Druze Syria 298 88.
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Rabia and Yusuf, two 12-year-old boys from Bukata, a Druse village on the Golan Heights, waited for a ride by the side of the main road Monday. The boys, with spiky jelled hair and stone-washed jeans, wanted to get to nearby Majdal Shams where a festival was being held in honor of Syrian Independence Day.
"We are celebrating Syria's freedom from French occupation," Rabia said.
No, they didn't learn about it from their teachers. "It's forbidden to talk about such things at school," the thin youngster said in Arabic mixed with a few words of Hebrew. "Our families teach us about Syria at home. Syria is our motherland, our country."
At Majdal Shams' main square, about 1,000 people sang patriotic Syrian songs, waved Syrian flags, and held portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his deceased father, Hafez. A row of Druse religious leaders dressed in their customary black sat regally on plastic chairs.
"Golan is Syrian, Palestine is Arab," chanted men young and old. A girl wearing a black and white keffiyeh waved an enormous Syrian flag as she stood next to the square's statue: a tall bronze of Sultan al-Atrash, who led a Syrian revolt against the French, waving a sword in the air.
The Syrians fought the French occupation from 1925 until they pushed them out in 1946. Some 150 Syrian Druse died fighting the French.
The religious leaders led the crowd down a street toward the famous Shouting Hill, where they spoke via microphone to people sitting on ramparts on a hill in Syrian-controlled territory on the other side of the narrow valley.
As he walked toward the hill, Ali Abu Jabal explained why he was taking part in the festival. "We are part of the Syrian people," said the elderly religious man dressed all in black and wearing a traditional white and red turban.
"Our fathers and grandfathers fought and died to get their freedom [from the French]," he said. "We hope we will become free from the Israeli occupation and return to be part of Syria in a peaceful way. The president of our country, Bashar Assad, has extended his hand in peace so that the land will be returned," he said.
Abu Jabal had no idea that only an hour and a half earlier, a suicide bomber from Islamic Jihad detonated his explosive belt in a Tel-Aviv restaurant. Palestinian Islamic Jihad has its headquarters in Damascus. "I didn't hear about it," he said as rice thrown by women rained down on him from buildings on both sides of the road. "We are involved in celebrations... I do no want to enter into these issues."
For the 20,000 Druse living on the Golan, Syrian Independence Day is a day of irony. While celebrating Syria's independence from France, they bemoan their own occupation by Israel.
"This is a happy day," said Ezzedin Ibrahim, 45, as he sat on the grassy hill looking gloomily at the Syrians on the other side of the valley. "But we are still occupied. We want the Jews to go from here."
Ibrahim had heard about the attack in Tel Aviv. "I am against bombings," he said. "They hurt the innocent." However, he said he did not believe Islamic Jihad was behind the attack. "I think the Israelis did it. Israel wants these attacks so the world will feel sorry for them. It's known that in Iraq in the 40s, the Jews did that to Jews," he said.
Suddenly the Syrian national anthem blared from loudspeakers on the Syrian side of the valley. Ibrahim and other adults stood at attention. Children pet horses decorated with colorful tassels for the occasion.
During the Six Day War, Israel won the Golan from Syria. Most of the 120,000 people living on the Golan fled. The religious leaders of the four Druse villages there decided their people would stay.
In 1981, Israeli law was extended to the Golan, effectively annexing the land. Israel also tried to force citizenship on the Druse. Most refused, saying they were Syrians and would remain so. A compromise was eventually found whereby they accepted Israeli ID cards and residencyâ€š like most Palestinians living in east Jerusalem. They travel freely around Israel, work in Israeli hospitals and schools, and pay taxes. But they continue to declare they are Syrian. Most Israelis believe the Druse do so out of fear that one day the Golan will return to Syria and they might face punishment in a country that has prisons filled with political prisoners.
Officials on the Syrian side and Druse on the Israeli side took turns speaking into microphones. A Syrian read off the names of the officials in attendance and told the Golan Druse, "We came here to pay respect and to participate with you in this holiday. God willing, in the future the land that belongs to Syria will return to Syria and we'll be together and celebrate this holiday as one."
Some youths on the Israeli side wrapped a Syrian flag in a helium-filled balloon and threw it toward the other side. The flag flew past the security road, across the security fence and toward the hill opposite. Three young men rushed down to catch it on the Syrian side.
Half a kilometer down that road, IDF soldiers watched from two Humvees and three other vehicles. Some of the speakers sent their best wishes not only to the people of Syria, but to the Iraqis, "who are being terrorized by the Americans."
Fares al-Shaer, a Golan Druse who served eight years in an Israeli prison for security offenses, said, "We are patient, and we are resisting, resisting, resisting." He was reading from a letter written by the 16 Golan Druse currently in Israeli jails.
On Friday the Druse will commemorate Syrian Prisoners' Dayâ€š in honor of the those 16 men. On Sunday, the newly-opened Community Center of the Occupied Syrian Golan in Majdal Shams will hold a special event in their honor.