Israel-Syria peace talks announcement shocks Golan settlers

May 24th, 2008 - 11:32 am ICT by admin  

Qatzrin (Golan Heights), May 24 (DPA) “Dangerous, irresponsible, reckless” is how Dalia Amos, spokeswoman of the Golan Heights settlers council, describes Israeli Prime Ehud Olmert’s surprise decision to revive indirect peace talks with Syria after an eight-year hiatus. The unpopular, “panicking” premier is willing to hand over a crucial security and national asset to the Syrians to save himself politically, she charges. “We think that every citizen in the state of Israel must be worried.”

News of the revived talks, which began in Istanbul Monday with Turkish mediators shuttling between the separate hotels of the low-ranking Israeli and Syrian delegations, hit like a bombshell in the settler community of the Golan Heights.

Since Israeli-Syrian negotiations ended in deadlock early 2000, the Israeli settlers on the Golan have been largely unconcerned at the likelihood the strategic plateau overlooking the Sea of Galilee and northern Israel, captured from Syria during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and annexed in 1981, may one day return to Syrian control.

On Thursday, a day after the announcement of the talks, the mood in the 33 Jewish settlements on the Golan, is “difficult”, says Avner Talom, the 53-year-old owner of a family olive oil business.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said Damascus agreed to start the talks after receiving guarantees via Turkish mediators that Israel was willing to withdraw from the Golan.

“I’m certainly worried, first of all on the national level,” says Talom. The Israeli moved to the Golan only 10 years ago, and opened the olive oil factory and store some two years ago.

Talom does not believe in the principle of “land for peace”, and says Israel and Syria first must have peaceful relations for tens of years, before Israel can contemplate giving up the land described as Israel’s “eyes and ears”.

“If a bird is flying from Damascus, we know the name of that bird and where it is going,” says retired brigadier-general Tzvika Foghel, 51, a former head of the Israeli army Southern Command who served for more than 18 years on the Golan, as he stands on a hill overlooking Syria. On a clear day, Damascus can be seen to the north-east.

Israel has also said the heights are a defensible border against invasion by land. All of northern Israel is within range of artillery fire from the plateau, it points out. Control over water, too, plays a key role, with many of the region’s main water sources originating from the Golan.

Talom cites not only security, but also ideological reasons for his opposition to a withdrawal. “This place is Jewish,” he says, adding that the ruins of 26 ancient synagogues on the plateau testify to this.

But unlike those of the West Bank, many of the some 19,000 Jewish settlers who today live on the Golan are not right-wing, religious nationalists, especially those who live in one of the plateau’s 10 kibbutzim, or communal farms - traditional strongholds of left-wing socialists.

British-born Gary Black, 55, is a resident of one of them, Mevo Hama, the second-oldest Israeli settlement on the Golan established in early 1968. A breathtaking view of the Sea of Galilee stretches out beneath the lookout point near the kibbutz from where he speaks.

“The kibbutz movement would never be an obstacle to peace. So if there would ever be a need to go down, we have a decision from some 30 years ago to go,” he says. “In the end, we will have to move. There is no alternative,” he adds.

“We define ourselves as Arab-Syrian citizens. If we take (Israeli) citizenship, we will be regarded as traitors,” says a 31-year-old dressed in traditional religious Druze garments.

The man, who declines to give his name, cautiously suggests that he would prefer the Golan to return only to a democratic Syria.

An opinion poll published on Israel’s Channel 2 television hours after the announcement of renewed talks indicated the vast majority of Israelis (some 70 per cent) oppose giving up the Golan.

But its residents have no illusions. The polls are not a realistic reflection of Israeli public opinion, says the olive oil businessman.

“The minute an Israeli army chief of staff shakes the hand of a Syrian army chief of staff, the opposition will go down to 50 percent. The minute a Syrian will talk here in the Knesset (parliament,) the opposition will go down to zero.”

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