On 25 March 1981, the remaining Syrian communities in the occupied Golan Heights issued a “Wathiqa Wataniya,” a “National Declaration.” They asserted their Syrian-Arab national identity and rejection of the Israeli intention to annex the occupied Golan—a measure which Israel took a few months later, in December 1981.
In a strange coincidence of history, Mr. Trump’s presidential proclamation that “the Heights are part of Israel” was signed on the 38th anniversary of the Golan people’s declaration—on 25 March 2019.
Syrian social media activists from the occupied Golan captured this symbolic erasure and displacement of their identity with a sense of political humor and satire. They disseminated a manipulation of Trump’s ceremonial photograph while holding his signed proclamation, replacing his document with the Golan people’s declaration.
Their message was clear: Mr. Trump’s proclamation will not erase ours.
On the eve of the 1967 war the Golan Heights was densely populated. The part which ultimately fell under Israeli occupation was home to about 130,000 Syrian citizens, including thousands of Palestinian refugees who lost their homeland in 1948. The war resulted in a near total ethnic-cleansing of the region by Israeli forces, leaving only five out of 340 Syrian villages and farms, all at the northern border of the Golan: Majdal Shams, Buq`atha, Mas`ada, Ein Qinya, and Ghajar. Back then, these remaining communities numbered about 6,000, and now include around 22,000.
The displaced Syrians moved eastward, most probably to shanty towns south of the capital, Damascus. There had been virtually no official discourse in Syria about these victims of war, who may have exceeded half million by now. They were silenced by the totalitarian representation of society and nation by the Baath party. Many of them are likely to have suffered harshly and were uprooted again during the bloody suppression of the Syrian popular uprising and its tragic deterioration into a regional and global battle field.
Immediately after the war in 1967, Israel launched a Jewish colonization project in the Golan Heights, as it did in the rest of the Arab occupied territories. Fifty-two years later, 34 privileged Jewish-only settlements, with approximately 20,000 settlers, dominate the landscape and resources of the Golan, including tourism, water, lucrative agricultural industries and wineries. Additionally, part of this colonization project is the recent exploration for oil by a subsidiary of an American oil drilling company, Genie Energy, with ties to top American former officials of the Trump administration.
Annexation, colonization and exploitation of resources present complex challenges for the remaining Syrian communities. Effective methods of economic and educational integration, mixed with tactics of colonial intimidation and a valorization of sectarian identities, were devised to contain them as a “special minority.” Israeli policy makers believed that the community will readily submit to its new fate, accept Israeli citizenship and shift loyalty to the Zionist state, presumably following the steps of many of their Druze co-religionists in the Galilee. However, just the opposite happened. The annexation awakened a new politics of identity and self-awareness of the community as being part of larger Arab popular struggles for freedom, independence, and progress.
During the 1980s, political solidarity between the Golan people and the Palestinians in the occupied territories and inside Israel was strengthened. Local initiatives and contacts with the Israeli communist party and later with the Syrian government led to a higher-education revolution within the community. Hundreds of young men and women attended universities in the former Soviet Union in the 1980s, and since the Madrid Conference in 1991, many more graduated from Damascus University, with degrees in engineering, medicine, dentistry, and other practical professions. Despite annexation, ties with Syria were revived, taking other forms as well: religious and family visits, family reunification, and traffic of commodities (mainly Golan apple exports to Damascus). These ties left a lasting material and symbolic impact on the community, its class formation, economy, culture, and political identification.
For the Syrians of the occupied Golan, it is the future of those ties which is at the heart of their concern, and against which they measure Mr. Trump’s declaration.
When the Syrian uprising broke out in March 2011, the Syrian community in the occupied Golan was among the first to respond. Like their Syrian sisters and brothers elsewhere, the Syrians in the occupied Golan were sharply divided around the meaning and expected outcome of these events. Polarization naturally had adverse consequences for the community’s solidarity vis-à-vis Israeli policies. Capitalizing on the Syrian crisis and on local confusion, Israel launched a campaign to coopt the Golan communities, including a decision to hold the Israeli 2018 municipal elections in the Syrian villages for the first time since 1967. Israel’s efforts, however, became a factor of unity among the community. Activists from both sides of the political divide worked together to oppose the elections and led to a successful community boycott of the Israeli municipal elections. Eventually, the elections were cancelled in two villages and had a 1-3 percent turn-out in another two.
The consequences of Israel’s lingering occupation and Mr. Trump’s new policy must be measured both locally and geopolitically. The continuation of the occupation and the new support it receives from the U.S. will increase the insecurity of the people of the occupied land regarding their future and basic social, economic, and human rights, including their sense of identity, history and belonging to their own lands. Based on recent history, it is likely that the Syrians in the occupied Golan will prioritize uniting in their opposition to the Israeli occupation.
But this reality has a wider implication as well; it signifies the increasing uncertainties regarding the basic lives and dignity of millions of Syrians, Palestinians, and Lebanese who suffer immediately from Israel’s expansionist policies toward the region. The divisiveness, weakness and undemocratic nature of most Arab regimes certainly contribute to this unbalanced reality.
Many Syrians took part in the 2011 uprising with good faith, believing in the possibility of replacing authoritarianism and corruption with freedom and human dignity. To many, the Syrian revolution seemed to have opened a Pandora’s box. Israeli propaganda exploits this situation in the most cynical fashion to intimidate people: ‘you have no moral right to protest against us, in Syria you would have been slaughtered!’ But what is the real meaning of the Syrian tragedy? Is it to forget the hope for a better world, the hope for human dignity and justice, or to hold on tighter to that hope? Surely, we must retain hope. Mr. Trump’s blatantly irresponsible proclamation regarding the fate of the Golan and Syria as a whole, is just one of many examples of how matters can continue to deteriorate in the absence of justice and respect for basic human dignity.