Residents of Israeli Golan still divided after Trump pledge


Golan Heights (AFP)

For Marla van Meter, like many Israeli settlers on the Golan Heights, US President Donald Trump has simply faced facts by pledging to recognise Israeli ownership of the occupied plateau, changing nothing in practice.

Trump said on Thursday the United States should acknowledge Israeli sovereignty over the hotly-contested Golan in what amounted to a major gift for his ally Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seeking a fifth term in an April 9 general election.

Breaking with longstanding international consensus, Trump said "it is time" to accept Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Van Meter, who describes herself as a socialist, told AFP that the move would not sway her to vote for Netanyahu, who is under threat of indictment for corruption.

"Netanyahu is over for me," she said.

Druze Arab Golan resident Ghassan Abu Jabal, on the other hand, sees the Trump declaration as a denial of reality, meant to boost Netanyahu's election prospects.

"It's an idiotic decision, from an idiot, who makes a gift of something that does not belong to him to another idiot even more corrupt than himself," he said.

Abu Jabal is a physician living in Majdal Shams, a Druze town of around 10,000, in the UN buffer zone separating the occupied and unoccupied parts of the Syrian Golan.

Tens of thousands of Syrians fled or were expelled when Israel seized part of the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six Day war, subsequently annexing it in 1981.

- 'Integral part of Syria' -

Some Syrians remained, however, and today around 23,000 Druze -- an offshoot of Shiite Islam who also live in Lebanon -- live in the Israeli-controlled sector, alongside 25,000 Israeli settlers.

The vast majority of these Druze see themselves as Syrians, refusing to take Israeli nationality and remaining in a stateless limbo.

"We are an integral part of Syria," said Nizar Ayub, head of Al-Marsad, an Arab human rights organisation on the Golan.

He is alarmed by Trump's remarks, which he sees as showing Trump's aim of dividing Syria into zones of influence: American, Russian-Iranian, Turkish and now Israeli.

Thursday's move was hinted at a week ago when the US State Department changed its description of the area from "occupied" to "Israeli-controlled".

It is yet to be made operative by an act of Congress or an executive order.

It coincided with a high-profile visit to Jerusalem by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo -- another boost for Netanyahu as he fights what is shaping up to be a close-run reelection battle.

- Cherry on the cake -

On the Golan's Kibbutz Afik, van Meter -- 61 and originally from Texas -- says she will continue to take care of her grandchildren and the gardens as before the Trump statement.

"I do not know anyone here who is not happy," says Nadav Katz, a 71-year-old former bookseller.

But, he added that it was certainly not "a Purim miracle" as Netanyahu called it Thursday as Israelis celebrated the carnival-like Jewish holiday.

Katz said he had not yet decided which way to vote on April 9, adding "believe me, I am not the only one who doesn't know".

Religious and historical concerns are less of a motive for Golan settlers than for those in the occupied West Bank or east Jerusalem.

Katz and his family came from Jerusalem to the Golan to move away from cities.

Van Meter came 35 years ago to take part in building a "homeland for the Jewish people" and live the "Zionist dream" but she supports seeking peace with Israel's neighbours, starting with the Palestinians.

With the spillover of the Syrian civil war onto the Israeli-controlled Golan they have experienced the urgent dash for bomb shelters as shells occasionally hit their area.

And for a long time they also feared that a peace treaty with Syria would hand over the strategic plateau and force them to leave.

Debbie Attoun, 71, and a Golan resident since 1974 says that Trump "scares" her.

What counts for her, she says, is the broad Israeli consensus behind "the importance of us staying on the heights".