Syria-Israel Peace

A wonderful idea was brought up (by Jad) to have ordinary, down-to-earth stories told by Arabs and Israelis about themselves, about their daily lives, about what it is like living in their respective countries. So much of our fears and suspicion stems from ignorance, from simply knowing little or nothing about the “other side”. And so we’re inviting you to read and comment about your life, and about those of our neighbors.

Quite appropriately, Jad will be the first. Jad is a Syrian from Damascus, and he wrote a nice piece about what it is like being a Syrian today (Thank You Jad!):

“From an average Syrian man with the name of Jad.”

I am from a typical Syrian middle class, hard working and very loving family. My childhood was between the urban neighbourhoods of Damascus in winter and the beautiful Mediterranean landscape in the summer, God is generous to me, he opens me many doors to advance, I have big dreams some I already done yet the best are still to come. In my trip I met and will meet great people, teachers, I learned and will learn from them what I need to become a better human being and to become the beautiful reflection of my country Syria.

I as a Syrian am not different than you as an Israeli, I may not have your luxury car, your expensive house and your fancy towers in my cities but we both have one reason to live, we both want a bright future, we both want to live the same way we do when we travel outside our countries, me and you are the same but we don’t see that we’d rather magnify our differences and make wars for it.

We as human and as enemy are not that different from each others, we eat three meals a day, we drink, we laugh, we love, we make sex, we kiss, we cry, we get angry, we get frustrated, we hate , we like, we dislike, we draw, we sing, we play music, we have blue eyes, brown eyes and green ones, we both eat olives, figs and hummus, we both believe in a supernatural creator yet we are willing to steal, cut lemon tree, orange tree and almond ones, we are willing to kill in the name of our creator and our corrupted politicians.

At the end of our battle days we both go back to our houses only if we still alive, we both greet our families with the greatest passion, we both tell them how much we love them and how much we missed them, we both remove the tree leaves stuck in our hair from the battle field as the evidence of our crimes, we both clean our cloths from the earth that we both contaminate it with our sins, we both wash our hands from the blood of each other, then, we go to make love with our wives or husbands, get tiered and go to sleep, we both again, wake up again, doing the same thing in the next morning which is preparing for the next battle.

But it doesn’t have to be this way we both can use our logic for a better future, with peace we both can much more than wasting the souls of our enemies and the souls of people we love, we can save our brothers and sisters. With peace you can visit my country and my famous home town of Damascus.

Let me tell you about my love story with an old old city called Damascus or Alsham as we call it in Syria, please tell me, what do you call Damascus in Hebrew?

Here is why I became in love with her: Imagine growing in a city where the jasmine perfumed its morning mist in every corner of its old as well as its new neighbourhoods.

Imagine living in a museum full of antiques teaching you the history without even reading it.

Imagine a city where its music is the Gregorian chants, the prayer of the mosque imam along with the churches bells.

Imagine the beauty of colourful flock of doves dancing in an orange sunset sky.

Imagine seeing the majesty of a silver moon rising between the minarets, the domes and the arches of this ancient city, every month.

Imagine the whole city being like an oasis surrounded by a belt of blossoms in the middle of a dry land.

Imagine the symphony that handicrafts men play by just drawing in silver over hard copper plates.

Imagine feeling the taste of apricot filling your mouth whenever you try to say her name as our Nizar ones taught us.

How can you imagine all of that and not to fall totally in love with such enchanted city.

Nizar Quabani, our famous Syrian poet once wrote:

“Damascus, is not a photo of the heaven,

It is the heaven.

It’s not a second copy of the poem,

It is the poem.”

I’m looking forward to hear your story.

Dimashq 26 Ayar 2009

How appropriate was it, that on the day I met Yossi for the first time, we also traveled together to the Golan? After all, we did meet in virtual-world first on Syria Comment! So it made perfect sense, and I’m glad we did it. Although we were hoping to meet more people than we did, and conduct 1R1F-style interviews, we did manage to speak to a few, and to generate certain impressions that may be worthy of sharing.

I picked Yossi up in the morning in Haifa, and we drove straight to the Golan (about 1.5-2 hours away). We already had our morning-coffee at the beach-highway cafe “Maxim” (where in October 2003, a 29 year-old female lawyer from Jenin blew herself up, killing some 21 Israeli Jews and Arabs), so we were all “tanked” up.

One thing worth noting, on the way up, is just how natural the ride feels. In the past, I still remember a distinct separation between the Heights and the valley below. Perhaps it was the old Bailey-bridges we’d cross, or the quality of the roads that connected the Golan to the rest of Israel. But today, the bridges are modern, as are the roads. We left Haifa, and “suddenly” found ourselves on the Golan. Just like that.

Some general impressions both Yossi and I shared of the Golan: In the past (20 years ago), the feeling on the Golan was of a heavy militarized zone. Today, it is a sort of strangely serene limbo. A kind of wilderness-on-hold, without much urban development, and still dotted with fields of land mines throughout. Stalactites can be seen growing out of old structures that are left in ruins (ex: old Syrian Officers’ School near Kuneitra).

Mine Field

Mine Field

Signs of time

Signs of Time (At the Old Syrian Officers' School)

The settlement project: We asked ourselves, why is it that after nearly 3 decades of annexation, with zero security issues (no Hamas, no Qassams, no Intifadas, etc.), absolutely gorgeous landscape and (still) relatively inexpensive real-estate, only some 26,000 Jews reside on the Golan? It is a question I hope Dr. Yigal Kipnis will help us answer.

Golan resident impressions: Of the people we met and “interviewed”, three types could be found – Some believe the Golan will remain ours forever, others seem resigned to whatever fate will befall them, and still others seem genuinely fearful of the current Israeli government. It was interesting to hear a shop-owner express utter distrust in Netanyahu, saying “He’s the only one that will give back the Golan!…” He further suggested that (as a result of this fear) most Golan residents voted Labor. We later checked this claim, and found it wasn’t true. But the fear of Likud and its head is real.

Ohalo College: At the town of Katzrin, referred to by some as the “capital of the Golan”, sits a quiet little college, fully integrating Jews and Arabs, mostly in the fields of teacher-training. Arabs from villages and towns in the Galilee, as well as Druze from the Golan study in this college, as well as (presumably) Jews from throughout the area. Our more-than-obvious attempts at interrogating a gaggle of young Arab female students about the Golan was met with little more than childish giggling. The current tension on the political arena, between Israel and Syria, seemed not to be of any special importance to these young students. We talked to the head of one of the instruction programs in the college, who expressed the same kind of resignation to fate that others have. She said that she used to be concerned every 5 years or so, but now is just going about her daily routine and program planning.

Ohalo College

Ohalo College

Our ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) Experience: Hoping to get a different feel from the Golan than most passers-by do, Yossi and I hired a literally down-to-earth tour of the region with native tour guides from the Golan. We started out at Kibbutz Merom Golan (underneath Mt. Bental), through the agricultural fields, stopping at an old half-destroyed building near Kuneitra that once served as Syria’s Officers’ School in the region. The first of our guides was a young Israeli that had just finished his basic army service. His parents moved to the Golan years ago, and he was born there. The second was a young Druze from Masaada, who had obviously lived his entire life on the Golan. The latter told us that most Druze will stay on the Golan (regardless of who rules it), but some are “blacklisted” in Syria, and will have to move out, probably into the Galilee. He believed that won’t be a problem, because of strong family ties to other Druze throughout the Galilee.

ATV next to officers' school

ATV ride next to Officers' School

When we asked our guides why, in their opinion, hasn’t Israel leveled the grounds of the old structure and did something useful with the land (the area is surrounded by fields and dairies), they didn’t have a very good answer. “It’s for history’s sake”. The emerging feeling is that despite the de-jure annexation of the Golan, it is very much in a state of suspended animation. All the old and bombed structures and the mine fields are sitting there awaiting to be returned wholesale to the Syrians, for them to deal with this hot potato, when the time is right.

Our favorite Cafe: Reported on in the past (on Syria Comment and Creative Syria), “Coffee Anan” was packed with tourists, Evangelical Christians who seemed quite resolute that Israel should remain on the Golan, other Jewish groups from the U.S., as well as religious Jews from Israel. I had never seen the place so full. The gentleman at the cashier seemed to think that the Golan would be returned. The pictures on the walls are of main tourist attractions in Syria. We asked ourselves what their purpose might be. The answers ranged from Hopes for Peace to Greater Israel…

Picture of Aleppo church in coffee Anan

Picture of Aleppo church in "Coffee Anan"

American teen tourists in the Army trenches next to Coffee Anan

American teen tourists in the Army trenches next to Coffee Anan, overlooking Syria

One Happy Neighborhood

One Happy Neighborhood

Each visit to the Golan invokes conflicting emotions for me, which over the years have sorted themselves out, but still catch me off guard every now and then. I am of course an avid believer in the return of the Golan to its rightful owner – Syria and the Syrian people. While I am well aware of all that has occurred on these hills, and on the plains below on either side, I still believe this territory is not ours to hold, nor ours to keep. And yet, when you are up there, when the fresh strong wind is blowing in your face, while you observe and inhale the beauty of this Middle-Eastern Prairie, the most primitive instincts of ownership kick in. Suddenly I find myself asking “Wait a minute, why don’t we deserve this place?” And then I recall an old Palestinian gentleman I once met in E. Jerusalem, who said to me “Only fools think that conquered land should be returned.” And suddenly I like that saying. Because it is truly so beautiful up there, and so painful to consider giving back.

But we know what must be done, and we will support it.

(More to follow in Part II)

Maa'le Golan Diaries

Merom Golan Dairy, the biggest one "in Israel"

Ray of Light over the Golan

Ray of Light over the GolanBorder area next to Kuneitra

The past few days have been particularly depressing for me. Not only has there been absolutely nothing good on the news (besides the assured safety of the International Space Station crew, who were spared collision with orange-sized debris from an ancient rocket that was still orbiting the earth), but negotiations over Gilad Shalit and Palestinian prisoners collapsed yet again, while Kadima and Labor continued meeting with Netanyahu, despite promising their constituents to serve in Opposition.

In recent weeks and months, we began seeing a renewed effort on behalf of real of pseudo Mideast-analysts to explain, to the Obama administration and anyone else willing to listen, what has to happen in the region. Lengthy reports and articles covered Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and, of course, Israel and Palestine. On Iran, some suggested the Mullah regime already has enough material to create a bomb, while others claimed there’s still a window-of-opportunity (for both diplomatic and non-diplomatic options, presumably). On Palestine, expert opinions varied from “Only Two-State” to “Death of the Two-State” solutions. But everyone seemed to be in general agreement over one thing – the region is more unstable and more dangerous today, than ever before.

The nice thing about the Right in Israel, is that it believes time is on our side. They’re genuinely not worried. It is the sort of spiritual calm that makes liberal leftists jealous. And now, the Left has no influence whatsoever over the future – it has lost all control of the political reality in Israel. The two leftist (zionist) parties, Labor and Meretz, have barely 13% combined seats in Knesset (16 out of 120). The Left has never in the history of Israel become so insignificant. It has failed not only itself, but indeed all of Israel.

But this is also the beauty of democracy. When one side fails, another can replace it the next time around. The people of Israel have spoken, and have decided to give the Right a chance. A chance at what? At eliminating the Iranian threat, at saving our economy, and at changing our election system. That’s it. Those are “the issues”, according to the Likud, its various MK’s, and its leader Netanyahu. Palestine? No problem – no two-states (no one-state either), only “economic peace” (whatever the hell that means). Syria? No problem – no withdrawal from the Golan, maybe from one or two Druze villages, in return for Syria “flipping”, leaving Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and maybe Latakia and Tartous as well. Hamas? No problem – very likely Netanyahu will have to go back into Gaza and “finish the job” (their words, not mine).

And as for Iran, quite clearly the new Israeli administration is not considering diplomatic options, but rather the “other” option. And who’s going to stop Israel? A brand-new Obama administration, that already sent a clear message to the Palestinians (Fatah), suggesting 900 million dollars are conditional upon recognition of Israel!? What U.S. admiral can stand up to the charming-yet-not Israeli COGS, Gabi Ashkenazi? The same admiral that’s already neck-deep in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Pakistan? When political and military leaders use terminology and language such as “we are concerned“, rather than “we are opposed“, any interpretation goes. That’s not policy – that’s a carte blanche for anything, including war.

So where is all this leading us? Do we know? Does it matter? Well, I think it does. I think we do need to ask ourselves where do non-policies lead us. I think we do have to ask when and what will stop this bullet-train we’re on, headed straight for the abyss. And if the questions are tough (and they are), then the answers are likely to be as difficult. But they must also be clear, and loud, and not open to interpretation.

If the U.S. believes in a two-state solution, it needs to clearly define the two sides – is it merely Fatah and Israel, or the Palestinian People and Israel?  Are the two states Bantustan and Israel, or a viable Palestine and Israel.?  If the U.S. believes in diplomacy rather than force, then it needs to make perfectly (and publicly) clear its rejection of any attack upon Gaza, Lebanon, and Iran. If the U.S. believes in Syria’s right to the Golan, it needs to say so, loud and clear.

Because if things are not clear, then leaders and people on all sides can continue to fool and be fooled.  Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas can continue to tell their people that the U.S. blindly supports Israel.  And Netanyahu can continue to think that no Israeli settlements need to be dismantled.  Hamas can continue firing missiles from Gaza, believing no one gives a damn or plans to do anything about the suffering of 1.5 million Palestinians.  And Ashkenazi can continue readying his pilots for attack on Iranian nuclear installations.

But then again, which is better? Is clarity enough?  If the U.S. and Europe do nothing to end the suffering of so many in the region, to influence the leaders and the people that cause and bear its consequences, then what good is passive “clarity”?  Perhaps we need a very active kind of clarity – indeed a sort of “rude awakening”.  And the one I have in mind, of course, is war.

What else will force upon us a moment of pause?  What else will cause us to reconsider everything we thought was true, all our perceptions and misperceptions? What else will cause us to reexamine our false sense of invincibility?  To recognize the other’s frustrations, and rights?  To acknowledge our contribution to the suffering of so many?  To finally understand the price for belligerency?  To think more about our children’s future, than about our own?  If not through death and suffering, how else can we learn, and change?

It seems that perhaps in our region, there is no other way.  Maybe indeed it is time for war.  Maybe we need it, far more than we’re willing to admit.

(Shai’s Note:  No doubt the notion that war could be a good thing, is highly controversial.  We must come to recognize that like fear, quite often the lack-of-fear is just as debilitating.  If we do not visit upon certain possibilities, they may well visit us.)

How many times have we seen the title “Assad:  Syria ready to talk peace with any Israeli government” in Ha’aretz articles, in various Gulf newspapers, on BBC interviews, on CNN…? Here’s the latest one:

So why isn’t Israel jumping at the endless opportunities over the years?  Surely Syria’s normal “enemy behavior”, as supporter of Israel’s other enemies (Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran) can’t be enough of a reason.  After all, everyone knows you make peace with enemies, not with your buddies, right?  So what’s the real reason – why are we continuously ignoring Syria?

Not long ago Dr. Alon Liel, former Director General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, career diplomat, and current head of the Israel-Syria Peace Society, told me that it has never been Israeli policy to turn down an offer to talk peace.  “In our cadet school training,” said Alon, “each week they reminded us that if any Arab state is ready to talk to us, we must jump at the opportunity.” (Shai: This was even before Egypt and Israel began their own peace talks.)  So what has been going on over the past few years?

While pondering this question, I naturally found some “quick answers”.  These included the Bush administration and its destructive influence in Jerusalem, the lack of Israeli leadership on the scale of Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Rabin, as well as reasons echoed by many a hawks, who suggest that Israelis simply aren’t ready to give back the Golan to a “terror-supporting regime”. But these seemed too simple to me, and therefore not sufficiently convincing.

And then it came to me.  Perhaps Syria is trying too hard!  Could it be that when Assad says “Syria is ready to talk peace with any Israeli government”, while in the same breath saying “The right kills Arabs and the left kills Arabs…”, he is sending a message that, to some in Israel, may seem as near-desperation?  And if Syria is perceived to be so “desperate”, then what’s the hurry?

I couldn’t help thinking of the similarity between such messages, and endless attempts made by a particular boy in class to woo a girl he likes, who inevitably rejects him because of his perceived desperate state.  Is it possible that Syria is trying too hard?  After all, if a relationship is to succeed, shouldn’t the courting stage be more balanced?  In practical terms, shouldn’t Syria expect Israel to show more initiative and readiness on its own?  Shouldn’t we see more articles titled “Israel is ready to talk peace with any Syrian government…”?  (Or, of course, “… with any Palestinian government!”)

In the meantime, I’m not sure Syria isn’t marketing its strategic decision in such way, that is encouraging Israelis to think “So what if Syria wants peace…”