Separation of families “priority humanitarian issue”

Two elderly women who have not seen their families in decades travel on a bus from the Golan to Jerusalem. They and about 40 other women traveled over three hours to protest and raise awareness of their plight. (Shabtai Gold/IRIN)

JERUSALEM, 14 October 2007 (IRIN) - Some 580 women living in the occupied Golan region are disconnected from their families in Syria as they are not allowed to cross from the occupied zone to their homeland, a new women’s organization has said.

“All the Arabs of the Golan have some family in Syria. But these women are disconnected from their mothers, fathers and brothers and sisters,” said Souha Munder, a lawyer who works with the new group, which calls itself The Women of the Occupied Arab-Syrian Golan.

The Israeli Ministry of Interior said the women are “citizens of Israel” and therefore not allowed to travel to Syria as it is an “enemy country.” However, the women could apply on an individual basis for a permit to travel to Syria, although this process can take months, a spokeswoman said.

Following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, sections of the Golan were captured by Israel. While most of the villages were depopulated, four Druze villages and one Alawi village remained inhabited.

Many women who had married residents of the Golan before 1967 found themselves cut off from their families in Jabal al-Arab and other parts of Syria, the women said.

“The separation of families is one of the most serious consequences of the occupation in the Golan which needs to be addressed. It is a priority humanitarian issue. We have been pursuing this with the highest Israeli authorities. The problem has been persisting for far too long,” Paul Conneally, deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, told IRIN.

“I have lived in the Golan for 40 years. I have seen my family only once, in 1988,” said Farida Jarera.

“All my family has died: my parents, my brothers, my cousins. I couldn’t go to even one funeral,” said the ageing woman. “I hope somebody will help me. I want to be able to see the rest of my family.”

Videotaped funerals

The separation has created a rather morbid practice. When a family member dies, the funeral is videotaped for those on the other side of the border. Eventually, the tape reaches the family, who watch and begin their mourning process with the sounds and sights of their relatives’ grief.

“Being disconnected is a daily suffering,” said Souha.

Other women, through special ICRC facilitation, have been able to move to the occupied Golan from Syria to marry. The program works in the other direction as well, but once the woman has moved, she cannot easily return to her homeland.

“I have been living in the Golan for the last four years,” said Nour Tawfiq originally from southern Syria. She and her Golan husband now have a two-year-old daughter Katya.

“She has never seen her grandmother. It will get harder. Her friends will have grandparents, and she will have never met her grandmother,” Nour said.

In March, Arwad Abu Shaheen crossed from the Golan into Syria to marry Muhanned Harb. Their wedding took place inside the demilitarized zone between the Golan and Syria. It was the last time Arwad saw her mother.

“If there is peace [between Syria and Israel] I will see my parents again. If not, then I won’t,” Arwad said at the time.

Her mother joined the new women’s group, hoping for the right to see her daughter. Arwad’s sister-in-law, Souha, who was born in Jabal al-Arab and now lives in the Golan, also signed up as she has not seen her family in several years.

Both women took part in a protest in front of the ICRC Jerusalem headquarters on 9 October, in the first attempt to publicize their plight.

Quneitra crossing

A position paper released by the new group called on the Israeli government to end its policy of separation and allow the women to pass through the Quneitra Crossing in the Golan into Syria and return, citing the Fourth Geneva Convention which covers all individuals “who do not belong to the armed forces, take no part in the hostilities and find themselves in the hands of the Enemy or an Occupying Power.”

Currently, the crossing is used by students, pilgrims and UN peacekeeping forces.

“If students are allowed to travel to Syria to study, and pilgrims can go for religious reasons, why can’t these women visit their families?” asked Souha Munder, the lawyer.

Souha said most of the requests she had filed to Israel’s Interior Ministry went unanswered. “They just don’t respond, which means no, refused. On very, very rare occasions a woman is allowed through,” she said.

In the 1980s, the Israeli government annexed the occupied Golan and forced the Syrian nationals to take residency in Israel, despite prolonged strikes during which the Druze barricaded themselves in their villages for months.

“Syria isn’t my enemy, so why can’t I visit?” asked one woman.

From 1988 until 1992, the ICRC facilitated a family visitation system, which collapsed after disputes over technical issues between Israel and Syria. No program has replaced it and observers doubt it will be revived soon.

For most families traveling to Jordan for family reunions is simply too expensive and not feasible, said Souha.

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