|Farrah Hassen | Writer/Grad Student||United States|
I write to you as a Syrian-American, a Muslim, a student, and for full disclosure, a practical idealist. Four years ago, in the ghost town of Quneitra on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, I stood inches away from your country’s side of the border, separated only by barbed wire covered with an invisible layer of enmity‚??and a no man’s land filled with mines amongst the delicate white flowers growing on the Israeli side. I recall the forceful sound of the Golan wind and my temptation to challenge the resilience of the wire and defy the mines by jumping over it. Instead, I turned my back and continued to explore the destroyed, decaying buildings throughout Quneitra resulting from the 1967 and 1973 wars. It then dawned on me that both Israelis and Syrians share flowers and landmines.
I don’t want to discuss Israel‚??s annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights. I would defer to UN Security Council Resolution 497 (December 17, 1981), which condemned Israel’s decision to “impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights” as “null and void and without international legal effect.” The acquisition of territory by force goes against the very principles of the UN Charter and international law.
From your vantage point, the presence of some 20,000 Israeli settlers in the Golan makes the return of this plateau to Syria unthinkable. But put yourself in a Syrian’s shoes. What would returning the “Occupied Syrian Golan Heights” signify to those within a stone’s throw of your country, those whose families have lived for thousands of years in the area?
Until I toured Quneitra with a Syrian filmmaker who grew up there before the town was captured in 1967, I didn’t have such thoughts. Mohammed Malas showed me the shattered mosque where he once prayed, where he used to wait for his father to finish his prayers. He pointed to the rubble that was his father‚??s store and to another pile of twisted wires and crumbling rock where he watched films as a young boy. Malas later dramatized the fate of Quneitra in his film, The Night. I still visualize the bittersweet look in his soulful eyes when he said, “The movies that I make capture the rebuilding of life‚??not the destruction of life.”
At a restaurant built on the 1974 ceasefire line, a group of somber, middle aged men shared with me their experiences of fleeing their homes after the Golan’s annexation. They mentioned other Syrian nationals who live in the Israeli controlled part of the Golan, still separated from their family members on the Syrian side. They don’t see the return of the Golan Heights as a place that symbolizes Arab-Israel or Syrian-Israeli conflict. Rather, they talk bitterly about the injustice done to people they know or members of their families.
The Golan Heights epitomizes the personal and the global. It means war or peace‚??for and between Syrians and Israelis and by extension for the rest of human kind.
40 years after the 1967 war, the Middle East remains besieged with violence and distrust. So much is at stake and government leaders quibble about words. Defense Minister Amir Peretz has suggested that Israel begin negotiations with Syria. On May 7, National Security Council Chairmen Ilan Mizrahi said that “Syria’s call for dialogue with Israel is authentic.” Others in your country still question whether Syria is interested in pursuing “peace,” or just the “peace process.”
Well, look at the International Crisis Group’s April 10, 2007 report, particularly the sentence that relates directly to lingering security concerns you have with Syria: “Officials in Damascus provided their clearest indication to date both that they would resume negotiations without any precondition and that the country’s regional posture and relationship with Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran inevitably would change following a peace deal.”
What will happen to the Israeli settlers in the Golan? What about security guarantees? One could imagine that money used for “security” in that area would instead go to help relocating the settlers. But I’ll leave those inherently complex issues for the seasoned negotiators.
I still remember flowers growing on both sides of the barbed wire. For Syrians and Israelis, they represent nature, beauty, the continuity of life, dominated by the shared demands of everyday living‚??working, breaking bread, praying, laughing, grieving, loving. As long as the military status quo remains, however, without renewed peace talks and the return of the Syrian Golan, destructive “landmines” will continue to tie your fate with that of a Syrian’s. After all, who said borders weren’t impenetrable?
Farrah Hassen is a Seymour Melman fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C. and a graduate student at American University‚??s School of International Service.