Dekel Tzidon smiled as he recalled the first harvest on this rich, fruit-growing farm. "Rocks--it was all rocks," Tzidon said. "You would have thought we had a quarry here, not a farm.
"We had boulders we had to pull out with tractors, we had bigger ones we had to blow up with demolition charges, and we had devilish little ones we had to dig out with our hands," he said, recounting the early days here 15 years ago. "We dug rocks like some farmers dig potatoes or beets."
But life on Kibbutz Ortal has been good for Tzidon, 32, a city boy from Tel Aviv whose friends never thought he would last here. And although he travels to Haifa every day to study computer engineering, he thinks of himself as a kibbutznik, one of the 90 share-and-share-alike members of this Israeli collective farm.
"When barren ground you have cultivated begins to yield something other than rocks," Tzidon said, "you feel a reward that is beyond words. Yes, we have made a life here."
That glow of pride and recollection fades quickly, however, as he contemplates the uncertain future of the kibbutz and of the whole Golan Heights.
Seized from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the Golan Heights are now the focus of peace negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus, which will resume next month in Washington. And Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin warned settlers again last week that a partial Israeli pullback will be the minimum price for peace but said that Israel was proposing withdrawal of its troops only to "secure and recognized borders," apparently leaving the settlers on their own.
"For peace, real peace for Israel, I would give it all up," Tzidon said slowly, wincing as he contemplated what the region's return to Syria would mean for him, his family and his friends at Ortal. "My problem is that I doubt, truly and seriously doubt, that this would bring such a peace. No, not with Syria."
The anguish is felt deeply among the 13,000 Israeli settlers throughout the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau of extinct volcanoes that looks down from as high as 3,000 feet upon the Sea of Galilee and the Israeli towns and farms around it to the west and toward the Syrian capital of Damascus to the east.
As controversy swirled around the proliferating settlements on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip over the past 15 years, settlers on the Golan Heights have escaped intense worldwide attention. Most were sent here by successive governments in Jerusalem to ensure that the region would never again be a base from which Syria could launch attacks.
The Golan settlers' presence, moreover, has gone largely unchallenged by Arab residents. About 17,000 Druze, members of an offshoot sect of Islam, live in the region, and friction with the Israelis has been minimal; the other Arab residents, alleged by Syria to number 150,000, fled in 1967.
"If the people on the West Bank were the 'bad settlers,' we were the 'good' ones," said Segev Yerovam, managing director of the highly successful Golan Heights Winery, one of the region's 20 industrial enterprises. "We had not dispossessed anyone--the Syrian residents left in the 1967 war--and thus we were not a factor in resolving the Palestinian problem. We were here just for security."
But precisely because they view themselves as an essential part of Israel's security, soldier-farmers along the frontier with Syria, Golan settlers have been stunned by Rabin's readiness to pull back, if not withdraw completely, from the region in a possible "land for peace" agreement.
Joel Sheinfeld, one of the founders of Kibbutz Kfar Haruv, makes the point about security in a short walk from the center of the community, once a Syrian command post, to the escarpment that gives the Golan Heights their name.
"For nearly 20 years, Syrian troops sat up here and fired down at Ein Gev, at farmers in the fields, at children at play, at people leading peaceful lives," Sheinfeld said. "They might call it war against the 'Zionist entity,' but I'd call it murder, the murder of people who only want to live in peace."
On the edge of the bluff, an old antitank gun points downhill--directly at Ein Gev, one of Israel's oldest farming communities, on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Syrian army bunkers have been dug into every ridge. And the border that came out of the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 remains clear, just 10 yards from the edge of Ein Gev's fields.
"You don't have to be Gen. Schwarzkopf to see how strategic this place is for Israel," Sheinfeld said.
But the Rabin government is guided by a strategic judgment reached after the Persian Gulf War--that only through peace treaties with its Arab neighbors and the resolution of the Palestinian question can the Jewish state ensure its long-term security.
"It is not possible to offer peace simply in exchange for peace--a price has to be paid," Rabin told Golan residents.
All he would promise, the prime minister said, was that until Syria committed itself to "a full peace," including open borders, diplomatic relations and trade, Israel would not discuss territorial issues.
Roughly 42 miles long, 15 miles across at its widest and 450 square miles in total area, the Golan Heights form an Israeli defense line that runs from Mt. Hermon in the north down to a deep river gorge in the south. The rugged volcanic terrain gives a clear advantage to whoever holds it.
"The other issue is water," Sheinfeld said. "The Sea of Galilee is directly below, and it could quickly become another Dead Sea if Syria cut off the flow of water from the Golan or polluted or poisoned it. Israel gets 30% of its water from the Golan, and water is our most precious natural resource."
In 1973, Sheinfeld led a group of 40 North American Jews, mostly from Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, who came as garinim, as Israelis call their pioneering settlers, using the Hebrew word for sunflower seeds. Here in the Golan, they banded together with 80 young Israelis to establish the kibbutz.
"We were the leftovers from the 1960s--people who just weren't going to go into mainstream America," said Sheinfeld, 48, philosophy graduate of New York's Hunter College, father of five and head cook at the kibbutz. "For me, the reelection of Richard Nixon was the end--I saw little hope for the United States and, in contrast, a bright future for Israel. When the (Israeli) government asked us to go up to the Golan Heights, we were honored."
In contrast to the religious nationalists of the West Bank, who have established 127 settlements with an estimated population of 115,000 there, most of the Golan settlers have not claimed their area as part of the "Land of Israel," although some point to ancient synagogues and other ruins as evidence of a long Jewish history here.
"We did not come because we thought this was biblical Israel but out of the Zionist conviction that wherever there is a Jewish settlement, there is the border of Israel," said Shmuel Mandel, 41, at Kibbutz Merom Golan, the first and largest of Israel's settlements here. "This is not based on religion or history, but pragmatism."
Mandel, general manager of Bental Development Ltd., which makes precision motors, has lived on the Golan Heights for 23 years and said, "Never did I think that Israel would give it up.
"That doesn't mean we didn't think that Israel wouldn't talk peace--it was always our hope that there would be peace--but we see peace only with the Golan, and no peace without it," Mandel added.
After another war in 1973, when Syrian forces broke through most Israeli defenses on the Golan Heights and threatened to drive down into the valley below, retention of the region appeared to have become an immutable element of Israeli security, even to the point of its virtual annexation 11 years ago.
"A lot of blood has been spilled on these hills," said Menachem Ohrbach, 52, another longtime settler. "The battles have been fearsome, probably Israel's toughest. As settlers, we have cultivated our fields with snipers firing at us, sappers planting mines at night where we would plow in the morning and rockets falling on our communities. It takes a certain type of person to want to live here."
There are daily reminders that the region remains Israel's front line against Syria, its most implacable foe in the Arab world. Troops engage in live-fire maneuvers across the main highway leading to the region's main town, Katzrin. Squads of armed soldiers stroll casually around the shopping plaza and schoolyards. And tall masts atop the hills hold the radar and other electronic equipment that lets Israeli intelligence monitor even the traffic on the streets in Damascus.
"We believe the Golan Heights are not an obstacle to peace but a barrier to war," said Ehud Margalith, a Katzrin accountant and a leader of the Golan Settlers Committee.
"Peace with the Golan" has become the committee's slogan as it campaigns for the minimum retreat from the region, if not its full retention; some proposed a long-term lease of the land under which Israel would continue to administer most of the territory, much as Britain has run Hong Kong.
Margalith, 42, burly and jovial, was seriously wounded fighting to hold the Golan Heights against the Syrian attack in the 1973 war. "I left a leg up there, and that creates a particular sort of involvement," he said with a rumbling laugh. "We are not a bunch of fanatics. We very, very much want peace, and we don't think this is the way to get it."
The Israelis sought to continue the building of a new society that characterized Israel even before its independence in 1948. And now many of them view the Golan Heights as properly theirs, a land they developed.
Ohrbach, who settled here in 1968 and now runs 450 head of cattle with two partners, helped build Moshav Nov, a prosperous farming community of 55 religious families, including 10 that have come from Russia in the past two years.
"The first years were really excellent," he said with a farmer's relish for hard work. "We were in the fields from dawn to sunset and dropped with exhaustion each evening. This was a period of doing everything for the common good. We never looked at clocks. This was an empty, empty land, and we cultivated it."
The farmers at Moshav Nov grow fruit, vegetables, flowers and some grain. They no longer have to plow with tractors resembling tanks or herd their livestock with rifles strapped across their backs. Their homes are roomy to accommodate large families, and their children go by bus to a modern school 15 minutes down the road.
"This is a very good place for a family," said Michal Friedman, 32, a Jerusalem-born social worker who lives at Moshav Nov with her husband, Menachem, 37, a vegetable farmer, and their five children.
"We are near to nature, close to the earth, and the children have a lot of freedom to grow up as they should and to do what they want, to be themselves. This is a place where you want to bring children into the world. It may seem remote--three hours from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv--but it is only remote from things that are bad."
But the new, and unexpected, uncertainty about the Golan Heights' future is taking its toll among the Israeli settlers.
"People our age have built their lives here, and our children know nothing else," said Yael Gal, 32, a child psychologist and a member of Kibbutz Ortal.
"We came because we believed that settling the Golan was important for Israel, for its security and even for its survival. Now, we are told that it's not necessary at all, that what we believed was wrong, that we are even an obstacle to peace, that our lives are a waste."
Settlers seem determined to resist by sinking their roots even deeper.
At Moshav Nov, Menachem Friedman is adding on to his house, extending his 50 acres of vegetable fields and investing in new packing and irrigation equipment. The Golan Heights Winery is drawing up its production, marketing and investment plans as if there were no question about its future. Kibbutz Kfar Haruv is continuing to accept new members.
"It may look like we are denying the reality facing us, but there is no other way," winery manager Yerovam said. "We pretend nothing will happen; we consider that nothing is final; we believe we can still shape our own destinies if we struggle hard enough."
Others are not so confident, and routine questions of painting the house, adding a room or taking a vacation overseas will plunge a family into deep soul-searching.
"Planting a fruit tree becomes a big act of faith," psychologist Gal said. "We planted an apple tree three years ago, and we still water it every day, wondering whether we will be here to eat the fruit in two more years."
For Dorit Levy, who teaches Hebrew to Russian immigrants, it threatens to become a nightmare relived.
When Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982, she was among the settlers forced to leave their homes and farms there. "The government said, 'Move,' and we went," Levy recalled. "We came up here after looking at other places because we thought here, of everywhere, we would be safe.
"We are farmers to the core, and we wanted something new. We thought about going to the Negev Desert, but the Golan was newer, fresher, really still unsettled. We have orchards--apples, plums and olives--and sheep. I am putting a second story on the house and planning a new kitchen.
"The initial shock was huge," she said. "Some people didn't want to get out of bed. I moved once for peace, but I won't move twice."
If forced out, Levy said, she wants to leave for Australia with her three children.
Virtually every settler is now his own strategist on the question of how far Israel can retreat if that is the price of peace.
When Rabin visited the Golan Heights in November, settlers told him they understood and largely agreed with his drive for a peace settlement with Israel's Arab neighbors; about 60% had, in fact, voted for his Labor Party and its allies in the June parliamentary elections on this basis.
But the sense of betrayal is strong. They trusted Rabin--who as chief of staff captured the region in 1967 and later, as prime minister, pressed for extensive settlements in the 1970s--when he said in the midst of the election campaign, "Even in peace we will not come down from the Golan Heights."
"In my eyes, from the standpoint of territory and terrain, the Golan Heights is vital to the security of Israel," Rabin declared last June, but he added, "That doesn't mean we are stuck on every centimeter."
What Rabin says now is not much different, except his emphasis is on Israel's readiness for "territorial compromise," a willingness to cede some of the Golan Heights in an interim peace agreement with Syria and to return more for a full peace treaty.
Already there is speculation about what Israel would need, whether in outposts on the Golan Heights or in new weapons systems from the United States, if it were to withdraw from the region.
And Israeli public opinion is shifting toward at least partial withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Although a newspaper poll four months ago showed that 50% of those in the survey were opposed to any retreat from the Golan Heights, this was down from more than 90% in previous surveys, and 34% said they were for a partial withdrawal.
At the peak of its campaign so far, the Golan Settlers Committee amassed 100,000 people in Tel Aviv in November to demonstrate against giving up the territory. But the government took virtually no notice, sending its delegates back to Washington last month to continue negotiations with Syria.
The settlers committee is focusing its attention on those elements in Rabin's coalition, including members of his own Labor Party, likely to oppose withdrawal and thus prevent an agreement by threatening to bring down the government. The Golan residents have also formed an uneasy alliance with settlers movements from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
To Stuart Belzer, 33, a toolmaker who came from Culver City 11 years ago to join Kibbutz Kfar Haruv, the case for staying put is clear.
"After Syria's abuse of this land, I see no moral reason to give it back," he declared. "They sat up here and shelled peaceful communities down below for 20 years. . . .
"Put aside Israel's security; forget the money and blood and sweat we have invested here. There is simply no moral justification for giving this land to Syria. They had it, they abused it, they lost it--end of story."