August 31, 2006

Golan Syrians make rare visit to their homeland

By Maher Samaan

QUNAITERA, Syria (Reuters) - Hundreds of Syrians living
under Israeli occupation in the Golan Heights crossed no man's
land on Thursday in a rare visit to their homeland.

Wearing an all-black dress denoting their Druze religion,
the male contingent walked through a U.N. checkpoint
accompanied by Red Cross officials. Their relatives were
waiting for them on the Syrian side in the city of Qunaitera.

"Thank God our relatives are well. We will remain firmly
rooted in Syria," said Hassan Hayel, who came from Baqata, one
of five occupied villages in the Golan, a 1,750 sq-km (676
square mile) mountainous plateau overlooking Damascus.

Hassan al-Qaten, from the same village, said he had been to
Syria only once since Israel occupied the Golan in the 1967
Middle East war. His son studies at Damascus university under
an arrangement reached with Israel through the Red Cross.

"We all want peace and for the Golan to return to our
homeland, Syria," he said.

Most of the Golan's residents fled when Israel attacked the
territory in 1967. It annexed the Golan in 1981 but a U.N.
Security Council resolution adopted unanimously three days
later said the Israeli action was "null and void and without
international legal effect."

The Golan's remaining Arab population - Israel has settled
thousands of Jews there -- are mostly from the Druze sect.

The Red Cross has been working on facilitating their visits
to Syria, but they have to secure permission from Israeli and
Syrian authorities.

Red Cross official Hala Sidawi said 595 men crossed on
Thursday and they were due to return to the Golan on Sunday.

"I just learned that the Israelis prevented my relative
from coming," said Qassem Hamad.

Every house in Qunaitera was demolished by Israeli forces
before they withdrew under a truce in 1974.

Late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, father of the current
president, refused to rebuild the city, saying the houses must
remain demolished as a reminder of Israeli "barbarity."

No man's land separates the Israeli and Syrian sides.
Israeli army posts occupy the high ground.

President Bashar al-Assad, who is shaped by his late
father's lifetime of struggle against Israel, said in a recent
speech that Syria had no problem in waiting to liberate the
Golan, rather than accepting a humiliating peace deal.