Syrians in occupied Golan Heights can't join Arab Spring

By ELENA RODA, Written for UPI  |  Feb. 2, 2012 at 12:33 PM
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MAJDAL SHAMS, Israel, Feb. 2 (UPI) -- (Editor's Note: Elena Roda is a graduate student studying journalism, media and globalization at the Danish School of Journalism, the University of Aarhus and the University of Hamburg. She was the winner of a UPIU contest to finance a special reporting project.)

They sip tea and talk about the Arab Spring at the Oud El Na'na' cafe. But talk is all they can do.

"The revolution is on the street but we are not allowed to go," says Dr. Ronan Said Ahmad, who studied medicine in Syria. "It's a pity the revolution didn't start while I was there."

From the cafe, groups of professors, doctors and university students look at a tall fence that prevents them from joining the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Damascus is just a 40-minute drive away. But they live on the wrong side of the fence, in Golan Heights, former Syrian territory now under Israeli control.

"From here," Ahmad notes sadly, "we can support the revolution only by showing our solidarity with Syrian people, nothing else."

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967. Ever since, more than 20,000 Syrians in the territory have been unable to cross the border, except for short periods related to university studies, religious pilgrimages and medical treatment. Many Golan Heights residents say they would join street protests in Syria demanding the resignation of Assad but, unable to travel freely, they must show their support in other ways.

"We love Syria" Shefaa Abu Jabal has written on her Facebook page. She is a Golan Heights activist who has rallied resistance to the Israeli occupation. She is now calling for democratic change in Syria. A photo on her Facebook page reveals her depth of passion, typical among Golan youth. "We will write history with our blood," the photo says.

Yasser Khanjar is a young social worker who lives under house arrest in Golan Heights. He said he threw rocks at Israeli police who were shooting anti-occupation demonstrators last June. From his home, he is crowd-sourcing an Internet protest that links freedom from Israel in Golan with freedom from repression in Syria.

"I am working on a video where 67 people from Golan say a sentence about Golan and the Syrian uprising," he explained. "Sixty-seven is a symbolic number for us, the year of the Israeli occupation. As I cannot go to Syria, I'm trying to do something through the Web."

Syrian activists in the Golan Heights say their resistance to Israeli occupation has been a source of inspiration for pro-democracy demonstrators in Syria. Many Golan Heights residents have refused Israeli citizenship and work to preserve their language, food and religion.

"We are an important example for them, an example of how people can resist against a government that doesn't represent them," said Ahmad. "For the people who are fighting in Syria, there is no difference between the regime they are forced to live under and the Israeli government that is occupying Golan."

"Many Syrians are looking at us," said Taiseer Maray, head of the non-profit group Golan for Development. "They look at Golan as the place where people are resisting over Israel and where people fight the good fight."

Ironically, Syrians in Golan Heights concede they already enjoy some of the freedoms that protesters in Syria are demanding, especially freedom of speech. But activists insist that full freedom is their goal.

"Talking from a selfish point of view, here in Golan we feel more safe than people in Syria," Maray said. "Our aim is to be part of Syria again but we all want to live in a democratic country," he says.

While younger and well-educated Syrians in the Golan Heights generally support the uprising against Assad, many older working-class residents do not. They credit Assad with convincing Israeli authorities to allow limited travel across the Golan Heights border.

This division is seen inside the home of the Ibraheems. A large photo of Assad hangs on the wall above them as they eat Friday dinner. Nazih Ibraheem looks at the photo with pride.

"I think the U.S. and Israel are trying to create problems in Syria," Nazih says. "We are willing for some changes in Syria but I am against the revolution. I think we should let Bashar Assad work at least for the next two years before the elections," he said.

The family television is turned to the Syrian channel. Nazih and his wife Amina say they do not trust international news networks.

"When I was in Syria I saw people on the street supporting Bashar Assad and nobody was forcing them," says Amina, who went to Syria in September for a short pilgrimage. "Every day many people in Syria gather to demonstrate their support for the government," she adds.

Her son, Aamer, is a young activist, and he snaps at his parents. "Do people in Syria like Bashar Assad? What a surprise; that is what the Syrian TV tells you! It's just because of their job that they go on the street supporting the government," Aamer says.

Despite disagreements inside family homes, there is clear disappointment in public that Syrians in the Golan Heights must watch from the sidelines as change grips their homeland. The Oud El Na'na' cafe created a graffiti wall where patrons can express themselves. One person summed up his frustration with the Israelis and the Assad regime in a simple cryptic phrase.

"I'm not mine," he wrote.


(Editor's Note: Elena Roda is a graduate student studying journalism, media and globalization at the Danish School of Journalism, the University of Aarhus and the University of Hamburg. She was the winner of a UPIU contest to finance a special reporting project.)

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