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Last Updated: Friday, 22 June 2007, 14:01 GMT 15:01 UK
Jewish settlers fear Golan withdrawal
By Martin Patience
BBC News, Golan Heights

Israeli troops in military exercise on Golan heights
Could Israel be prepared to pullout of the Golan Heights after 40 years?
On the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee stands a statue with an old man crouching over his fishing rod.

The man is the deceased Syrian leader Hafez Assad and a fish - in the shape of the Sea of Galilee - dangles from the rod.

The statue is intended as an Israeli jibe at the Syrian leader.

In 2000, US-brokered peace talks broke down over disagreements on the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau that Israel seized from Syria during the 1967 Middle East War and then unilaterally annexed in 1981.

Israeli legend has it that the peace talks were dashed when Mr Assad demanded that he be able to dip his feet in the Sea of Galilee after any peace deal. (The pre-1967 Syrian-Israeli borders run about 100 metres from the shore.)

But now the issue of the occupied Golan Heights is back on the agenda.

Earlier this month, an Israeli newspaper reported that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had secretly sent messages to President Bashar Assad - the son of Hafez - offering a full withdrawal from the Golan in exchange for full peace.

Two Israeli cabinet ministers also confirmed that the Israeli government has approached Syria about the possibility of renewing peace talks.

But if Israel were to return the occupied Golan Heights it would want firm security guarantees and access to water.

Israel says that the occupied Golan Heights are of strategic military importance as it overlooks its villages and cities in the plains and elevations in the north.

Astrid Hasday
We've invested here. Israel's been here 40 years
Astrid Hasday

A major water basin lies under the Golan Heights providing Israel with about a third of its water supplies.

There is also the matter of the 40,000 residents of the occupied Golan Heights - approximately half are Jewish settlers, and the other half Druze who remained in the territory following the Israeli occupation.

Among the population there is scepticism that there will be any major agreement in the near future - the occupied Golan Heights has, after all, been in Israeli hands for over 40 years now.

And there has been talk of potential deals several times in the past. But if any agreement was reached, it's very likely that the Jewish population would be forced to leave the territory.

Astrid Hasday, 45, would be one of them. She moved to the Golan over 15 years ago with her husband, who works for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, an environmental organisation.

The mother-of-two, who works as the manager of Bazelet Hagolan winery, one of 10 located in the territory, enthuses about the rolling hills, grape vines and orchards in the occupied Golan Heights.

Paul Hecht
I trust our leaders
Paul Hecht

She does not regard herself as a settler insisting "that you can easily be left-wing and live in the Golan and still feel you're very much part of Israel."

While Mrs Hasday says that the latest initiative is "not serious", she welcomes any Israeli attempts to negotiate with Syria.

If part of any peace deal was the evacuation of the occupied Golan Heights, Mrs Hasday says she would leave, but reluctantly.

"We've invested here," she says. "Israel has been here for 40 years."

Screaming valley

Further to the north in the Golan Heights, Paul Hecht, 25, works in the vine-yard of El Rom Kibbutz. From where he waters, prunes and tends the vines he can see the minarets, buildings, and wind turbines of a Syrian town a few miles across the border.

Mr Hecht says that he does not see the Golan Heights as occupied but as essential to Israel's security following what he - and most other Israelis - views as a defensive war. (Most Arabs see the 1967 war as an Israeli war of aggression.)

"Every country has to fight to achieve secure borders and that's the case for Israel and the Golan Heights," he says, standing close to a disused bunker from the 1967 war.

"We need the Golan Heights to protect ourselves and they (Syria) don't." But Mr Hecht, like Mrs Hasday, would leave the territory if the Israeli government asked him.

"I trust our leaders," he says.

At the northern-most part of the occupied Golan Heights lies the town of Majdal Shams, home to about half of the Druze population in the occupied territory.

The town is perched on the slopes of the majestic Mount Herman - or Jabal Sheikh to Arabs - straddling the Israeli-Syrian border.

Under any agreement, it is likely that the Druze community would return to Syrian control. Culturally - in terms of language and traditions - the Druze are closer to the Syrians.

Many of the residents here have been separated from their families for over 40 years. Sometimes relations stand on either side of the border and communicate with each other through microphones in a spot called "Screaming Valley."

But after 40 years of Israeli control, some Druze have come to enjoy the freedoms of Israeli life.

One 25-year-old waitress at a local restaurant says that while she wished for a return to Syrian rule she worried about the country's weak economy.

Another man says that many Druze are fearful to criticise Syria as they may one day have to answer to the authorities.

But Ismail Fakhereddin, a Druze ski-instructor at the local resort says that all that matters to him is the beauty of the natural surroundings. "I'll live in whatever country controls the mountain," he says.



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