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Globalization

Syrian war turmoil divides Golan Heights' residents

Following the 1967 war, Israel annexed the Syrian Golan Heights, prohibiting access to the Syrian community residing on the other side. But a fence separating relatives is not the only thing causing a division.

The narrow, two-lane road becomes increasingly steeper as it climbs along the Israeli-Syrian border. Artillery shells explode everyday on the Syrian side as government soldiers fight rebel factions.

For many years, relatives gathered here in the town of Majdal Shams to shout greetings to relatives using bullhorns. It was known as the "shouting fence" and was the only way families could communicate after being separated by the 1967 war between Israel and Syria.

Nowadays cell phones, Facebook and email have mostly replaced the bullhorns. But as the Syrian civil war destroyed mobile phone towers and slowed internet connections to a crawl, the shouting fence came back into fashion.

Maryam Ajami (photo: Reese Erlich)

The war in Syria means people like Maryam Ajami are forced to shout across the border

"People use Skype and the Internet to communicate with their relatives," said Maryam Ajami, whose apartment overlooks the fence. "But there are problems with communications now. I used to contact my relatives by Skype but now we go over there, to the roof of that restaurant, and talk to each other over a public address system."

The shouting fence is just one reminder that Israel conquered and annexed this area after the 1967 Six Day War. A large majority of the 20,000 Arab residents here have refused Israeli citizenship and want to live in Syria, according to Akba Abu Shaheen, an elementary school teacher living in the Golan.

He noted that economic conditions are much better in Israel. But he quoted Jesus that "man does not live by bread alone."

"My history, culture, my family and I belong to Syria," Shaheen said.

A divided community

Given the civil war across the border, however, the question arises: to which Syria would Golan return? That question has split residents into pro- and anti-government factions.

Shaheen and many Golan residents are Druze, an Islamic minority group in Syria. The war affects him personally because he feels extremist rebels would persecute minorities if they came to power.

"It's important for me not to live in a religious country, but in a secular country," said Shaheen. "It's important for Syria to remain a state for all its people."

Shaheen stridently supports President Bashar al-Assad, echoing the Syrian government's argument that outside forces created the uprising. He argued that even before the Tunisian uprising that initiated the Arab Spring, imperialist powers were plotting against Syria.

Israeli tanks encounter Syrian soldiers giving themselves up as POWs on the Golan Heights 11 June 1967 during the Six-Day War. (photo: Getty Images)

Following the 1967 war, Israel occupied and illegally annexed the Syrian Golan Heights

"I think it was an international conspiracy on Syria from the very beginning," said Shaheen. "Maybe the CIA or other agents took many young people from Arab countries to Western Europe to train them."

'It will take time'

But other Golan residents say the uprising reflects genuine popular discontent with the Syrian government. Dr. Ali Abu Awad favors the rebel Free Syrian Army and has suffered the consequences. He said pro-Assad militants firebombed his car and attempted to burn down his house.

"Assad the dictator made Syria a dessert politically," he said. "It will take time to make democracy in Syria. But we have a history. We have people who can do that."

Officially, Israel proclaims its neutrality in Syria's civil war. "Assad is considered to be a serious enemy of Israel because he's firmly in the Iranian-led camp," said Mark Heller, an analyst with the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. "On the other hand, there was some appreciation of the fact that the Assad regime - son and father before him - had maintained a quiet relationship directly across the Syrian-Israeli border."

Heller said Israeli leaders initially thought Assad would be overthrown quickly. But they adjusted their policies the longer Assad stayed in power. "People are in a watch and wait mode."

The newly built Israeli border fence, is seen from the Israeli side of the Syrian annexed Golan Heights (photo: Getty Images)

Families have been divided, first by conflict, then by an arbitrary ceasefire line

But critics say Israel is not neutral. Local hospitals provide medical assistance to Syrian civilians and Free Syrian Army fighters. Israel strongly backed proposed US bombing of Syria last August in response to charges that Syria used chemical weapons.

Critics say Israel wants all sides to exhaust themselves fighting, leading eventually to the rise of a new strongman as in Egypt, where the military now holds power. Hannan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee living in Ramallah, said Israel has a long history of allying with Arab dictators.

"Dealing with dictators is much easier," she said. "The US has been dealing with dictators for years. All you have to do is convince the big man, and generally they are men."

Unlike Israel, Palestinian leaders in the West Bank claim they are genuinely neutral. Ashrawi said that while Palestinians sympathize with the popular uprising in Syria, the West Bank leadership doesn't take sides.

"We have Palestinians in every neighboring country that are vulnerable," said Ashrawi. "Any side you take, the Palestinians will pay the price. We are in principle on the side of the people … and of course on the side of human rights, democracy and rule of law. All we know is that violence won't solve anything."

Back in the Golan, residents continue to worry about the fallout from Syria and are waiting for some resolution to the conflict. When asked if he could predict when the Syrian war will end, rebel supporter Awad replied, "God knows - if he knows."

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