As Israel and Syria start talks, a community mulls its divided loyalties
In the central square of Majdal Shams, the largest of the four Druze villages in the Golan Heights, towers a large statue of Sultan Basha El-Atrash.
Engraved below the Syrian resistance hero who fought French colonialism are two lines in Arabic by the Tunisian poet Abu El-Qassem El-Shabi: “If one day the people desire freedom and life, then inevitably destiny will comply — and inevitably darkness will melt away, and inevitably the chains will be broken.”
But for the 8,000 residents of the Majdal Shams, the only inevitability is that things will remain exactly as they have since Israel took over the Golan Heights in 1967.
The announcement of initial peace negotiations between Israel and Syria has been greeted here in the southern foothills of Mt Hermon with little enthusiasm and much skepticism.
Shhady Nasrallah sums up the mood of the village.
“It’s like the story of the wolf and the shepherd,” he says. “The shepherd kept shouting wolf because he was bored. Something like that is happening here. We stopped believing in peace a long time ago. It’s only talk about peace; no real action on the ground.”
Most Druze say they want the Golan to be returned to Syria, but the issue of whether or not Israel will ever do so stirs some ambivalence.
“Most of us take advantage of the opportunities Israel’s investments in the Golan have brought,” admits Shhady Nasrallah, who trained as an engineer in Russia before returning back home.
“Many of us are employed by Israelis, but still, we believe the Golan will eventually be in Syrian hands. It’s not that I’ve anything against Israel, but it’s best to live at home among your people rather than under occupation,” he concludes.
Like many of these rugged mountain people, Mr Nasrallah has not seen some of his family living across the border in Syria for more than 40 years. For two decades he used to stand almost weekly on a hilltop — called by locals the “hill of screaming” — together with hundreds of other Israeli Druze and bellow through a loudspeaker, and peer through binoculars, at his Syrian relatives. Nowadays, because of mobile phones and emails, no-one does this, although Israeli guard posts, barbed wire and minefields still litter the landscape. Almost weekly there are stories of mines, left over from 1967, being swept down into people’s gardens after becoming dislodged by the thawing of the winter snows.
Laila Safadi sees the distant view of her family’s village in Syria from her window every morning. Born in Syria, she met her husband, from Majdal Shams, while he was studying in Damascus and followed him back to Israel. Only students and the men of the Druze religion, an offshoot of Islam, are allowed to cross via the UN-administered crossing at Quneitra.
“It’s impossible to stop to love,” Ms Safadi says in broken English, explaining why she made the difficult journey. “When you love someone, you want to be with him all the time and share your life with him. Everyone was talking about peace at the time, everyone still is, and I keep hoping and praying it will happen.”
But for six years nothing has happened and she has seen her family only once. Two years ago her father was diagnosed with cancer. The day he died she received a telephone call from her brother. She went to the border and demanded to be let across.
“I was screaming. I refused to leave,” she says, crying softly at the memory.
“The soldiers and police had to remove me. I came back the next day and the same thing happened. It was only on the third day that the soldiers gave me permission to leave at 5pm and return the next morning at nine. I was away for 16 hours. I came too late; my father was already dead. But at least I saw his body. It was my duty as a daughter to do that.”
Ms Safadi still believes peace could be on the horizon, but admits it could be more wishful thinking than anything realistic.
“No-one here really thought the Israeli occupation would last for so long,” reflects local shopkeeper Mamoun Mograbi.
“The economic situation comes and goes, but your homeland comes first. We have a homeland, a nation, and a people that we are very proud of, to go back to.”