'We Drank From Its Waters': 40 Years After Annexation, Syrians Still Long For The Golan Heights

© AP Photo / Ariel SchalitAn Israeli soldier walks in an old military outpost, used for visitors to view the Israeli controlled Golan Heights, near the border with Syria, Thursday, May 10, 2018
An Israeli soldier walks in an old military outpost, used for visitors to view the Israeli controlled Golan Heights, near the border with Syria, Thursday, May 10, 2018 - Sputnik International, 1920, 26.12.2021
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On 14 December 1981 Israel passed the controversial Golan Law that extended its sovereignty over an area that was captured from Syria in 1967. Although throughout the years the two states have been engaged in a round of secret talks that aimed at exchanging the region for peace, none of these efforts have bore fruit.
Taleb Ibrahim, a native of Quneitra -- a city located on the Golan Heights -- remembers well that day in December 1981, when Israel decided to extend its sovereignty over the disputed Plateau.
The area fell into the hands of Israel in 1967 and was placed under strict military rule. Then Prime Minister Menachem Begin decided to alter its status and apply the country's law there.

Unacceptable Annexation

But for Ibrahim and many other people of Syria, that was an unacceptable annexation.

"I was in the first year of my studies back then and I remember that when the decision came, we organised mass protests at Damascus University. For us, it was a disaster. It was our land. We drank from its waters and taking it away from us was a matter of dignity."

Israel, however, thought otherwise. The Golan Heights overlook sweeping views of Israel, giving anyone in control of the region a tactical advantage.
Since 1948, when the Jewish state was created, until 1967, the region was in the hands of the Syrians, and that often meant that the residents of Israel’s north faced the threat of sporadic artillery or sniper fire. This is why capturing the Plateau became a matter of security and stability for officials in Jerusalem.
However, once the move was completed and the Golan region officially became part of Israel, the country faced a barrage of criticism.
The United States, Israel's main ally, declared it would halt its strategic pact and an arms deal with the Jewish state.
A number of European states also condemned the Israeli move, primarily because they viewed it as an act of aggression which violated international law.
Syria, for its part, has stated that a peace deal with Israel would never be possible unless the Golan Heights are returned to their rightful owners.

Secret Negotiations

Throughout the years, there have been a number of Israeli-Syrian attempts to come to terms.
Such was the case in 2004-2006, when the two states reportedly reached an agreement according to which Israel would withdraw from the Golan in exchange for peace with the Syrians.
And such was the case in 2010, when then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu engaged in a series of secret talks with President Bashar Al Assad, where the former reportedly agreed to evacuate the Golan in exchange of peace and on the condition that Damascus would severe its ties with Iran.
Those efforts, however, have never bore any fruit. Israel has always considered the Golan a strategic and security asset, and believes yielding the heights to Syria would jeopardise the Jewish state. It was also a demographic headache: at least 50,000 people reside in the area, and no Israeli prime minister wanted to deal with the repercussions a withdrawal from the Plateau would unkey.

Reluctance to Recognise Israel

Yet, negotiations have never ripened, and peace has not been achieved for two more reasons. The first was the eruption of the Arab Spring in 2011 and the Civil War that it prompted. The second was Syria's reluctance.
"Many Syrians, young and old, do not recognise Israel. For us, it is a social and psychological matter. Many believe that Israel is a colonial force. It was created by the Brits and maintained by the US. Plus, we had prolonged wars with them and thus it will be tough to recognise them," explained Ibrahim.
Others have already done so. In 1979, Egypt became the first country to sign a peace agreement with Israel. In 1994, Jordan did so, and more recently they were joined by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, which also normalised their relations with the Jewish state.
Ibrahim says such a scenario is unlikely with Syria, which refuses to acknowledge Israel unless it recognises the rights of the Palestinian people and gives the Golan Heights back to the Syrians.

"I believe in peaceful coexistence between Jews and the Arabs. After all, they are our brothers. But for a change to happen, there should be a shift in the minds of the Israeli elites. There should be an understanding that a war is madness and unless it is stopped, it will continue for generations."

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