The changing generations of Syrians in Israel

On the foothills of the Hermon, one finds a border community much more complex than meets the eye.

Salman Sakheraldeen (photo credit: Benjamin Joffe-Walt / TML Photos)
Salman Sakheraldeen
(photo credit: Benjamin Joffe-Walt / TML Photos)
The drive to Majdal Shams, the center of Druze life in the Golan Heights, is aesthetically spectacular.
An expansive town on the rolling foothills of Mount Hermon, the view from Majdal Shams is full of green: apple and cherry orchards; expansive vineyards; Israeli army outposts; and grazing sheep.
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“On the other side of this mountain is Lebanon - here we are in Occupied Syria and down there is Palestine,” says 68-year-old retiree Abu Jabal Hayil Hussein. “They offered us Israeli citizenship and we refused, so we are considered temporary residents with Syrian citizenship. I am Syrian, I was born in Syria and I want to continue to be Syrian.”
While Majdal Shams has been on the Israeli side of the de facto border between Israel and Syria for over 40 years, one is hard pressed to find someone in Majdal Shams who has something nice to say about Israel.
“Israel is a thief,” says Abu Jabal. “Israel is not serious about peace. We are Syrian Arabs under occupation and this situation can’t continue.”
Majdal Shams, the village featured in the award-winning 2004 film The Syrian Bride, is the largest of four remaining Druze villages in the Golan Heights: a lush, mountainous region in Israel’s northwest captured from Syria during the 1967 war. The rest of the Druze villages that existed before the war have been destroyed, or taken over by Jewish Israeli villages like Neve Ativ, just a couple miles down the road.
“I was there when they built it,” says Dr. Nissar Ayoub, Director of the Majdal Shams-based human rights organization Al Marsad. “It was built on part of the cemetary of a Syrian village called Jubatha Izzeit. You could see bones in the bulldozers.”
Indeed, on the northern side of a small resort called Rimonim that is located inside of Neve Ativ, one finds an overgrown Arab cemetary just beyond the pool.
“More than 95 per cent of the population in the Golan was forcibly transferred out,” Dr. Ayoub claims. “If Israel hadn’t ethnically cleansed the Golan, instead of having half a million refugees in Syria you would still have them in the Golan and the same problem as the Palestinians.”
There were some 150,000 Druze residents of the Golan Heights in 1967. Today, the vast majority of the 18,000 or so that remain refuse Israeli citizenship.
“Israel has a security problem,” says Salman Sakheraldeen, coordinator of Al Marsad. “It’s a settlement on someone’s land and you can’t live quietly in such a situation.”
The center of Druze life in the region, Majdal Shams residents hold Syrian citizenship, often go to Syria for university studies, and consider the Golan Heights to be illegally occupied territory.
“The Israelis who settled in the Golan will have to leave and it will be the Israeli government’s responsibility,” says Hussein. “Some of us work with them in agriculture but there is no friendship beyond work relations.”
About half of the village’s income comes from labor for Jewish Israelis. But residents claim that despite amicable relations with their Jewish neighbors, Israeli authorities treat them like second class citizens.
“We built the roads, the schools, the water system,” says Sakheraldeen. “We pay local taxes but in return they just collect the trash and fix the roads once in a while.”
“If the police are angry with the village they put checkpoints on the outskirts of the village and give people tickets,” adds Hussein.
The village is still reeling from an incident earlier this summer in which Israeli special forces raided the home of a local family.
“My son Anas and I were home when the police came with a search warrant,” says Muna Al-Sha’ar, sitting beside her 15-year-old son Anas. “They said forced their way in and locked the door. There were nineteen of them and then another three joined.”
“They made a huge mess and beat up my son,” she alleges. “The phone rang and when Anas tried to answer it they smashed it and threw all the cables on the floor. They were drinking our water and breaking the glasses and they smashed all the lamps on the wall. They even stole our two computers and stole two cellphones.”
“Then we started hearing firing outside and they closed all the windows,” Muna remembers. “If you use water with tear gas it burns your face so my son heard them telling each other in Hebrew not to touch the water. Then they told us to wash our faces.”
The incident caused an impromptu mass protest outside the family’s home. The police accused the crowd of imprisoning them in the house, while village leaders accused the police of unjustified aggression. Indeed, a police commander in the nearby Israeli town of Katzrin is said to have criticized the special forces for the way they handled the case.
“They accused us of a relationship with the Syrian security services,” Muna says. “My former neighbor Midhat Saleih went to Syria and became a parliamentarian. I am still in touch with him. My son was studying in Damascus and knew him.”
Muna’s son Fida was arrested the same day at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport upon returning from overseas. Muna, her husband, daughter and other son were all jailed by the police. Fida and his father remain in prison, and the family now has no income.
“It’s Israeli paranoia,” says Sakheraldeen of the raids. “Today for Israel, any Arab person is suspicious. It’s just cheap hate.”
The Al Sha’aer family’s story mirrors those of many village residents, who claim Israeli police regularly accuse locals of being spies for Syria, or cooperating in some way or another with Syrian intelligence.
“We are not spies and we are not a Syrian investigative unit,” Hussein says.
There are many stories in Majdal Shams of people allegedly being arrested for just going to a demonstration.
“My crime was the same as everyone else: we protested,” says a man named Busaid, who asked that his family name not be printed. “There was no violence on the side of the protesters yet they arrested eighteen of us for six months. Hundreds of people in this village have been arrested for participating in demonstrations over the years. Our only crime is having an opinion.”
But while Busaid claims to have been arrested for simply sticking to his opinion, others admit to taking their opinions much further.
Last month the village held a large march to mark the 26th anniversary of the imprisonment of Sudqi Almakit, who has spent over half his life in an Israeli prison.
“We were a group of twelve arrested, and we were all sentenced to 27 years for militant resistance to the occupation,” says 45-year-old Bishir Suleiman Almakit, who was arrested along with his brother Sudqi 26 years ago. “It was for an action against the army - I don’t want to get into it, but my brother is the only one left in prison.”
But after a bit of pushing, Bishir, who was released last year, admits he and his brother were involved in militant activities.
“We stole mines from the army’s ammunitions depots and mined the army roads,” he says. “The purpose wasn’t to kill a specific person, the purpose was to fight the occuptation and in a war soldiers die.”
“Did anyone die?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” he answers. “They didn’t tell us.”
But spend more than a day in this expanding Druze community and one finds a bit less talk of occupation, police brutality and colonialist hegemony, and more talk of designer jeans, the best place to get a macchiato, Israel’s top universities and money.
“I’m not a political person, all I can say is it’s fine living here,” says Ihab Zahoa, a 29 year old car assessment agent. “There’s no big money here but it’s like anywhere in the world - you can do whatever you want as long as you stay away from the country’s security. If you don’t make trouble nobody will bother you.”
“I don’t feel like I want to be in Syria because I was never there,” he says. “I was born in Israel so I cannot tell you if Syria is a better place or not, but the elders have seen both countries and they say Syria is better so that’s why they are demonstrating.”
“The only problem is I can’t see my family and I miss them,” Ihab continues. “All my aunts and cousins - I don’t know them - so I just want peace and the ability to go there when I want and to be here when I want.”
While Israel grants special permission to some 150 to 200 residents of Majdal Shams to study in Syria each year, family unification, or the ability of Majdal Shams families to meet their relatives on the other side of what is for them an artificial border, is a major local issue.
For decades families would meet once a week and shout to each other through megaphones at the ‘Valley of Tears’, a depression between two opposing hills known by Israel as ‘The Shouting Hill’. Today cellphones, Internet and family reunions in Jordan or Turkey have taken over, and the Valley of Tears is only used for the occasional joint protest.
“Why is the border open to Palestinians who have been in prison to visit Lebanon, Amman, Iran, wherever they want, yet peaceful people like us are not allowed to go see our families in Syria?” asks Dr. Ayoub. “We are trying to pressure the Israeli government and we believe that if we can meet the decision-makers we can change the procedures.”
Aneel Khanjar, a 35-year-old gardener, says the issues of concern to Majdal Shams residents are changing.
“About 10 or 15 years ago there were real clashes between the village and police, but today people view resistance to the occupation differently,” he begins. “We don’t see much point in fighting the police.  Why do I need to worry about getting arrested?”
“We are more interested in working, making money, and leaving the bigger fight to Syria, which can represent us,” he says. “You’ll still see young people fighting but only if they are threatened like the incident with the Al Sha’aer family. Why send 20 special forces agents to confiscate two computers? It just makes people feel threatened and the second the neighbors asked the police what they were doing they started with the tear gas.”
Aneel speaks perfect Hebrew and is working towards a degree in landscape design at a Jewish college nearby.
“My generation still has a problem with the [Israeli] state, but not the people,” he says. “There are lots of us that study in Jewish universities, and I have no problem with a Jewish person - I will respect them, host them -- I even dated a Jewish woman.”
“Her parents were against it and I didn’t even tell my parents,” Aneel continues. “People here don’t like it if someone marries a Jew, or Christian or Muslim, and they kick them out of the village. The religious control this village. I’m against it, but this is not a political issue, it’s a religious issue about marrying out of the Druze.”
Sitting in a chi chi local cafe, which doubles as an art gallery, Aneel says that on the whole Majdal Shams is changing for the better.
“Economically, we are well off relative to the other villages in the area,” he says. “People here are not lazy. The percentage of people here with an academic degree is very high - something like 70 percent of the people go straight to university after high school - and there are some 300 dentists and over 100 doctors.”
“The women you see in this cafe, they would never dress that way 5 or 10 years ago,” he continues, pointing to a number of women in modern Arab dress and without a hijab covering their head. “These days, you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who has nothing to do. We have a cinema, a music school, an art gallery coffee house, a youth art association and we just finished a sculpture festival.”
He takes a sip of water, looks out over the mountainside view and heads out onto the street, walking past a Diesel Jeans shop, fancy cars and a number of signs for upcoming demonstrations.