Whatever happened to the Golan Heights?

Ruins of al-Quneitra city, the main city of the Golan (Photo: M. Ayman Haykal)

The Golan Heights cast a shadow across the Middle East peace discussions, but are seldom mentioned.

The drip, drip of Syria’s demonisation continues on a daily basis – little asides from ‘good cop’ Colin Powell, overt threats from ‘bad cop’ Donald Rumsfeld. Why? Because Syria is guilty of non-compliance – a capital crime in America’s new world order – and, what is worse, Syria is thought to give succour to Hizbollah and Hamas, organisations which support the Palestinians in their struggle to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land in the West Bank and Gaza.

Eleven months ago my wife and I stood close to the UN flag in the Syrian ghost town of Quneitra, and looked across the closed borders of Syria and Israel to the green and pleasant landscape of the Golan Heights. Flowers sprouted between the rows of razor wire and chunks of concrete rubble. The sound of birdsong hung in the air. A gentle breeze rustled the grass in no-man’s land. Beyond the intervening minefield crops bathed in the warmth of the early summer sun and Israeli settlers pottered about the fields. In the middle distance we could see Israeli army jeeps patrolling a road running parallel to the border. On the skyline behind, Israeli watchtowers and gun emplacements lined the ridge tops.

The Israelis overran the Golan Heights and Quneitra in 1967, but after the Yom Kippur war in 1973 they agreed to vacate Quneitra and to withdraw a short distance. Before they departed - in a gratuitous act of defiance – the town was razed to the ground. That day in June, when we stood beneath the fluttering UN flag, it was the culminating day of celebrations in Britain to commemorate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. There was, however, nothing to celebrate in Quneitra. The town used to house a population of forty thousand people. When the occupation ended, not a roof remained intact, not a wall was left standing. One family had returned to live there. They were in the process of rebuilding their home and invited us to coffee. Apart from their house, a visitor centre and the military post, the only structures more than a few metres high were the graffiti covered, bullet riddled ruins of the hospital, a shattered mosque and the spire of a Christian church - poignant symbols of a more tolerant past.

Quneitra has remained just as the Israelis left it - a monument to wanton destruction. I remember well the public outrage in 1973, when news first broke of what had befallen the town. In those days the world could still be shocked by such devastation. Today images from the West Bank have made it commonplace.

The Golan Heights stand to the east of the Sea of Galilee. Their significance is no longer military – technology has moved beyond the necessity of occupying commanding ground. I t is the access to water in a region starved of that commodity, which makes the Golan Heights so important. The Jordan River rises there. What is more, the Golan Heights can be seen from Damascus. Only seventy kilometres from the capital city, the snow-capped peaks glitter visibly in winter sunshine; a constant reminder of the shame their loss represents to Syrian pride.

The world must remember what the underlying causes of the seemingly intractable Israeli/Arab regional conflict really are. The daily diet of violence and acts of destruction, the furious accusations and the angry responses have muddied the waters. The irony is that the causes are not complex. Quite the contrary; they are simple – land (living space) and water. The land in question is Syrian land, Palestinian land and a small portion of Lebanese land – territories occupied by Israel.

Syria is caught in the cross hairs of the Pentagon and State Department’s focus on the region. However, the US could bring Syria into the fold tomorrow if, instead of snapping and snarling at Syria’s heels, it used its leverage over Israel to broker the return of the Golan Heights. If that was to happen, the young President Assad could claim a triumph for his diplomacy and, on a tide of popular support, would be in a position to initiate a process of internal political change. Sadly that is not what is happening. Although the recently released Road Map addresses the problems in the West Bank and Gaza, the US still ignores Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights. The Golan will continue to cast a long shadow.

Other reports and photos by Nick Pretzlik can be found on www.whatmatters.org.uk. Nick Pretzlik can be contacted on upretzlik@yahoo.co.uk.