Refugees from Golan hope that Israeli-Syrian peace talks will point to a lasting peace between the two enemies and, eventually, repatriation [GALLO/GETTY]
Former residents of the Golan Heights are hopeful that ongoing Turkish-led peace talks between Syria and Israel can reunite them with the land that has been occupied since 1967.
“It needs to happen. Everyone wants peace,” said Munir Kanshaw, a Circassian, who was 19-years-old during the 1967 War, when Israel seized much of the Syrian province of Qunaytra, now known as the Golan Heights.
“It is what everyone hopes for. Peace is everything.”
But he does have doubts and is wary of previous peace talks which collapsed.
The land was captured by Israel in the 1967 War. Syria and Egypt launched a surprise attack on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in the 1973 War but failed to recapture it.
In 1974, Israel destroyed the main city of Qunaytra (in the province of Qunaytra) following a pullback negotiated by Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state.
In 1981, Israel annexed the occupied Golan Heights and today, there are some 20,000 Jewish settlers in the Golan.
The United Nations considers the Golan occupied territory.
Recent overtures and peace talks between Israel and Syria “should not have surprised anyone,” Joel Beinin, professor of Middle East history at Stanford University, told Al Jazeera.
Following the 1991 Gulf War, the US engaged Syria in talks over the Golan.
But by the mid-1990s, several rounds of Israeli-Syrian negotiations mediated by Bill Clinton, the former US president, collapsed in Geneva over territorial disagreements.
“The Syrian president died in June 2000 and was succeeded by his son, Bashar. In 2004, when the younger al-Assad felt his rule had stabilised, Syria resumed contacts with Israel,” Beinin told Al Jazeera.
Refugees from Qunaytra, who have lived for some 40 years in Damascus, say they are optimistic about the land-for-peace negotiations.
“If you think about taking someone’s land and living in peace and security, that’s impossible,” Kanshaw, now 60 says. “The best years were stolen from people of my generation.”
Kanshaw now lives in a house he built himself on the road from Damascus to Qunaytra.
“We started our lives from zero. I am doing alright now. But we need to think about our children. I don’t need to explain anything to my kids. They have seen the destroyed town, they know who did it, and they watch the news.”
Temporary became permanent
|Analysts believe a settlement over the Golan can lead to a regional peace deal|
During the 1967 War, five-year-old Walid Abu Asalay and his family left Qunaytra for what they thought was temporary sanctuary in Damascus.
“Weeks, months went by. It was really frustrating for my father, because he had almost completed building our house in Qunaytra,” recalls Abu Asalay, now a Damascus resident.
“After that, my father never owned another house.”
The 1973 War saw a small victory for Syria when it won back part of the Golan Heights, including the city of Qunaytra, the capital of the province by the same name. Abu Asalay’s family thought they would see their home again.
Instead, following the 1974 cease-fire, they returned to a ghost town of levelled buildings; those standing were pockmarked with bullet holes. Their house was one of hundreds dynamited to the ground.
When his father saw his home town, Abu Asalay recalls: “His face looked dead. He was 50 years old at the time. How do you start a new life then?”
But unlike his father, Abu Asalay is optimistic about the prospects for peace with Israel.
“We hope peace will come,” he says on a break between his two jobs as hotel manager and restaurant manager, both in the Christian Quarter of Old Damascus.
“It has to happen.”
Like a dream
|The ruins of Qunaytra, destroyed it in 1974, still stand today [ANDERSEN]|
Issa Khalil was just a year old when his family was uprooted from Qunaytra following the war.
He admits, “It is hard to remember. It’s like a dream.”
“But, the Golan is my home.”
As for the ongoing negotiations, he says, “Peace is important, and so is connection to the land. We call it ‘a just peace’.”
In fact, his connection to the land was so strong that he worked as a postman on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights for 12 years, right on the border with Israel.
Being there, he says, “made me want to return to the land, which is now occupied by Israel. There is a longing for the land. I was there just last week to see friends on the Syrian side.”
Khalil, a Muslim, says he refrains from any animosity toward Jews, despite the Israeli occupation.
“Every religion should respect the other – Christians, Muslims and Jews.”
But he worries, “If we do not get our rights, we will likely stay enemies.”
International law seems to be on his side, Beinin said.
“International law requires that refugees return to their homes. There will be no deal unless all the Golan is returned, in which case the Syrian refugees will go back and the Israeli settlements will be evacuated and the settlers relocated in Israel.”
Beinin says any lasting peace agreement requires a full Israeli withdrawal and a full Israeli-Syrian peace.
“Just as was the case with Egypt. No more, no less,” he said.
Kanshaw points out, “Look at how much money is spent on war. If it is instead put to peace, then everyone will prosper.”
“Humans are humans wherever they are. We do not hate,” he said.