Israelis struggle over planned return of Golan Heights to Syria

September 21, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

GOMLA, GOLAN HEIGHTS — GAMLA, Golan Heights -- Above a bleak razorback ridge where 4,000 Jews leaped to their death before Roman swords, Michael Landsberg says he will starve rather than see Jews leave this land again.

"We are fighting for our country, for the future of Israel," said Mr. Landsberg, 34, one of 11 Israelis on a hunger strike to protest the possible return of the Golan Heights to Syria.

The long-expected internal struggle in Israel over the Golan Heights has begun in earnest, kindled in part by this 11-day-old hunger strike at the site of an ancient Jewish mass suicide.

There are growing signs that a deal is afoot that will decide the fate of the Golan Heights. Israel and Syria have swapped public gestures. U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross arrived in Damascus on Monday to the odd sight of billboards applauding peace.

But when a deal with Syria is reached, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin will face a potentially tougher task selling it to his own people.

Polls show a majority opposed to withdrawal. Golan Heights residents are boosting the emotional pitch, evoking the ghosts of fallen war heroes and prodding the ever-acute Israeli fear of annihilation.

"We want to wake up the people of Israel and show we are in the final stages of the struggle. Now is the time for them to raise their voices," said Drora Shenk, 44, a mother of four who began the hunger strike with the others Sept. 10.

They argue that Israel will be vulnerable to Syrian invasion if it leaves the Golan Heights. They have drawn an array of military officers to their side -- even the current chief of staff, Ehud Barak, warned of the dangers of giving up the Golan.

"It's a strategic mistake," said retired Gen. Itzhak Hoffi, who commanded the Israeli troops on the Golan in the 1973 war. "We can't be sure there won't be another war."

The hunger strikers are camped on a rocky outcrop overlooking Gamla, where the last holdouts of a Jewish rebellion against Rome leaped to their death when Roman troops breached their walls in A.D. 67. Like the Jewish community at the time, modern Israel will be threatened if it gives up the Golan Heights, the protesters believe.

"Once Gamla fell [to the Romans], it took only four months for Jerusalem to surrender," said Mr. Landsberg. "We're fighting for Jerusalem."

Unlike the West Bank settlers, zealously motivated by what they see as a biblical right to the land, many of the settlers on the Golan Heights came at the encouragement of past Labor governments as a practical move to secure the frontier.

"I feel very much betrayed, very much disappointed," said Mrs. Shenk, who was sent to the original Golan Heights settlement of Merom Golan as an 18-year-old member of the Israeli Youth Movement. She married and raised a family there, and now she finds it wrenching that Mr. Rabin, head of another Labor government, should be considering ordering her to leave.

The Labor roots of the Golan Heights settlements pose a severe danger to Mr. Rabin's government. Already, six Labor members of his slim coalition majority in the Knesset have threatened to break party ranks.

They said that they will support a bill calling for a two-thirds parliamentary approval of a peace treaty that would give up the Golan Heights. Unless Mr. Rabin can impose party discipline, his peace negotiations with Syria could be foiled and his coalition put in doubt.

Mr. Rabin has not helped matters with his own words. During his election campaign two years ago, he seemed to promise he would not withdraw from the Golan Heights. Now, he says, he meant he would not withdraw from all of the Golan. Even this explanation seems likely to have a short shelf life -- Syrian President Hafez el Assad has thundered that no agreement will come without a complete withdrawal of Israeli troops.

The Golan Heights separates Israel and Syria with a broad plateau that lures generals. From its hills, an army could sweep west 20 miles down into the fertile Israeli Galilee Valley or charge east across 30 miles of plain into Damascus.

Before 1967, about 123,000 Syrians lived on the Golan Heights, according to Israeli government figures. In the final two days of the 1967 War, Israel turned from Egypt and Jordan to capture the plateau from Syria, sending nearly all of the residents fleeing.

Since then, Israel has established 33 settlements on the Golan Heights. It extended Israeli law to the region, a legal hairsbreadth short of formal annexation. And it fought back a Syrian attempt in 1973 to regain the Golan Heights, at a cost of about 800 Israeli dead and an estimated 3,500 Syrian lives.

The region now has about 13,000 Israelis and 16,000 Druze and Muslim Arabs living on brown, grassy hills that looks much like the High Plains of the American West.

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