Picnic in a Once (and Future?) War Zone

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Andrew Butters for TIME

Syrian Mohammed Anwar Idlibe joins a demonstration in a town on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights.

The southwestern Syrian province of Golan is normally off limits to most civilians because parts of it — the famous Golan Heights — have been occupied by Israel since the war of June 1967. But every year on Independence Day, when Syria commemorates the end of French rule in 1946, the government lifts the security restrictions allowing visitors to stream into the Golan.

Many took advantage, on Tuesday, of the rare opportunity to picnic in one of the prettiest parts of the country. As the road from Damascus rises steadily towards the Golan, olive groves give way to apple trees and pastures surrounded by dry stone walls. It all seems more New England than Middle East, until Israeli radar stations and listening posts appear from the mist on the snowy peak of Mt. Hermon. Those serve as a reminder that Syrian land, and some 20,000 Syrian citizens, remain under foreign occupation on Independence Day. Syrian demonstrators press home the point by gathering within view of one another at the small hillside town of Ein el-Tina on the Syrian side of the frontline, and at Majdel Shams on the Israeli-occupied side. "My father fought the French to liberate Syria," says Mohammed Anwar Ildibe, a protestor at Ein el-Tina, carrying a black-and-white portrait of his father in fedayeen (guerrilla) garb. "I want to continue the resistance of my father to liberate Golan."

Many of the approximately 500,000 Syrians displaced from the Golan by the Israelis return on Independence Day for a bittersweet glimpse of their former home. "I thought I would be back in 10 days," said As'ad Abu Zaid, 55, a history teacher who fled his home in Majdel Shams at the outbreak of the war in 1967 and has been unable to return ever since. "Even when my two brothers and my father died, I couldn't go to their funerals." Now, he borrows a pair of binoculars and spots some of his surviving family members. "Just a few meters away and I haven't met them for 40 years."

With this year marking the 40th anniversary of its loss of the Golan Heights, the Syrian government is growing increasingly impatient for its return, repeatedly calling on Israel to resume the peace negotiations that stalled in 2000. Satisfying its citizens' demand to reclaim their land is only part of Syria's motivation. High-level peace negotiations with Israel would help Damascus work its way out of the international isolation imposed by Washington, which accuses Syria of backing terrorism in Lebanon, Israel, and Iraq. "Syria has taken the strategic choice to have peace," says Medhal Saleh, head of the Syrian government's Golan bureau. "All Israel has to do is express willingness to return the Golan and to start peace talks. Peace between Syria and Israel will help solve the problems in Palestine, and Lebanon, and help find some solutions in Iraq."

In the past, Israel was wary of returning the Golan Heights, because they offered a strategic high ground that would give the Jewish State plenty of warning against any aggressive troop movements on the Syrian side. But technology and military realities have rendered such considerations moot. For one thing, Syria is unlikely, for the foreseeable future, to risk a conventional head-to-head clash with the overwhelmingly superior arms of the Israeli Defense Force. Instead, emboldened by Hizballah's success in fighting the Israelis in Lebanon last summer with just a few fighters using advanced guerilla tactics, the Syrian government appears to be preparing for asymmetrical warfare against Israel.

"If the peace process falls apart, we are ready to train our young people in fedayeen operations," says Dr. Ibrahim Al Ali, politburo member of the Popular Commission for the Liberation of the Golan. "There are many Syrians waiting for the green light to cross the border and carry out martyrdom operations against Israel. Hizballah's victory showed many Arabs and Syrians that we can use resistance to liberate our land."

Such tough talk may just be a bargaining tactic, although it could backfire. Israeli officials this week announced that they would not negotiate over the Golan under threat, and the Bush Administration is not exactly pushing them to make peace with Syria. So, with the region bracing for the fallout from a possible confrontation between the U.S. and Iran, pray for more picnics on the Golan.