Syrians in Golan Heights to boycott Israel's election in the area

Syrians in Golan Heights to boycott Israel's election in the area

Israeli soldiers walk past tanks near the border with Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights [File: Reuters]

Beirut, Lebanon: Thousands of Syrian residents of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights are expected to boycott the first municipal elections imposed by Israel in the area, rejecting what they call the ‘Israelization’ of the territory.

Following a decision handed by Israel’s supreme court last year to hold, for the first time ever, municipal elections in October 2018 on the occupied Golan’s 26,000 Syrian residents, local religious leaders and elders of the villages are demanding a full rejection of the elections, calling this a “red line.”

“With regards to the Golan Heights families, we are Syrian Arabs living under Israeli occupation and there is no possible way for us to accept these elections imposed on us,” Abu Wadih, an elder from Majdal Shams, told Al Jazeera.

He participated in a meeting between Israeli officials and religious leaders and elders from the occupied Golan held recently to discuss the elections and said under no uncertain terms the elections would be boycotted and rejected.

“We told them that these elections, for the Golan residents, are a red line. We will not accept them, and those who called for them do not represent us or the Golan community,” adding that the leaders of the community are working towards ensuring the elections do not even take place.

Bassam Safadi, a local journalist in the area, told Al Jazeera that if the community leaders take such a decision on the elections, the entire community will follow.

When it comes out from these leaders, it will be rejected by the entire population, as it was in the 1980s when the Israeli occupation tried to impose the nationality on us

Bassam Safadi, local journalist

“These elections are undemocratic, unrepresentative and it is part of Israel’s plan to create tensions within our community,” he added.

‘Israelization of occupied Golan Heights’

“The Israelis are using the Arab Spring and what is happening in Syria to re-launch some projects that were put aside for a long time,” Wael Tarabieh, a civil society activist and artist from Majdal Shams, told Al Jazeera.

“We call what they are doing the Israelization of the Golan Heights, and today it is a process that is moving forward,” he said. “These elections are a part of that process.”

According to Tarabieh, Israelization of the area involves encouraging the younger generation to reject their Syrian identity, focus on their economic future, remove certain Golan-specific taxes, accept Israeli nationality, play up the sectarian identity and assimilate into Israeli society as Israeli Druze.

“This policy is working on some of the younger generation,” admitted Tarabieh. “While the numbers are very low, there are a few who are taking on the Israeli nationality in order to be able to travel abroad, study abroad, secure a better economic future.”

But statistics provided by local NGO Al Marsad, the Arab Human Rights Centre in the Golan Heights, depict that since the beginning of the occupation in 1967 until March 2018, only 6.5 per cent of those in the occupied Golan have applied for Israeli citizenship. Furthermore 69 per cent of those who receive the citizenship do so as a result of birth, marriage or because of a change of residence.

“The Israelis are trying to make us feel like we have opportunities here,” 21-year-old Aram Abu Saleh, a Golan resident and university student in Jerusalem, told Al Jazeera.

“They are trying to make it easier to establish this Druze-Israeli identity in the Golan,” she said, adding that Israeli authorities are also capitalising on the internal rift within the Golan community over the war in Syria. “They use this political crisis to make us see how Israel is better, while also playing on the Druze identity.”

Other aspects of the Israelization policy in the Golan include the continuation of property confiscation, land grabs, squeezing out local businesses while promoting Israeli settlement businesses, improving and increasing the tourism industry, expanding settlement activity and investing millions of dollars in local infrastructure.

A comprehensive 144-page report published in March 2018 by Al Marsad provides chilling details of Israel’s decades-long exploitation and expropriation of the territory; through education, land appropriation, the expanding settlement industry, family separation and agriculture.

In just one example, today local Syrian residents can only cultivate 20 per cent of their land, while Israeli settlers are able to cultivate 80 per cent. There are now 32 illegal settlements housing 26,000 Israeli settlers, and as a result of Israeli government investment in the agricultural sector of the Golan settlement – including a $108 million investment in 2014 – Syrian farmers are forced to compete with Israeli settlers, who are subsidised by the state and have access to more resources, thus limiting Syrian farmers access to the markets, access to much needed water sources and forcing them to change their crop due to land grabs.

Druze gather to contact their relatives on the Syrian side, in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights [File: Reuters]

Long Term Project

Israel began its occupation of the 1,200-square-kilometre mountainous terrain in 1967 after it captured it from Syria. It subsequently expelled over 130,000 Syrians and destroyed the majority of the 340 towns and villages in the area, leaving only the villages of Majdal Shams, Ain Qinya, Masadi and Baqatha standing. Today there are approximately 26,000 Syrian residents living in the area, while around 600,000 Golan natives are outside, waiting to return.

Israel’s long-term project for the Golan Heights started to take shape; the first illegal settlement was constructed within weeks of the start of the occupation in 1967, and by the 1970s the Israeli government changed the education curriculum in the area, forcing schools to introduce Druze heritage classes on the local Syrian residents, teaching them an Israeli version of the history and religious background of the Druze sect.

“Through this curriculum we were taught that we are not Arabs, we are not Syrians, we are not Muslims,” explained Tarabieh. “They were trying to separate us from our roots.”

Israeli authorities swiftly followed this by imposing the Golan Heights Law in 1981, officially annexing the Syrian territory; a move roundly rejected by the international community. When the Israeli military attempted to force Golan residents to accept the Israeli nationality – in many instances even physically – locals responded by collectively signing a ‘National Declaration’ which declared anyone who took the Israeli ID would be excommunicated.

During the 1980s and 1990s Israel continued constructing illegal settlements in the occupied Golan while simultaneously conducting negotiations with the Syrian government over returning the territory back to Syria. And when the unrest began in neighbouring Syria in 2011, Israel sought to revive and aggressively pursue its Golan sovereignty project.

Sovereignty claims

This year’s Golan Heights municipal elections come as Israel renews its push for international recognition of its annexation and self-declared sovereignty over the Syrian territory, focusing primarily on recognition from the Trump administration.

“These elections are like a test, to see if anything has changed in the attitudes of local residents in the Golan Heights over the last seven years,” explained Golan Heights resident and activist Wesam Sharaf.

“The Israelis also want to use this opportunity to show [the international community] that there were elections and that people participated,” in order to demonstrate that Golan residents have given up on the idea of returning to Syria.

Israeli prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, had tried to convince the previous US administration that the war in neighbouring Syria should allow for ‘different thinking’ over the future of the Golan Heights, declaring that “the time has come for the international community to finally recognise that the Golan Heights will remain under Israel’s sovereignty permanently.”

Now, with a US administration that has proven to be more compliant than its predecessor to Israeli pressure, Israel is pushing once again with its sovereignty project. In May, Israel’s intelligence minister, Israel Katz, said the Golan issue is now ‘topping the agenda’ between the two countries, and it seems to be working; following the official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the subsequent embassy move, some US officials are now actively working to get Washington to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan.

US senator Ted Cruz is leading efforts which would include establishing joint US-Israel projects in the occupied Golan, sending official delegations to the area and officially recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan. At the same time, Ron DeSantis, US Representative and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also introduced a resolution to Congress pushing for the US to officially recognise Israeli sovereignty of the occupied Golan.

An Israeli soldier stands next to signs pointing out distances to different cities, on Mount Bental, an observation post in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights that overlooks the Syrian side of the Quneitra crossing, Israel [File: Reuters]

Earlier this month Israeli deputy minister and former Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren presented a plan to significantly expand Israeli settlements in the Golan, whereby Jewish settlers would increase from around 26,000 today to 100,000 over the next decade, while Israeli Knesset member and contender for the premiership, Yair Lapid, called on the international community to officially recognise Israeli sovereignty of the Golan, writing in an op-ed two weeks ago that Syrian historic claims to the Golan Heights are ‘absurd’ and that Israel’s claim to the territory is ‘biblical’.

But these claims are completely dismissed by the residents of the Golan. “I am Syrian,” said Sharaf. “I feel that within all aspects of my life; my culture and my language are completely Syrian. And I hope one day we will go back to being [part of] Syria.”

“We belong to Syria and we don’t recognise Israel’s annexation and occupation.”

“The Golan is Syrian Arab and will remain so,” said Safadi. “Any plan against the Golan residents, whether its national ID or elections, anything to create tensions amongst the local population, is roundly rejected and never works.”

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