The New York Times takes us to the Golan Heights today, an area it calls “Israel’s quietest frontier,” now threatened by spillover from the war in Syria. It is a region of “stunning landscapes and rural quiet,” the Times says, attractive to Jewish settlers.
The story makes brief mention of 22,000 Druze who live in the Golan but says nothing about the 120,000 Syrians driven from their ancestral homes there to make way for Israeli Jews. Instead, the report by Jodi Rudoren keeps its focus on Israeli fears and avoids the ugly history of ethnic cleansing. As she tells it, the Golan is a “quiet frontier” of Israel rather than occupied Syrian territory.
The Times buys into the Israeli claim that it has legally “annexed” the Golan Heights after “capturing” it from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War. The paper states from the first that this is Israel, and only later, in one paragraph, notes that “the world does not recognize Israel’s 1981 annexation of the 444-square-mile area” and that “Israel and Syria remain technically at war.”
Rudoren’s story reports that the Jewish population has doubled to 30,000 over the past 20 years, and she mentions Druze apple farmers who will suffer this year because they cannot export to Syria.
This leaves the impression that Druze enjoy equality with Jews in their efforts to cultivate land and gain a livelihood. Her story gives no hint of the barriers placed in the way of non-Jewish farmers on the Golan. As in the West Bank, Israel facilitates transportation and construction for its settlers and obstructs Arab efforts to build facilities and cultivate markets.
When a group of us visited the Druze town of Majdal Shams in 2011, Dr. Taisser Maray, director of Golan for Development, noted the complexity of Israel’s bureaucratic barriers, saying, for example, that the occupying government requires the Druze to secure permits from six separate authorities in order to build water tanks. These include the archaeological, military, water resources and natural resources departments, among others.
According to the Golan rights organization Al Marsad, “The Israeli planning policies towards the Syrian population in the Golan limit their development and restrict their social and economical development.” As a result, 972 Magazine reported, the Syrian residents of the Golan “usually build without permits as Israel will not allow for natural population growth.”
It’s a different story for Jewish settlers in the Golan; they receive a 13 percent tax reduction as an incentive to move to the area, while Al Marsad reports that “the indigenous Syrian population of the Occupied Golan still have to pay full taxes.”
Rudoren writes that “Golan residents are steadfast about staying, but unease is seeping in.” Her reference to “residents” is limited to the illegal Jewish settlers. It does not include the Syrian Druze who still remain in the Golan and who have shown a steadfast refusal to become Israelis.
In 1981, 14 years after Israeli forces drove more than 120,000 residents from their homes and destroyed some 140 villages, Israel “annexed” the Golan Heights and tried to force the Druze residents to adopt Israeli citizenship. The vast majority still consider themselves Syrians and have consistently said no.
In protest to the Israeli effort, the residents of Majdal Shams staged a 19-week strike and endured a military blockade of their town. When they still refused to back down, Israel agreed to classify the residents as non-citizens.
None of this history appears in Rudoren’s story. She says only that the Druze are “a native sect that mostly shuns Israeli citizenship,” implying that this is a religious matter, rather than a political protest.
Their refusal to become Israeli citizens would make sense if the Times had informed readers of the brutal ethnic cleansing that took place in 1967. Within a week some 120,000 were displaced and Israeli troops obliterated “all traces of their existence.” Those who tried to return to their homes were deported or sentenced to 15 years in Israeli prisons.
The takeover has left the longtime indigenous residents of the Golan with only 6 percent of their original land and created a painful divide in many families. “I have three brothers on the other side,” Dr. Taisser said, “and I never see them.” Before the Israeli occupation, he said, his family used to “walk over the hills to weddings in Lebanon and come back. Now we can’t do that.”
“Everyone has family in Syria,” Mya Guarnieri writes in 972, “loved ones they see through binoculars at Shouting Hill [a site at the edge of no man’s land], cousins they talk to through bullhorns, brothers they have never met.”
But Rudoren’s story is all about Israeli Jewish settlers, their fears and their preparations for defense, backed up with military support. The indigenous residents get a passing nod and nothing more.
972 calls the Golan “the occupation the world forgot.” Israel is content with this state of affairs and thus the Times, flouting its mandate as the newspaper of record, is content to leave the story of the Golan in the dark.