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Golan families dream of reunion

In the complicated world of the Golan Heights, peace talks between Israel and Syria bring hope the long-closed border could be opened.

Published February 18, 2007


AEIN KEINA, Golan Heights - On a summer day long ago, Assad Mugrabi hugged his daughter - at 14, a newly married woman - and bid her goodbye.

He would not embrace her again for 18 years.

"Every time I think of her, I start to cry," he said. "She was just a small teenager when she left. Now she has children older than she was then."

For Mugrabi, the 1967 Middle East War was not just a conflict in which Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria. It was also the start of a surreal existence in which Syrian families like his were suddenly separated by a mine-studded border - fathers on one side, daughters on the other, unable to communicate except by shouting through bullhorns.

The dispute over the Golan Heights has long been overshadowed by the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.

But the Golan Heights has again returned to prominence as Syria - accused by Israel and the United States of supporting terrorism - indicates a willingness to make peace if the area is returned.

"I hear from my relatives in Syria that it sounds different about peace," said Mugrabi, a Syrian who lives on the Israeli side of the border. "I pray every day that it will be achieved, so people in Tel Aviv can take their cars to Damascus."

Jewish businessman Moti Bar sees people from Tel Aviv heading east all right - to the new restaurant and microbrewery he manages in the Israeli city of Qatzrin in the Golan Heights. Israel is rapidly strengthening its hold on the region, where 2-million visitors a year come to ski and enjoy nature while at least 17,000 Jews have settled in what much of the world considers occupied Arab territory.

"The Syrians had the chance to help the Golan and they didn't want it," Bar said. "This is our home and we will stay."

'Unidentified nationality'

With its 7,000-foot mountains and headwaters of a dozen rivers, the Golan Heights is a region of scenic beauty and strategic importance. It gave Syria sweeping views into Lebanon, Jordan and, starting in 1948, the new Jewish state of Israel.

Syrian soldiers shot at Jewish farmers - often, Israeli Gen. Moshe Dyan later acknowledged, because of Israeli provocation. Tensions had come to a head by 1967 when Syria began diverting water away from Israel and into Jordan.

In 1967, Israel took the Golan and with it, several villages of Arab Druze. An offshoot of Islam, the Druze believe in reincarnation and forbid marriage with non-Druze.

Sameh Abu Salih, then 7, remembers Jewish soldiers throwing candy and coins. He recalls, too, the barbed wire and land mines that cut him off from his uncle and cousins just a short distance away in Syria.

"Why can I not see them any more?" he wondered.

In the four decades since, the 20,000 Druze of the Golan Heights have found advantages and drawbacks to their "unidentified nationality" - as it says on their Israeli-issued travel documents.

Druze and Jews get along well. Hundreds work together at the Mount Hermon ski resort or on farms and kibbutzim, growing the apples and other fruits for which the Golan is famous.

Druze also appreciate their freedom of speech in Israel, far different from autocratic Syria where "the only time you open your mouth is at the dentist," Salih jokes.

But he and most other Druze in the Golan rejected Israel's offer of citizenship, fearing Syria might punish them if the area ever returned to Syrian control. For that reason, they don't serve in the Israeli army, either.

"It would be so difficult to take a gun and tank and kill my uncles in Syria," said Salih, a former teacher who owns a guest house near Mount Hermon.

Retaining Syrian citizenship has one huge advantage: free university education. Each summer, the border briefly opens so Druze students from the Golan Heights can enter Syria, where tuition, books and lodging are gratis from the government. But they must return to the Israeli side when their studies are finished.

Assad Mugrabi is among the many anomalies of Druze life in the Golan. Because he's not an Israeli citizen, he cannot vote in Israeli elections. But he is employed by the Israeli government, which pays him "very good" to serve as secretary of his village.

The only photos in Mugrabi's office are those of Israel's president and prime minister. He finds it too painful to look at pictures of his daughter Hanan, now in Syria along with all of his brothers and sisters.

A curious wedding

In 1989, the Mugrabis arranged for Hanan to be married to a cousin living near Damascus.

On the chosen day in April, the groom and six busloads of his relatives drove as close as they could to the barbed wire fence separating Syria from the Golan. On the Israeli side of the fence were the teenage bride in white, her parents and most of the people in their village.

There were lavish feasts on both sides, and guests threw rice and candy across the fence. Then the groom returned to Damascus and Hanan went home with her parents.

It took another two months before she got permission - arranged through the Red Cross - to cross the border and join her husband.

At the time, there was no mail or phone service between the two countries. The only contact the Mugrabis had with their daughter was at the "Shouting Valley" - so called because relatives separated by the fence use bullhorns to pass word of births, deaths, graduations. It was there they learned Hanan had her first child, a son.

"A few times we went to the valley, but I was so sad to see my daughter like that," Mugrabi said. "Especially when she screamed, 'Daddy, I love you,' I wanted to die."

In the past few years, restrictions have loosened a bit. It is now possible to send a letter or make a call. Syrian authorities let Druze in the Golan Heights export apples to Syria at certain times of the year.

But except for students and some religious Druze, Syria won't admit anyone with an Israeli stamp on their travel documents. Nor will Israelis admit most Syrians.

And so the Mugrabis went to Jordan last month to see their daughter in person for the first time in nearly two decades.

They met at a hotel in Amman, and talked the entire five days. Hanan was touched to tears that her father had brought one of her favorite foods - Israeli-style cream cheese. Her life is fairly good, she told him, though her husband, a driver, doesn't earn much money.

Mugrabi made a video, not knowing if he would ever see Hanan again. It was time-consuming to get Jordanian visas, and as head of the family, he had to pick up the hotel bill for all 50 relatives who made the trip.

At 57, Mugrabi is conflicted. Israel is "like paradise," he said, and he wouldn't want to live under a Syrian dictatorship. But he can't forget how Hanan kept turning back to look at him as she left the hotel.

"What I miss is being able to freely see my family over there," he said. "If the border can be opened, this would be the solution."

'New life'

Jews in the Golan Heights agree that a peaceful, open border between Israel and Syria would be ideal. But they also say they don't think that relinquishing the Golan, with its military importance, is the right way to go.

"When we give up land, we get back war," said Bar, manager of the new Golan Brewery.

Meeting in secret, Israelis and Syrians recently outlined a peace agreement: Israel would retain control of the Jordan River and Lake Kinneret - source of much of Israel's drinking water - but withdraw from most of the Golan within 15 years. A buffer zone along the lake would become a park used by people of both countries.

Syria would also distance itself from Iran and end its support for Hezbollah, which waged a war with Israel last summer.

According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, the talks ended in July when Syria demanded the meetings move to an official level. Israel, partly under U.S. pressure, refused.

In the past few years, about 1,000 Jewish families have moved into the Golan Heights. The "capital," Qatzrin, now has a college, two malls and a striking new visitors center that showcases the Golan's beauty and attractions and encourages Israelis to consider a "new life" here.

Among those convinced Jews won't be leaving any time soon are the three Israeli investors who sank $1.5-million into the brewery and restaurant, which is already drawing crowds on weekends.

"This land belongs to Syria on paper, but why not rent it to us for 100 years?" Bar suggests. "That way we can build close to each other."

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at

[Last modified February 17, 2007, 20:45:39]

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