Golan Heights residents now fearful of changes

September 15, 1992|By Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel JTC

QUNEITRA, Israeli-Occupied Golan Heights -- "I have daughter who slept in a bomb shelter the first two years of her life because the Syrians kept shelling our kibbutz," said Hanna Regev, a teacher in Tel-Katzir under the ominous Golan Heights.

"I am not eager to see the Syrians over my roof any time soon. They were terrible neighbors and they haven't changed," she said.

The people who inhabit this isolated and tense former tank battlefield are trying to cope with the shock of knowing their lives could soon undergo a radical change.

They heard their new prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, say last week that the peace negotiations with Syria that resumed yesterday in Washington could include return of at least part of this mountain ridge.

The Golan Heights were captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and fiercely defended in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The area's 12,000 residents want to know if they will be kicked out of their homes if the territory is returned to Syria.

And in a country where thousands have died to defend Israel and occupy Syrian, Jordanian and Egyptian territory, the thought of returning land, particularly land inhabited by Israelis, is tantamount to treason -- a word many Golan residents are now using.

Eli Melka, a cherry and apple grower in Qaztrin, said he and his neighbors were about to be betrayed by Mr. Rabin. Mr. Rabin defeated Yitzhak Shamir in elections earlier this year and abandoned the hard-line policy of not conceding any territory in peace talks.

Last week, Mr. Rabin and Syrian President Hafez Assad made peace overtures that included the possible return of the 600-square-mile Golan Heights.

Mr. Rabin argued, in part, that in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War -- during which Israel was hit by 39 Iraqi Scud missiles -- holding onto occupied territory makes less strategic sense.

But giving up even an inch of the Golan Heights, annexed by Israel in 1981, is considered sacrilegious here.

Mr. Melka, who is president of the Golan Settlers Committee, and six other influential Golan residents met with Mr. Rabin on Sept. 6, the day before Mr. Rabin's statement on Syria.

"We were absolutely stunned," Mr. Melka said. "We found our prime minister to have absolutely made up his mind about abandoning the Golan Heights."

On Saturday, following the week of statements and responses by Mr. Rabin and Mr. Assad, life in the Golan took on a new, possibly irreversible twist.

Mr. Melka and other settlers organized a 25-bus caravan to Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport to protest at the departure of the Israeli delegation to the Middle East peace talks.

"If we give up this land, the Syrian tanks will be just 33 miles from [the Israeli city] Tiberias," said Dr. Doron Tiomkin, a veterinarian.

The protest, said Mr. Melka, is the first salvo of the Golan residents' battle to hang on to their homes and their lifestyles.

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