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Path to peace through Golan Heights

Wyre Davies
BBC News, Golan Heights

Sea of Galilee
Sea of Galilee border issues derailed peace talks between Syria and Israel

The Syrian border town of Qunetra is a most bizarre, eerie place.

More than 50,000 people used to live here but it has been a ghost town since 1973, when it was destroyed as Israeli troops withdrew.

Hardly a building was left standing.

Israel still occupies the strategically important Golan Heights that overlook the town and the two countries are still technically at war.

The only people who come and go through the border between Israel and Syria now are the multi-national United Nations soldiers as they patrol the de-militarised zone.

The Golan is strategically important, not only militarily but for water and agriculture.

It is a prize of more than 1,000 km sq (386 sq miles) that Israel is prepared to defend but which Syria says is rightfully hers.

The heights were annexed by Israel in 1981, but this is not recognised by the international community, which considers it occupied territory.

Salman Fakher el Deen
This is an occupation, colonialism which one day - sooner or later - will have to end
Salman Fakher el-Deen
Syrian human rights campaigner

The two sides came close to signing a peace deal in 2000, when small but ultimately insurmountable demarcation issues over borders around the Sea of Galilee scuppered hopes of a comprehensive agreement.

Most analysts agree that peace between Syria and Israel, including Golan, can only happen now as part of a wider Middle East deal.

But when I met one man said to be closely involved in discussions, Dr Samir Altaqi from the Orient Centre for International Studies in Damascus, he was in a positive frame of mind.

"I think that between Israel and Syria there could be a real peace... but the balance of power in the region is shifting and the best way for Israel to achieve this is to make peace with all of its Arab neighbours", said Mr Altaqi.

Communities divided

Syria is in many ways typified by its capital, Damascus. An historic but dynamic place caught at the crossroads.

It is an ambitious nation with a large, young population anxious to re-engage with the international community.

Map

But, it also has strong links with Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran, and has been described by President Bush as a state sponsor of terror.

While indirect talks mediated by Turkey are suspended, communities separated by war are still divided.

I travelled to the other side, to the village of Madjal Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan.

There I spoke to Salman Fakher el-Deen.

He is a human rights worker who has no love for the regime in Damascus and its poor record on human rights. But he ultimately sees himself as Syrian who for more than 40 years has campaigned for the return of this area to Syria.

"I was 13 years old in 1967 when the Israelis first came to our village," says Mr el-Deen. "This is an occupation, colonialism which one day - sooner or later - will have to end."

Deep distrust

An hour's drive directly south through the stunningly beautiful and elevated scenery I met Gary Black.

He is a farm manager on the second oldest Israeli kibbutz in the Golan and is among the thousands of Jewish farmers and settlers who now live on the Golan's fertile land.

He does not want to leave but accepts he might have to. As we walked through fields of greens grown for the lucrative European food market, Gary admitted his view was perhaps more on the conciliatory side, than many of his farming colleagues.

Majdal Shams
Majdal Shams, now in Israeli-occupied territory

But Israeli settlers on the Golan tend to be less driven by ideological and religious issues than those in the occupied West Bank.

"It's a case of the heart and the head. My heart of course wants to stay on the land that I've farmed for more than 40 years but my head says that if we want peace with Syria, we might have to leave one day."

Many Israelis do not think like Mr Black and are deeply mistrustful of the Damascus regime with its links to Tehran and Palestinian militants.

However small, the door does though appear to have been left slightly ajar.

Syria does seem prepared to make concessions in order to recover the Golan and to continue its move back into the international fold, while some voices in Israel sense that they may be able to normalise relations with a country they still regard as a bitter enemy.

With internal political uncertainties in both countries, it may be a crack at peace that neither Israel nor Syria is quite able to commit itself to and the door may remain closed for many more years.

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