Golan Heights residents oppose Israel's land-for-peace proposal

September 11, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

KATZRIN, ISRAELI — KATZRIN, Israeli-occupied Golan Heights -- For the first time since a Syrian shell blew off Ehud Margalith's left leg in 1973, he is contemplating retreat from the Golan Heights.

He is no more happy about it now than he was then, when Israelis had to win back the plateau in close, bloody combat after the surprise attack by Syrians in what Israelis came to call the Yom Kippur War.

"We cannot give up the Golan," says Mr. Margalith, a soldier in1973 and now an accountant in Katzrin, the largest town on the Heights. "Allowing Syrian troops on the Golan is the beginning of another war."

To the surprise and consternation of Israelis like Mr. Margalith, Israel appears ready to return some or all of the Golan Heights to Syria as one of the first fruits of the Middle East peace talks.

Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said he is prepared to give back some of the territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 in return for a peace agreement with Syria. Negotiations resume in Washington on Monday.

His statements yesterday and earlier this week have shocked residents of the Golan Heights, who were assured by Mr. Rabin in the recent election campaign that such a move was far down on his agenda.

They are organizing protests to oppose the prime minister, and some have proposed physically resisting any government concessions on the Golan Heights.

"It is opposed to Zionism and security" to give back land considered by the government part of Israel, says Uri Hetner, one of the leaders of the Golan Heights Jewish residents. "It must be clear the Golan settlements will go to war over this matter."

Mr. Rabin, who was elected in June, has been circumspect in just what deal he would make with Syria. The willingness by Syria, a long-time foe, to negotiate has surprised Israel.

Mr. Rabin noted Syria has yet to offer what Israel wants: full peace, with a swap of ambassadors, open borders and formal recognition of Israel. But he has refused to rule out returning at least some of the Golan Heights if the price is right.

An agreement "implies, of course, some sort of territorial compromise," Mr. Rabin told Israel Radio yesterday.

This worries the 10,000 to 13,000 Israelis like Mr. Margalith who live on the Golan Heights.

"I do want peace," he says. "Every day when I wake up and have to wear my artificial leg, I remember the price of war. I don't have a spare leg, so I need peace."

But peace can only be guaranteed if Israel holds the Golan Heights, which overlook northern Israel, he said. "It's not a question of holy land, or of honor. It's a question of survival," he says. "We cannot secure our existence without dominating the Golan."

Where Israelis see the Golan Heights as an issue of security, so do Syrians. The peaks are 75 miles from Jerusalem and only 35 miles from Damascus. Syria feels the warm breath of the Israeli Army; the tufts of military antennas and electronic eyes on the hills of the Golan Heights are trained at Damascus.

Syrians say Israeli occupation proves their suspicion of the Jewish state's expansionist objectives. The Israeli presence is a nagging reminder of the failures of the Syrian army, and a thorn to Syrian President Hafez el Assad for all of his 22-year rule.

"Syria will never give concessions on its land and rights," Mr. Assad was quoted saying last week.

"The Golan is what Assad has based his legitimacy on. That's what he has used to excuse all the suffering" in his country, a diplomat in Damascus said in an interview there recently. "He has to get it as a matter of pride."

"Of course we must get back the Golan Heights," said Walid Shehadeh, editor of the Syrian Times in Damascus. "It is part of Syria."

It is a dramatic development that Israel is willing to even talk about giving up this rocky bench of land near the Sea of Galilee. The Golan carries military and emotional significance to Israel far beyond the concerns of the settlers there. Control of the area was central to two wars, and the battles for it are now part of the lore of the country.

Red-and-white buses now make a steady parade up the inclines, where Jewish tourists peek out of captured Syrian bunkers and marvel at the heroism of Israeli soldiers who clawed their way up from the valleys below.

The Golan Heights is a sloping plateau, about 14 miles wide and 40 miles long, most of it 2,000 to 3,000 feet high. A string of volcanic hills rises on the eastern edge of the plateau, climbing toward Mount Hermon, the 9,230-foot guard post at the corner of Lebanon, Syria and Israel.

From these hills, for 19 years, Syrian gunners routinely shelled Israeli settlements in the Hula Valley, farmland reclaimed from swamps west of the Golan Heights.

To end the shelling, the Galilee farmers demanded the government try to sieze the heights during the 1967 Six Day War. On the fifth day of the war, when a cease-fire with Jordan and Egypt took effect, Israeli forces stormed to the north and in 36 hours they captured the Golan Heights.

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