Damascus, SYRIA – It is fertile ground that bears unforgettable fruit. It has vineyards. Barbed wire. Bitter history. And an uncertain future.
The Golan Heights was seized by Israel in the 1967 war. Syria and Egypt attacked Israel in 1972 to try to get the Golan back but didn’t succeed. An armistice was eventually signed in 1974 and Israel pulled out of most of the city of Quneitra, the then regional seat of the Golan Heights, but kept the rest under its control. The U.N. monitors the situation to this day.
As such, a small sliver of the Golan remains under Syrian control, but the bulk of it is under Israeli occupation.
You can’t just go to the Syrian side of the Golan. It requires permission. It is a semi-military zone, in clear sight of Israeli checkpoints up in the highest part of the Heights.
Prior to taking the Golan, Israeli farmers were often shot from Syrian gun positions, and that was always the reason Israel cited for seizing the land. But a friend who took me on a tour of the Syrian side of the Golan made much of recordings, released by an Israeli reporter 12 years ago, which quote the late Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan as saying the seizure of the Golan was actually not about self defense — Israeli kibbutzniks simply wanted the land.
In the recordings, part of an interview Dayan gave in 1976, he also claims that Israelis often provoked Syrians into shooting down from the Golan Heights at Israelis. That is the version of events it seems most Syrians give credence to. Many Israeli historians have taken issue with the recordings, some saying they were really not part of a formal or official interview, and that the quotes were not as definitive as has been suggested.
Syria wants the Golan back and they believe this will happen. The question, Syrians ask, is when. Indirect talks between Syria and Israel were quite deep into the details of a possible deal when Israel invaded the Gaza Strip in response to Hamas rocket attacks last December. Syria protested the incursion and talks ground to a halt. Now with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in power, the Syrians have declared there is no longer a partner for peace.
A deal between Israel and Syria would involve a broader peace, with Syria recognizing Israel. But there are plenty of details beyond land, not the least, issues of water supply and who has what rights to which parts of the Sea of Galilee. Golan water sources feed many rivers, lakes and waterfalls. Water is a major issue for both sides.
In the meantime, Israeli settlers populate the Golan and in recent years it has become a popular tourist destination for Israelis seeking fresh air and nature.
This time of year the Golan is quite dusty and dry, but spring sees it brilliant green and dotted with flowers.
You pass through several checkpoints on your way to the Syrian controlled side of the Golan, mostly U.N. manned. When you get to Quneitra, which used to be the regional seat of the Golan, you see nothing but destruction. Homes smashed, big broken chunks of concrete everywhere. The Syrians say Israel bulldozed Quneitra on its way out, and blasted away at it with dynamite. Israel claims it was destroyed in the fighting between Israel and Syria, and from Syrian shelling during the years of Israeli occupation. The Syrians have left the destruction untouched, as an outdoor museum. No one lives there now.
Close to 20,000 Syrians live under Israeli occupation in the Golan, according to Syrian statistics. The rest (120,000) were displaced, becoming refugees in Syria. There is a spot from which you can see a town called Majdal Shams. It is occupied by Israel but populated by Syrians, mostly Druze. Syrians say the Israeli government doesn’t allow residents to come and go, with rare exceptions, such as marriage outside the community, or for some of the young to go to university. But inhabitants of Majdal Shams have relatives on the Syrian side of the Golan. Every Friday they approach the fence on their side and relatives line up on the other side of no-man’s land. They shout greetings to each other with megaphones. The place where this happens is often called the “Shouting Valley” or the “Weeping Valley.”
The return of the Golan is a loaded issue for Israel, and by most accounts, it would take a bold leader to cut a deal with Syria that gave the land back. A member of Netanyahu's government has been quoted as saying the majority of the Israeli public would be against such a deal. But the last Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, at one point said in a speech, "we will be able to reach an agreement that will end the conflict between us and the Syrians” In exchange for land, it is expected that Israel would demand that Syria pull its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, things Syria publicly says it would never do.
But if Israel and Syria were at peace, the dynamic in the region would change to such an extent that some say the issue of support for militant groups might become a moot point.
President Obama has sent envoys to Syria and the topic of the Golan has reportedly come up. There have been creative suggestions about concepts such as the establishment of an environmental preserve in the Golan that might involve cooperation between Israel and Syria, and suggestions that the Golan Heights will eventually be open to tourists from both countries. At this point that possibility seems a far way off.
Though in theory, if peace were brokered, it follows that one day the Golan would be free for everyone to roam.
This is the fifth and last in a series of reports by Fox News Correspondent Amy Kellogg, who recently returned from a 10-day trip to Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government.