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Golan Heights Settlers Uneasy About Talks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The wind-whipped signpost above the Israeli army bunker says it all: 36 miles to Damascus.

Israel captured this fertile plateau of volcanic hills and gushing waterfalls from Syria during the Six-Day War in 1967. Before that, Syria used its bird’s-eye vantage to shell Israeli villages from above. Today, the Golan Heights sit at the heart of historic peace negotiations that both Israel and Syria indicate will resume soon.

Syria wants the 476-square-mile swath back, and new Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is willing to relinquish at least part of it.

For the 17,000 Israelis who have settled in the Golan Heights--tilling the land, harvesting grapes and bananas--this is a time of great uncertainty, defiance and resignation.

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Some vow they will fight to stay--in the case of a few, remarkably, even if that means living under Syrian rule. Others are convinced that their uprooting is inevitable. Others still are proceeding as though nothing is happening, investing money in cattle industries, expanding wineries, planting hundreds of acres.

“We do not like it, but we understand that if there is full peace with Syria, we will not be here,” Yigal Kipnis, 50, said outside the home he built 21 years ago when he and a group of army officers founded the Maale Gamla moshav, or farming co-op. Wind chimes tinkled and flies buzzed around a jasmine-covered trellis that shaded a backyard bordered by dozens of firs, oaks and flowering oleander.

A balding, compactly built man in shorts and sandals, Kipnis, like many Golan residents, is going ahead with his life: He just planted a new grove of mangoes, which will not bear fruit for four years.

“There is no reason to change for now,” Kipnis said. “Maybe it [a deal with Syria] will take 10 or 20 years.”

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The Golan, a hump of land that extends northeastward from the Sea of Galilee and the Hula Valley, rising dramatically to the 9,230-foot peak of Mt. Hermon, does not have the same biblical significance to Israel as other regions, such as the West Bank.

Its value is strategic, since it overlooks northern Israel, and more: The Golan gives tiny, parched Israel a third of its drinking water, provides its only ski slope and is home to its most prestigious wineries--not to mention 30 Jewish settlements.

Windmills dot the countryside, twirling megawatts of electricity, while Israeli troops on tank maneuvers troll across fields near herds of cattle. The ruins of ancient Jewish synagogues, dating to the 3rd century, have been unearthed, while signs warning of leftover land mines abound--as do Israeli war memorials honoring bloody battles.

Uri Zel-Zion, 40, has lived in the Golan for 21 years. He runs several of the Golan tourist sites, including the Har Bental hilltop lookout, where Lebanon can be seen off to the left, and Syria off to the right.

A forest of Israeli spy antennas and radio towers covers the next hill.

Har Bental and other tourist sites are being expanded, Zel-Zion said, and tourism, mostly by Israelis, is up.

Tourists can trudge through the now-abandoned Israeli army bunker at Har Bental, outfitted still with machine-gun emplacements. Inside the bunker’s warren of steel and concrete walls, the life of a soldier is re-created with bunks, a radio room and a small mess hall. One sign pays homage to an Israeli soldier slain in 1973 fighting when Syria tried to retake the plateau; another notes that the Golan is “less than 1% of Syria’s total size.”

Zel-Zion, a father of three who came here as a young soldier, said he feels betrayed by talk of returning the Golan Heights to Syria.

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“We began as pioneers, and suddenly we’ve become an obstacle to peace,” he said. “The greatest problem for me is the betrayal. If your wife betrays you, maybe you can live with it. But when your country betrays you, this is something else.”

Hundreds of Israelis and Syrians were killed during the 1967 fighting, when Israel captured the Golan, and in the fierce battles of October 1973. An estimated 70,000 to 120,000 Arabs fled or were forced out of the region. Many Arab villages were destroyed, the pockmarked ruins of some still visible on roadsides. Pushed by their government, Israeli Jews began to settle the Golan, which Israel annexed in 1981. About 17,000 Druse Arabs, their families divided by the wars, also continue to live in the area.

Israel and Syria first engaged in ultimately unsuccessful negotiations in 1991, and the residents of the Golan have lived ever since with the anxiety-producing prospect of the area being returned to Syria.

That prospect has been gaining momentum since Barak’s landslide election May 17. He pledged to make peace with Syria, where an ailing President Hafez Assad also seems eager to negotiate

Barak’s advisors say formal talks with Syria--the first in more than three years--could begin within weeks. The key issues are the conditions under which Israel will cede control of the Golan and the size and timing of its withdrawal. Syria, which wants all of the land returned, is reported to have agreed in the past to allow Israel to maintain early warning stations on Mt. Hermon.

Reaching agreement with Syria also would allow Israeli forces to withdraw from a 9-mile-deep occupation zone in southern Lebanon, Syria’s client state, where Israel has been waging a long war of attrition against Islamic guerrillas. Barak has promised to get his troops out of Lebanon within a year.

Barak made clear during the election campaign that he intended to negotiate the future of the Golan. Yet, surprisingly, the Golan voted overwhelmingly for him anyway. His margin of victory was greater in the Golan than his national average, and a political party formed on the single issue of keeping the Golan did so poorly that it was drummed out of the Israeli parliament.

Polls reflect a notable shift in Israeli public opinion toward acceptance of losing the Golan. The most recent, released last week, showed a near-even split over whether giving away the Golan would be worth the security risk, while two-thirds said peace with Syria would not be possible without ceding all or part of the area.

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Today, the argument for keeping the Golan has more to do with its settlers and agriculture than with a military threat. In the Golan, a settlers organization is stepping up its campaign to fight Barak, a much-decorated army commander before entering politics. They are printing thousands of “I am with the Golan” banners and producing 250,000 videocassettes warning of the dire dangers that will be triggered by allowing Syria back.

Sitting below the Har Bental hill, nestled between apple orchards and potato fields, is the Merom Golan kibbutz, home to about 500. Yehuda Harel, 64, was one of the eight people who founded this first Golan kibbutz 32 years ago.

Harel, who served in the Israeli parliament until his pro-Golan party’s defeat this year, predicts chaos if the settlers are forced to leave. “Any way we can, we will stay,” he said.

Harel was joined by Doron Bogdanovsky, 49, another kibbutz veteran, who raises cattle. With a cowboy’s swagger and mutton-chop sideburns, Bogdanovsky seemed more hopeful that Barak would find a way to negotiate with Syria without, as he put it, sacrificing Israel’s interests.

“It’s like selling bulls,” he said. “You don’t fix your price at the beginning of the bargaining.”

One of the big employers for Merom Golan’s residents is a factory inside the compound that produces sophisticated electrical motors used in Israel’s Arrow missile and exported for use in American F-15 jet fighters.

Michelle Stirling-Anosh, originally from Canada, does advertising for the Bental Industries factory, and her Israeli husband, Zvika, is marketing manager. They moved to the Golan in 1995.

“Everyone in Israel is for making peace. Giving up land in order to get it is another issue,” Stirling-Anosh, 45, said. “I think all Americans should think about the fact that the U.S. took California, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Nevada and Arizona in a war of aggression against Mexico. No one has ever talked about giving that territory back.”

At Katzrin, the only real town in the Golan Heights, the winery that produces Gamla, Yarden and Golan wines is doing brisk business, beneficiary of the rich soil, moisture and year-round temperate climate here in, as the winery’s promotional materials say, “the majestic rolling hills of northeastern Israel.” The Golan Heights Winery has embarked on an $8.5-million, three-year expansion program, a spokeswoman said.

Ori Zecharia, one of the leaders of the settlers’ council in Katzrin, came to the Golan in 1977 to “build something new.” He voted for Barak, whom he said would have to find a “creative” solution that allows Israelis to continue to live in the Golan. Forcing them to leave, the way the Arabs were forced out 32 years ago, would not be fair.

“You cannot fix one injustice with another,” Zecharia said.


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