Druse women join pilgrimage to Syria

For 1st time, women join Golan Heights Druse on visit to Syria.

Druse golan heights syria 248.88 (photo credit: Brenda Gazzar [file])
Druse golan heights syria 248.88
(photo credit: Brenda Gazzar [file])
Noflea Shker, a Druse resident of the Golan Heights, was nearly at a loss for words Thursday. She was about to cross the border into Syria, where she would see aunts and uncles for the first time in 25 years, her mother, who she had not seen in five years, and her seven-month-old grandson for the first time. "It's an indescribable feeling," said Shker, her eyes brimming with tears while she waited to disembark from a bus at the border crossing. But Najwa Hamzi Amasha, another Druse resident, made no attempt to hide her disappointment at the rejection by Israel of her repeated requests to cross - she would not be meeting her siblings in Syria; she hasn't seen them in nearly three decades. "The Jews of Sweden come to visit Jerusalem, their homeland, and their families," she said. "Why don't they let us - and we are 40 kilometers away - visit our families?" For 25 years, the Israeli government has allowed some of the approximately 25,000 Druse living in the Golan Heights to visit Syria - an enemy country - for annual pilgrimages and for "humanitarian" reasons, such as the deaths of family members and religious leaders. Thursday, however, marked the first time Interior Ministry officials allowed women to participate in the religious pilgrimage, calling it "a goodwill gesture" to commemorate Israel's 60th anniversary. Druse sheikhs, too, have often failed to include women on their list of recommended participants for ministry review, according to Adina Agmon, manager of the Population, Immigration and Border Crossings Authority of the Interior Ministry. This year, with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross, 14 Druse women and 374 men from the Golan Heights crossed over into Syria for an annual religious pilgrimage attended by thousands of followers from around the region. Israeli officials extended the religious visit this year, from three to four days. But at least 15 women who said they had not been granted permission waited outside the crossing to protest, or to try to get through. Those denied permission included men and women who had not applied by the June 1 deadline, as well as those who were not religious and thus not included in the sheikhs' list of recommended participants, Agmon said . "We want there to be continuous visits to our homeland, to our country, to our families," said Amasha, a widow with four grown children. Thursday's crossing was the first time in more than eight years that the visit had taken place amidst open, albeit indirect, peace talks between Israel and Syria. The Druse of the Golan Heights - who consider themselves to be Syrian and long to be reunited with their families across the border - perhaps more than anyone wish to see a peace agreement signed between the countries. "We are against the Israeli occupation, but first and foremost we want peace. We want peace for both sides, for Syria and Israel," said Adib al-Sabbagh, a 59-year-old resident of the Golan Heights who says he hadn't been granted permission to visit Syria in 12 years. He added, as he waited to cross the border: "God willing, our president, Bashar al-Assad, will achieve peace... and the Golan Heights will be returned... The life of occupation is not a life." Shker agreed, adding that peace would finally allow her to visit her relatives in Syria without restrictions. "I want the Golan to return to Syria and for there to be peace between Jews and Arabs and for all people everywhere, because war is destructive, for [both] Jews and Arabs," she said, wearing a loose, white hijab that covered all but her eyes. When Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, the Druse remained and refused to leave their villages, said Baid Hasisi, a Druse professor of criminology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Most Druse in the Golan Heights have Syrian citizenship and are considered full Syrian citizens by Assad. In fact, the Syrian government gives them scholarships and encourages them to study at Syrian universities' and helps facilitate residents' commercial exports with other Arab countries. "Syria likes these citizens very much, wants to keep them affiliated and doesn't want to lose them," Hasisi said. "The only thing that's keeping the Golan Heights affiliated with Syria is the Druse in the Golan Heights. They are the living evidence that this place once was Syrian." Similarly, many Druse also recognize that one day, the land they live on may return once again to Syrian control, which also influences their views of identity and belonging. "People know what is the price for the peace process and they are realistic," he said. Meanwhile, at the Kuneitra crossing, 28-year-old Fida el-Shaer from Majda al-Shams decided to try her luck at getting permission to visit her family in Syria, although her request had already been denied. About one hour after she was escorted in by army officials only to be denied again, el-Shaer, who had broken into tears earlier in the day, remained outside the crossing in the stifling August heat. Asked why she was still waiting, she responded: "I have hope that maybe they'll still let me through. Without hope, one's soul would break."