Syria Still Mourns Land Lost to Israel

Times Staff Writer

This deserted village on Syria's frontier with Israel feels suspended in time, preserved as it was three decades ago when the last battle was fought.

A once-vibrant crossroads between Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, Kuneitra was home to 20,000 Syrians before Israel occupied it in 1967 during the Arab-Israeli war. Israeli forces pulled out after the 1973 war, but not before bulldozing and dynamiting nearly every building in the village.

Only three families still live among the smashed remains of homes, schools, and shops lodged into the grassy plains -- living testament to the destruction wrought by the conflict between Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights.

Syria has kept Kuneitra in its demolished state, as a sort of interactive war memorial designed to remind Syrians and the occasional foreign visitor of the country's bitter opposition toward Israel and its determination to regain every inch of the Golan Heights.

One of the ghost town's empty streets leads to a restaurant, but there are patrons only on Fridays, when ordinary Syrian families visit the town to ensure that Syria's national fixation with the return of its territory is passed down to a new generation.

Despite having witnessed more than three decades of daily evidence of the seeming intractability of the dispute, the handful of residents in the village has a surprisingly optimistic view of the future.

They hope that when U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell visits Damascus, the Syrian capital, later this week, he will bring more than American complaints about Syrian political and military practices. They hope he will also provide signs that the United States is committed to listening to Syria's concerns as part of a "road map" for peace in the region.

Only when the issue of the Golan Heights borders -- the central dispute between Syria and Israel -- are resolved will the Syrian government agree to make peace with its neighbor, they say.

"Even the shepherds around here know about Powell's visit," said Mohammed Ali, a government official from a nearby village, who has tended the museum for 14 years. "We always think positively, because we've chosen peace as a strategy. Everyone has long dismissed war as an option."

Israel formally annexed two-thirds of the Golan Heights in 1981, and considers the land a security buffer zone.

The last round of negotiations between Israel and Syria broke down in January 2000, six months before the start of the second Palestinian intifada. Syria has refused to make a separate peace with Israel, unlike Egypt and Jordan, before a comprehensive end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The 2000 talks reportedly faltered over Israel's insistence on denying Syria access to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee along the Golan Heights.

While many Syrians said they are optimistic about the future, they also insist that President Bashar Assad, who took power three years ago after the death of his father, should refuse to make new concessions.

That may be a moot point, given what is perceived as the reluctance of the current Israeli government to deal with Syria at all. Many Syrians believe that as long as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is in power, and the Bush administration does not broker a peace between Syria and Israel, the dispute over the Golan will fester.

Syrian officials appear to have modest expectations of Powell's visit, and believe he will mainly try to persuade Damascus not to obstruct President Bush's road map for regional peace.

The country's traditional hard-line inclination, inherited by the new president from his father, would be to oppose the plan, but Western diplomats here say recent U.S. warnings on assisting the former Iraqi regime with military equipment have softened Syria's position.

"They realize they made a huge mistake with the position they adopted on Iraq, and one way to make up for it is to cooperate on the road map," said a Western diplomat.

Syrians interviewed here appear to genuinely support their government's insistence on a total Israeli withdrawal. They have endured the hardship of the past 36 years for the sake of regaining every inch of the Golan, and say that compromising now would render their three decades of suffering meaningless.

Zihdi Shakai, one of the few original residents of Kuneitra who refused to leave the town after it was occupied by Israel in 1967, said he would follow news of the Powell visit from his plant-filled living room in what used to be the middle of town.

The retired civil servant, who is 65 but looks a decade older, recounts when Israeli soldiers moved into Kuneitra in 1967, and herded inhabitants into the church. He says he told his wife Ilham to take their three children to a neighboring village for a week, until the chaos subsided.

His family ended up in a village that remained under Syrian control, and the family was not reunited until 1974 following the Israeli withdrawal from Kuneitra. In the interim, Shakai said he wrote a message to his wife each day -- working his way through six pounds of paper -- and begged Red Cross workers and Israeli soldiers to pass them along by hand.

"That week turned into seven years, and the next time I saw my son he was grown," he said in a wobbly voice.

For years, families separated by the contested frontier line were only able to communicate by bellowing at each through megaphones, across what came to be known as the "shouting valley."

"Are we asking for anything more than what is rightfully ours? This is Syrian land we're talking about. Why should they have it?" said the slight Shakai, resting on a sofa near a vine-strewn garden.

The varying altitudes of the Golan Heights make the plateau overlooking Israel a strategically valuable military outpost. In addition, the land is exceptionally fertile, and from the outskirts of Kuneitra, fruit orchards planted by the estimated 20,000 Israeli settlers who now inhabit two-thirds of the Golan Heights are visible. About 25,000 Syrians also still live on the Israeli side in awkward limbo, refusing to accept Israeli citizenship.

Over the years Shakai's neighbors have dwindled from five families to two. Rarely does the sound of a car interrupt the twitter of birds that nest in his garden. The world of diplomatic negotiations, and whatever slight prospect they hold for peace over the Golan Heights, seems as far away today as it has for 36 years.

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