity [of an occupied people]. And it’s part of our humanity to be in touch with our family.”
“People have died there [in Syria] and their parents can’t go [to the funeral],” Monder says, adding that few homes in the Golan are untouched by this phenomenon.
Families have been split in another way – hundreds of Syrian residents of the Golan have been political prisoners.
Ibrahim points out a gentleman who did 25 years for resisting the occupation. Monder greets Amal Mahmoud, a woman who spent four years behind bars.
“She’s a heroine,” Monder remarks, adding: “[Today’s celebration] reinforces the hope that the day of liberation will come. Every February 14, we’re born anew.”
Business as usual
But the next morning, it is business as usual. Distribution trucks roll into the village, bringing Israeli-brand milk, sour cream and produce that the villagers made or grew before the occupation began.
Since 1967, Syrian residents of the Golan have seen their lands illegally confiscated by Israel and used for Jewish settlements and wineries that, in violation of international law, profit from the occupation.
According to Al Marsad Arab Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Golan, Jewish settlers are allocated five times more water than the area’s Arab farmers. And Syrians in the Golan Heights pay more for water than Israelis.
Their production strangled, the Syrian residents of the Golan have become a captive market. Some stores sell water from a local spring that has been bottled and sold by an Israeli company.
Zaid Ouidat owns a small store within sight of the Al Atrash statue. Inside, the cooler is stocked with Israeli brands.
“It’s our land and [the Israelis] are holding it by force,” he says. “They’re not giving us the land to put goats and so we can’t drink milk, we have no cows, nothing … Someone comes to buy milk because they don’t have any and where can they buy it?”
“I think about this,” Ouidat continues. “But what is there to do? There’s no choice. If there was another way, I would import, but there isn’t. What, I will bring it from Syria, from my people?”
He gives a dry laugh.
“This is Syrian land but no one can do anything about it,” Ouidat says. “There are no options.”
Embattled Arab identity
Taiseer Maray is the general director of Jawlan, Golan for Development. Founded in 1991, it was created as another form of resistance to the Israeli occupation.
In the 1990s, he explains, Syrian residents of the Golan “realised that we should do more than go to demonstrations, that [protesting] is not enough”. And, despite the fact that Syrian residents pay higher taxes than their Jewish neighbours, they were receiving far fewer services from the state.
Jawlan was created to address both of these issues. The organisation built a medical clinic and a school. It provides health services throughout the area and offers a wide variety of educational and cultural activities.
One of the organisation’s goals is to reinforce the youth’s identification with Syria.
After annexation, Maray says: “[The Israelis] opened the gates from the other side and tried to use the opportunity to make us Israeli …. You feel it in the schools.”
Maray points out that the Israeli educational system only hires Arab teachers that keep their politics quiet. And, in these schools, Syrian residents of the Golan are taught that they are Druze, not Arab.
While most of the Syrian residents are of the Druze religion, Maray emphasises that it is just that – a religion.
“They are trying to make us feel like we are something different than the other Arabs,” Maray says.
“We study all the Zionist ideology, all the literature, Hebrew, the tanach,” he continues, referring to the Hebrew bible.
“They teach us Arab poetry and culture. But they don’t teach us about the culture of resistance …. The people in the Golan Heights were very much involved in the revolt against the French.”
Maray, a biologist and father of two, admits that his own children have come home parroting things they have learned in Israeli schools. But the society, organisations and parents all work on their children to shore up their embattled Arab identity.
Tharaa, an 18-year-old girl who asked that her family name be omitted, remarks: “Our parents know what it was like in Syria because they were there, before the war. But we learn at school that we’re from Israel.”
Her friend Walida comments: “All the time we feel like we are undefined.”
“Unknown,” Tharaa says. “Like a dog.”
“Yes, like a dog,” Walida agrees.
The girls fall into silence.
Tharaa says: “We hope to be known.”